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Hawaii: 20 Big Island meals for less than $20

Faced with pricey restaurants, what’s a budget-conscious visitor to do? Local food experts dish on the best deals for

April 18, 2010|By Rosemary McClure, Special to The Los Angeles Times
  • At the Kona Brewing Co., the daily special features a slice of pizza and a salad.
At the Kona Brewing Co., the daily special features a slice of pizza and a… (Jay L. Clendenin /, Jay L.…)

Reporting from Waikoloa, Hawaii —

Fourteen world-class resorts hug the rugged coastline of Hawaii's Big Island. Scores of pricey, high-end restaurants cater to the well-heeled guests staying in them.

So what's a budget-conscious family supposed to do in the face of the $35-a-person breakfast buffet? Go broke?

Not if we can help it. Catch the aloha spirit with us, as we share secrets about great meal deals on the Big Island. We teamed up with local food experts to bring you 20 Big Island meals for less than about $20, just as we did in our earlier surveys of Oahu, Maui and Kauai. Once again, we concentrated on the restaurants where locals dine for inexpensive, traditional Hawaiian fare. And we included a couple of places to splurge where the ambiance is pure tropical paradise.

Providing us with invaluable guidance were chef Vernon Wong, former board chairman of the Kona-Kohala Chefs de Cuisine; Eric Lelinski, executive chef, Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa; and James Lightner, hospitality division chairman for the University of Hawaii Center West Hawaii.

Note that some of the restaurants are hard to find. Always call for hours and directions.

1--MANAGO HOTEL

Prices: $5.50-$14.50

Walk into the dining room at the Manago Hotel and you'll swear you've stumbled into a pre-Pearl Harbor time warp. This quaint, third-generation hotel on the slopes of Mauna Loa volcano has been entertaining guests since 1917. Little seems to have changed: The dining room menu is on a pegboard sign, entrees include such diner classics as pork chops and liver and onions, and most dinners cost less than $10. Manago is a dozen miles south of the high-profile Kailua-Kona resort area and decades removed from the hype.

We loved: stepping into Old Hawaii.

We didn't love: the canned veggies.

Hotel Manago, 826151 Highway 11, Captain Cook Town; (808) 323-2642, http://www.managohotel.com

2--ISLAND LAVA JAVA BISTRO & GRILL

Prices: $6.95-$21.95

Location, location, location — combine that with a good vibe and you have a sure winner. Perched across the street from Kailua Bay, Island Lava Java offers water views, inexpensive healthful food and lots of interesting menu choices. The restaurant began as an espresso shop, then added lunch. Now, owners Jeff and Leslie Fischer open for dinner too, with table service and entrees such as macadamia nut-crusted fresh catch ($21.95). We tried the café for lunch, when it's a casual, order-at-the-counter coffee shop; big sellers are veggie wraps ($11.50) and fish tacos ($13.90).

We loved: the ahi fish tacos, wrapped in delicate, homemade shells.

We didn't love: the noise from the street traffic.

Island Lava Java, 75-5799 Alii Drive, Kailua-Kona; (808) 327-2161, http://www.islandlavajava.com

3--HUGGO'S ON THE ROCKS

Prices: $8.95-$28.95

A postcard-perfect sunset, waves crashing against the rocks, live music and drinks with parasols and lots of rum. That's the vibe at Huggo's on the Rocks, an easygoing café and bar in the main tourist area of Kailua-Kona. The name tells it all: The place balances on the black volcanic rocks that jut out over Kailua Bay. On the Rocks is the little sister of Huggo's, the kind of pricey beachfront restaurant that pummels our budget. But you need not dine at the flagship restaurant when you can wiggle your toes in the sand at On the Rocks and pay half as much. The menu includes tasty pupus — the Hawaiian version of appetizers — salads, pizzas, sandwiches and desserts. Our favorites were the chopped salad ($12.95) and seafood tacos ($11.95).

We loved: the $3 well drinks, wines and domestic beers during happy hour.

We didn't love: the disinterested server we had to chase down for our check.

Huggo's On the Rocks, 75-5828 Kahakai Road, Kailua-Kona; (808) 329-1493, http://www.huggos.com/all/rocksdefault.htm

4--QUINN'S ALMOST BY THE SEA

Prices: $8.75-$23.95

Under the spreading banyan tree sits Quinn's Almost by the Sea. A local favorite, Quinn's bar and fish house has a nondescript façade, a '70s-era bar and a garden patio shaded by a lush banyan with a 40-foot circumference. Quinn's is a family business; three siblings on staff make sure things run right. The crispy fried fish-and-chips plate ($11.75) draws regulars; it's so popular that the restaurant goes through about 1,000 pounds of fish a week, purchased fresh from local fishermen's boats. Many of the dinner entrees are too pricey for this list ($18.95-$24.25), but sandwiches and salads are good buys, if fish isn't your dish. Night owls note: Quinn's is open until 11 p.m.; you can order a full meal from the restaurant until 10:30 p.m.

We loved: tropical landscaping on the outdoor lanai.

We didn't love: the ambiance inside; the restaurant needs a coat of paint and updating.

Quinn's Almost by the Sea, 75-5655A Palani Road, Kailua-Kona; (808) 329-3822.

5--KONA BREWING CO.

Prices: $8-$15

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