06 July 2021

Sights, Sounds, and Flavors of Hawai'i - Part I

I’ll be quite honest with you, I’ve been wrestling with how to tell to story of our time on Oahu since we’ve gotten back. It was only a week, but it felt like a breath and it was over, but in looking back it feels like an entire ocean of knowledge and experiences poured into me. So, I thought what better way to start than with the most basic of needs, food. A week’s worth of meals is a lot, so let’s start with a relatively small bite, the food of Aulani. I’m warning you now, there will be tons of food porn here, and it will make you hungry. I should know, I stayed in a perpetual state of hunger while reliving these meals and writing about it.
Let’s start with where we didn’t eat. Little ‘Opihi’s and ‘Ama‘Ama were not open when we were there, so we were unable to sample what they had available. We also never stopped by Mama’s Snack Shack, mostly because there were more unique places to dine at with the limited amount of meals we were around the resort for. Lastly, we were unable to book seats for the Ka Wa’a Lū’au. While some of these misses could be seen as disappointments, we are deciding to look at them as opportunities that will require us to return… one day.
Ulu Cafe, a quick service and grab-and-go location. In addition to salads, sandwiches, and pastries (also hot cocoa bombs, which are delicious no matter when you’re visiting), Ulu Cafe serves up a selection of specialties and house favorites for breakfast, lunch, and early dinners. This stands out amongst some of the best resort buffeteria or quick service locations we’ve had the pleasure to experience.
Acai bowls, bagel sandwiches, and flatbreads are served alongside traditional breakfasts of eggs, bacon, sausage, waffles, and oatmeal. We tried several of the items when we were at the resort, or took them on the road with us, and there was nothing better than the Farmhouse Bagel Sandwich. This hot everything bagel comes topped with bib lettuce, tomato, red onion, basil, herb goat cheese, and sliced dill pickles. You can also add bacon or smoked salmon to the sandwich, both of which were Cast Member favorites and recommendations and proved to be delicious. The bacon, it’s worth noting, is not the typical floppy breakfast bacon, it is thick-cut and a great fat-to-meat ratio.
For lunch or early dinners, Ulu Cafe offers an assortment of poke bowls, both salmon and tuna are available in a build your own style, savory flatbreads, burgers, chick tenders, specialty sandwiches and hot plates, and the world-renowned Dole Whip. The poke bowls include extremely fresh fish, a wide assortment of toppings and sauces, and expertly cooked rice. While there is better poke to be had elsewhere on the island, this is still miles above anything available on the mainland. Once again, the Cast Members here will not steer you wrong, and will help you craft the perfect poke bowl for tastes. One of the specialties we were able to try was the Volcano Cheese Steak Baguette. This features roast beef, siracha-garlic cheese sauce, cremini mushrooms, roasted red bell peppers, and tobacco onions on a baguette. This is a tasty sandwich, on par with some of the best Disney quick service meals, definitely not something unique, but something I would certainly order again.
Next up, let’s head on over to the pool bar, Off the Hook, which serves as both a lounge and a quick service/poolside dining location. Food here was interesting and very good, the drinks here left something to be desired. I cannot recommend not ordering the Li Hing Rita strongly enough. It went down fast because I needed the aspartame-soaked drink to leave the table and I didn’t want to drag out the process. Overall, these bartenders are super friendly, but they’re having to produce such large quantities of drinks that it’s hard for quality to win that battle.
On the food front, there are a lot of wins here. Batter-Dipped Cauliflower Florets, something again to vegetarian buffalo wings, were well done. The sauces were great, although the florets could have been tossed in the sauce and been just as good. Burgers, salads, and tacos are all great mid-day meals to keep you going in the sun and pool, and I assume the chicken wings, poke nachos, and hot dogs are probably on par with the selections we sampled. Also, make sure to get the Maui-style Onion Rings with jalapeno-buttermilk dip at every chance you have.

