Helena's Hawaiian Foods is a Honolulu institution, in business for decades serving traditional Hawaiian cuisine and a recipient of a James Beard award for regional classic in 2000. It had been recommended to me by Steve R. a poster on Mouthfulsfood.com who knows his stuff. I went straight from the airport for a late lunch and enjoyed it so much I came back the next day with more friends.
Helena's is dineresque in its homey unpretentiousness, although there is no counter. It is cash only and no reservations and the wait can get long during peak hours. It is also closed Saturdays, Sundays & Mondays. Helena's is a family owned business and the staff is friendly and happy to explain any unfamilair dishes. The prices are quite reasonable and it reeks of authenticity in the best way.
My favorite dish was the Short ribs Pipikuala style ($4.95 small or $9.90 large). These are small beef ribs on the bone, similar to what you might find at a Korean bbq. The flavor is wonderful and beefy and the meat is well cooked and seasoned. I recommend that you get the large.
I saw the Lomi Salmon ($3.60) on most tables when I entered, so figured I had to try it. It is diced salmon served with diced tomatoes and some green onions on top to garnish. It is served cold and the version at Helena's is more tomato than salmon.
Another signature dish at Helena's is the Fried Butterfish Collar ($4.60). I am usually a big fan of fried foods and of fish collars (esp Yellowtail) but this was not a favorite of mine. Crunchy though.
Long Rice Chicken ($3.60) is a confusingly named dish as it is really a cellophane (clear glass) noodle dish with a small amount of diced chicken and green onion. Really a noodle dish in a clear broth. Tasty but if you are looking for a real chicken or rice component to your meal, this isn't it.
Ahi Poke ($4.25), is chunks of raw tuna, marinated with seaweed, onions, sea salt and a little soy sauce. The poke is served cold like a salad and this one was fine but not as special as the ribs, the lomi salmon or the Haupia.
We were also served fresh onions with Hawaiian red salt to dip them in and Haupia for dessert. The onions were delicious and an unexpectedly great part of the meal. Haupia is a coconut based dessert that has a consistency in between jello and pudding and resembles blocks of jiggly tofu. These white bricks were also much better than I had expected. We asked for second helpings, the true sign of deliciousness at the end of the meal. The Haupia and the onions were provided at no charge.
Helena's is away from the tourist crush of Waikiki but was featured on a Food Network Show and so the lines can be long (the first day there was no line, the second day is was 30 minutes). Once you are seated the food comes quickly. There are a few parking spaces in front, otherwise you need to find street parking.
Helena's is located at 1240 N School St, Honolulu, Hawaii. Phone: (808) 845-8044.