HONOLULU - If I go down to Kapahulu Avenue on the last day of a trip to Honolulu, I am going to get into trouble. I may never make it back to the mainland.
The avenue is my main route from Waikiki to the freeway that takes me to the airport. But it is lined with great snack shops on seemingly every block that beckon my rental car to the curb. Soon I am thinking, "What's wrong with just one last quick stop for kalua pork, Korean-style ribs, homemade breads, pineapple cake or hot exotic doughnuts?"
Perfect pork: Ono Hawaiian Foods. If you don't want to spend the time and money for a full-blown luau, you can sample the show's signature dish - kalua pork - at this tiny restaurant. In its flashier version, the slow-roasted pork comes out of an imu, an underground pit stove covered with taro leaves that is the centerpiece of the luau shtick. There's less show at Ono Hawaiian Foods, but the kalua pork is better than at nearly all the luaus I have attended over the years. Photos of local newscasters, beauty queens and politicians that hang above the booths attest to the hole-in-the-wall's drawing power. You'll be hard-pressed to spend $15 per person here. 726 Kapahulu Ave., 808-737-2275
Golden temple: Waiola Bakery and Shave Ice. The little shop in the McCully neighborhood is better known on the island as one of the few places near Waikiki where you can get a first-class shave ice (Hawaii's vastly superior take on the traditional snow cone). But I come for the golden-topped baked goods, especially the amazing sweet azuki bean rolls. A soft globe of dough wraps the sweet, brown paste in the middle. You grab a tray and tongs and take what you want (always more than you need) and they ring you up at the register. The raisin bread is another personal favorite. 525 Kapahula Ave. 808-735-8884.
Three-peat: Rainbow Drive-In. The mainland has seen an explosion of traditional Hawaiian plate lunch spots (including transplanted outlets of the venerable L&L chain). Plate lunches are hefty, cheap and good. The Rainbow Drive-In in Honolulu offers some of the best. I like the pork chops smothered in gravy or the Portuguese sausage. A popular choice is shoyu (soy sauce) chicken. Your main dish comes with two sides - traditionally steamed white rice and macaroni salad, but you can play with the lineup a bit (and even add a second - or third - meat course). Sometimes it's not much to look at - a mound of white and yellow starches flanked by meat slathered in brown gravy. But dig in and you'll see why the office workers and small-time contractors in their white trucks flock here at lunchtime. Staff is like family - when the 45-year-old restaurant closed for a week in December for much-needed repairs, owner Jim Gusukuma took all 35 workers to Las Vegas. Corner of Kapahulu and Kanaina avenues. 808-737-0177.
Flight to fancy: Sam Choy's Diamond Head Grill. Honolulu is known for its famous chefs who name their restaurants after themselves. Roy's (Yamaguchi), Chef Mavro (George Mavrothalassitis) and Alan Wong's all tout their creator. Kapahulu Avenue's entry in the celebrity-chef sweepstakes is Sam Choy's Diamond Head Grill, which despite its name is actually up a flight of stairs in a strip mall building. Choy's choice of a location in a busy business district keeps the focus on the food instead of ocean views. Choy made his name as a television cooking-show chef, and the "show" goes on in the restaurant. The best seats are at the kitchen-front bar, where cooks heave ingredients into flaming woks that light up the room. Signature dishes include the fried poke appetizer, marinated butterfish, wok-cooked Roadside Garlic Shrimp (one of the flaming dishes), and Perfect Oven Roasted Duck. Finish up with a dessert of Wahiawa Pineapple Cheesecake. It's one of the few places on Kapahulu Avenue that will put a big hit on your wallet. My dinner of appetizer, soup, entree, dessert, coffee and one drink came to about $70. Not cheap, but likely less than you'll pay over at one of the showpiece "name chef" restaurants in the Waikiki, Kahala or Hawaii Kai neighborhoods. 449 Kapahulu Ave., 808-732-8645
Just desserts: Leonard's Bakery. The sign out front should say "Destroying Diets since 1952!" Hawaii is a conglomeration of all sorts of ethnicities: Native Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and a dozen more. Leonard's is Honolulu's leading purveyor of malasadas, a kind of hot, airy doughnut first made by the Portuguese in the Azores. The malasadas start out as 2-inch balls of dough, but expand when fried in oil. They're finished off with a liberal sprinkling of powdered sugar or cinnamon sugar. Anyone trying to stay on a low-carb diet should lock the doors and avert their gaze as they pass by. Most customers buy about a half dozen of the palm-sized wonders, with, I'd say, about 25 percent of the malasadas never making it out of the parking lot. Look for Leonard's landmark red and yellow neon sign just before you get to the H1 freeway that takes you to the airport. 933 Kapahulu Ave, 808-737-5591.
Future fests: With so many old favorites to visit on every trip, it's hard to break away and try other spots along Kapahulu Avenue. Some I've missed out on completely. I heard for years about Hale Noa, the leading purveyor of awa, the potent kava drink. It closed last year, though the nearby Kapahulu Cafe has stepped in to feed the kava craze. Sushi fans flock to Izakaya Nonbei at Kapahulu Avenue and Olu Street. I've also never tried Mr. Ojisan at Kilohana Square. I'll make it there someday - if I can just get past Leonard's without stopping.