While you’re at, don’t wait to get yourself the shave ice from Pāpālua Shave Ice. While there are better shave ice stands across the island, Pāpālua should not be overlooked when you’re spending time at Aulani. This small counter in the middle of the resort offers around 17 flavors that you can try 3 at a time. You will run out of time before you find your favorite flavors. Plus, if you don’t take a photo of a shave ice with Mickey ears, have you even been to Aulani?
Makahiki is the main sit-down restaurant at this moment in time. Additionally, while typically a buffet, the current offerings include a character dining-experience with a selection of entrees for breakfast and a prix fixe menu for dinner. Makahiki is a celebration of the annual harvest, which is on display through exquisite blown glass vegetables hanging from the ceiling and walls adorned with murals that impart the story of the land, its harvest, and its people. The artwork is beautiful, and hard to put into words what it adds to the meal, but just know that it does.
Breakfast includes starts with physically-distanced greetings with Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, and Pluto, which, when paired with the live music, really sets a fun and relaxing atmosphere. The table shares a fruit plate and basket of pastries, and coffee, juices, and sodas are included with your meal. Entrees include omelets, waffles, pancakes, smoked salmon plates, French toast, and a traditional breakfast, along with a Hawaiian specialty, loco moco. I opted for the Loco Moco, sans the egg, especially since I wanted to compare it to the dish I had sampled elsewhere during the week. It was fine, but disappointing after the other version I had already tried. The omelet was good, but again nothing special. The real draw here is the characters and the music. For us, it just isn’t worth the expense at this point in time.
Dinner, however, is an entirely different story. While we were saddened that we wouldn’t be able to try ‘Ama‘Ama, Makahiki’s prix fixe dinner made us forget all about what we felt we were missing out on. The dinner includes 3 courses: an appetizer, entree, and dessert. Appetizers included Caesar or Caprese salads, but the only thing you need to worry about is the Corn Soup. The description reads, “locally-sourced Kahuku sweet corn, cream, herbs,” and it is entirely misleading as to how delicious it is. Honestly, they could have served me a vat of this for my appetizer, entree, and dessert and I would have been just fine. It is smooth, rich, sweet, and savory, basically a perfect soup.
Entrees at Makahiki lean heavily towards seafood, with a chicken, beef, and plant-based entree each for those looking for something land-based. The catch of the day was an ahi tuna steak, with forbidden rice, and a Thai curry sauce. The rice, which is traditionally hard to prepare, was perfectly cooked, the ahi had a wonder sear, but was still tender and not overcooked, and the Thai curry sauce, while we were warned it would be spicy, wasn’t overly hot and highlighted the rest of the dish without overpowering it. The beef dish the night we attended was a rib eye steak with potato puree, charred broccoli rabe, ali’i mushrooms, and a Hawaiian chili-pepper chimichurri. Again, the sauce added a hint of heat and lifted up the other flavors without distraction, the broccoli rabe added a hint of bitter to the ensemble, and the steak was tender and the star of the plate, as it should be.
When it comes to dessert, there isn’t a bad option among the 3 menu items. The Kokoleka Chocolate Entremet was the one we were unable to sample, but it looked great on other tables. The Kona Coffee Cheesecake was very coffee-forward, the toffee sauce, macadamia nut whipped cream, and Oreo crust just pile on to an already fantastic dish. Meanwhile, the Roasted Pineapple Cobbler, with vanilla ice cream and a macadamia nut and cinnamon topping, is an understated winner. It doesn’t look like much, but is absolutely scrumptious.
Next door to Makahiki is The ‘Ōlelo Room, which became our go-to spot for dinner at Aulani after a single meal. This lounge highlights the Hawaiian language, not just with décor that includes boxes behind the bar and on the walls with easily recognizable artifacts and their Hawaiian words, but the tables, doors, windows, shirts, and other aspects of the lounge also have their words presented on them as well. Plus, it’s hard to not have a great meal with this view and, oh yeah, more live music.
The cocktails here, while mostly the same that are available at every bar around the resort, are prepared with just a bit more attention to detail. A couple of standouts for us included the sparkling wine, St. Germain’s elderflower liqueur, and hibiscus flute known as the Pua Royale, a sweet champagne cocktail that does not disappoint. Equally pleasant was the Tropical Itch; a bourbon, 2 types of rum, liliko’i and pineapple juices, and orange curacao concoction that goes down easy, but packs a punch. Lastly, and perhaps the best drink I had the entire time, certainly the one I ordered the most, is the Island Bliss. It features Agricole rum, distilled on Oahu, spiced rum, cream of coconut, and orange and pineapple juices. The version found at The ‘Ōlelo Room was topped with a fresh grating of nutmeg.

A small point here, your cocktails definitely depend on who your bartender is and how busy they are. While the Island Bliss was my favorite cocktail at Aulani, I ordered it from 3 different bars or lounges and ended up with 3 varying takes on the drink. My favorite came from The ‘Ōlelo Room, and I imagine that would hold for most of the cocktails available at multiple locations around the resort.
The appetizer menu at The ‘Ōlelo Room includes well-executed standards, such as edamame, beef sliders, tacos, and Korean-style chicken wings. The wings, by the way, have a slow-building heat that is well-worth your time if you not looking for something adventurous. However, if you’re looking for something truly special, do not hesitate to order the Popcorn Fries. This ample bowl of crunchy goodness features buttered popcorn, French fries, mochi crunch, green onions, wasabi oil, kabayaki kewpie mayonnaise, and furikake. It sounds like a mess. It looks like a mess. It shouldn’t work. And yet, you will find yourself shoveling this appetizer mix into your mouth until your bowl is empty, long before you think it should be.

The other main draw of The ‘Ōlelo Room, aside from the desserts, which are the same trio available over at Makahiki, is the selection of sushi. The menu includes ahi selections, Futomaki-style sushi/maki rolls, and Nigiri-style sushi and sashimi that are available for every taste and style. Don’t believe me? Here’s a few rolls we had. The plant-based roll includes lettuce, tomato, avocado, and red onion. It is basically a salad in a sushi roll, but it is a nice starter or palate cleanser. For the more traditional sushi connoisseur, there are rolls like the Rainbow Roll, with ahi, cured salmon, avocado, and cucumber. It’s fresh, in taste and presentation, plus that wasabi Mickey is just too cute. Yet, let’s say you don’t want seafood or just vegetables, but want sushi, you’re still covered. The Peking Duck Roll has five-spiced roast duck, spring onions, hoisin sauce, and crispy shards of duck skin. This is for all of you carnivores out there, and it will absolutely satisfy.

Lastly, The ‘Ōlelo Room has a special plate of chilled seafood, perfect for a special occasion, called the Ike Platter. While it could be shared, if you have other small plates, it is the perfect meal if you don’t want to be disturbed by pesky sides. It includes 2 king crab legs, 2 Goose Point oysters, 3 jumbo prawns, and 4 oz. of ahi poke. Like all of the seafood we partook in at Aulani, it is super fresh. In fact, aside from a single squid dish we had at a restaurant away from the resort, it may have been the best seafood we had that week.
Overall, Aulani has a vast assortment of dining options, even with limitations during this time. You can have something as simple as chicken fingers or a hamburger, but there are distinctive dishes, unique flavor profiles, and upscale options for those seeking something special. Aulani covers all of the bases that you would expect them to, but in their own special way, and they always leave you wanting more, regardless of how full you fell.