What you'll find in this story: Hawaii food guide, Big Island local suggestions, Hawaiian restaurants, local Hawaii favorites, Kailua-Kona restaurants, Waimea restaurants, Hilo restaurants
Kailua-Kona: Between mile markers 103 and 104 on Mamalahoa Highway, just south of Kona, is one of the finest markets in Hawaii, the South Kona Fruit Stand. Juicy honey bell tangelos, ulu (breadfruit), Tahitian limes, and cherimoya and guanabana (both in the custard-apple family) line the tables -- and much of what's here is thrillingly unidentifiable. Sweet strawberry papayas (from 75¢ per pound) are hefty in your hand, and a spoonful of their bright pink flesh satisfies the most powerful sugar craving. The produce comes chiefly from the six acres of organic farms next door, where tiny geckos dart around searching for insects. The best treat for the car ride is a five-ounce bag of chocolate-covered caramel macadamia nuts ($6).
At lunchtime in the town of Kailua-Kona, surfers line up in front of Kona Tacos, in the hot asphalt parking lot of the Lanihau Shopping Center. Flaky, flavorful fish tacos ($6.75) and kalua pork burritos ($6.50) are served with fresh pico de gallo and tomatillo salsa. Next door, Tropical Island Flavors supplies a frosty shave ice follow-up (from $2.50). More than a mere snow cone, a Hawaiian shave ice is covered in sweet red azuki beans, which lend a chewy, grainy texture and add complexity. You can order one without beans, but you'll be missing out. These concoctions, which also use syrups flavored like coconut, mango, and lihing mui (preserved plum with a piquantly sour kick), embody the true meaning of ono -- Hawaiian for "delicious."
Waimea: Inside and outside of Hawaii, Daniel Thiebaut is known as one of the best restaurants on the Big Island -- with a price tag to match. But on Sundays, this elegant French-Asian Waimea institution, housed in a restored, late 19th-century general store, has an excellent brunch deal from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The buffet spread includes an omelette bar, fresh poke and sushi, fluffy pastries, and island fruit such as pineapple, all for $16 (a pretty big steal, considering that an average dinner entrée at Daniel Thiebaut costs about $27). Live acoustic Hawaiian music, art, and antique signs lend a relaxed, plantation feel.
Hilo: Adjacent to Suison, Hilo's waterfront fish market, Nihon Restaurant and Cultural Center is the place for fresh-off-the-boat seafood, including ahi tuna. A neighborhood favorite for its sushi and other Japanese dishes -- the chef's macadamia-nut roll ($9) and beautifully browned butterfish misoyaki ($17) are standouts -- the restaurant overlooks Queen Liliuokalani Gardens and Hilo Bay, with impressive views of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. Combination lunches are $13, and full-dinner specials are around $16.
In a historic row of buildings, Naung Mai Thai Kitchen is a tiny, two-room Thai restaurant with bright pink walls, orchids on every table, and a patio. Naung Mai specializes in wake-your-mouth-up curries -- red, yellow, green, and Massaman (from $8) -- and chef Bua on-Mai's powerfully fragrant tom yum soup ($8) is in a class of its own. If you can handle it, ask for your curry Thai-hot. All the flavors are guaranteed to pop.
The 17-year-old Hilo Farmers Market is held every Wednesday and Saturday, "from dawn till it's gone," in the city's historic downtown. This is the best spot to sample all kinds of tropical foods. More than 175 stalls showcase exotic treats such as cherimoya, jaboticaba berries, jackfruit, lychee, papaya, rambutan, fresh-baked coconut pastries, and dried fish. Not all of it is local: One stall is known for its Peruvian tamales. The price range for most items is from 50¢ per pound (for apple bananas, juicy strawberry papaya, and pocket-size fruits that are sweeter and firmer than the bananas you'll find on the mainland) to $2 per pound (for pomegranates).
Forget about Kona coffee. Java from the east side of the Big Island is coming into its own. Stop by Hilo Coffee Mill for a taste -- and cofounder Kathy Patton's private tutorial on coffee-roasting and brewing -- and leave with a few fragrant bags of fresh-roasted beans for when you're back home. There's always a pot brewing with the roast of the day. The Mill's 100 percent Puna rain forest coffee is the best on the east side -- and at $17 per pound, it's the more caffeinated bang for your buck when compared to the west side's Kona peaberry, which costs about double. Best of all, Patton welcomes visitors to try a cup, or two, for free before making a purchase.
Volcano: Ever had wine made from Hawaiian guavas or honey extracted from the blossoms of the macadamia tree? Step up to the koa wood bar and sample unique varietals at Volcano Winery, the Big Island's only commercial vintner. The Symphony Mele, a crisp white from a hybrid grape created by the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California, Davis, costs $14 per bottle; it won a gold medal at the 2004 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition. Fruit lovers will want to pick up the golden Hawaiian Guava Wine ($16), one of the winery's most popular sellers; it's made from a blend of fermented yellow guava puree and white French Columbard grapes from Napa. All of the tropical fruits used are grown on the Big Island. Taste all six of Volcano's wines for free.