Honolulu is often described as the heart of paradise where, for tourists post-sunset, mai-tai malaise hits with the force of local waves, sapping most people’s motivation to leave the Waikiki corridor to chase down dinner.
But perhaps they’re not aware of the pohole (fiddlehead fern) and pomelo salad at Mud Hen Water; the ahi avocado toast that eats like a giant brioche nigiri at Senia; or the bananas Foster at MW Restaurant, in which a bread pudding made of malasadas is wrapped in puff pastry and topped with banana and roasted soybean flour ice cream.
At these restaurants set apart from the hordes of tourists, chefs take the opportunity to explore the bounty of Hawaii’s tropical breadbasket in ways that embrace and expand on local traditions without having to bow to tourist demands for accessibility or unimaginative fare. In the 1990s, the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement brought local ingredients to the forefront, weaving them into classic Western dishes as accents and flavors.
Today, the next wave of forward-thinking restaurants in Honolulu goes a step further. Chefs are designing their dishes around the ingredients of the island, playfully creating odes to their favorite flavors and textures, borrowing from iconic culinary ideas worldwide, and even riffing on Hawaii’s casual staples in high-end settings.
No dish does this better than the baked banana at Mud Hen Water, where a starchy locally grown banana stands in for a loaded baked potato, roasted, top-split, and served in its skin. Curry butter soaks through the banana while a truckload of chopped eggs, scallions, bacon, and coconut enhance the savory and sweet sides of the fruit. Chef Ed Kenney made a name for himself at Town, which hews closer to the Hawaii Regional Cuisine tradition, and took his first steps there in honoring local ingredients.
Mud Hen Water represents his full embrace, with croquettes made from chicken long rice, a local plate-lunch special. For those unfamiliar with local foods or foodways, the menu may require a little translation, but that’s part of what taking Honolulu’s food to the next level requires: a willingness from visitors to trust that the best way to enjoy local food isn’t to try to make it fit into the boxes you know, but to welcome it however the chef can best cook it.
Things are more completely spelled out at MW Restaurant, where, alongside Japanese cuisine, local favorites like Spam musubi, loco moco, and even shave ice get remade with top-quality ingredients and creative twists while honoring the original versions. The Spam musubi is actually made from canned SPAM (smoked pork arabiki meatloaf); arabiki is a Japanese sausage. Each slice comes crusted with mochi, giving it a lacy, crunchy exterior, and topped with a fried quail egg. MW head chef Wade Ueoka and pastry chef Michelle Karr-Ueoka share a background in Hawaii Regional Cuisine, and the couple’s knowledge and fluency in the history of Hawaii’s dining culture flow onto the plate easily, delivered with a sense of humor and a sensitivity to texture and flavor.
The Ueokas both spent time at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Napa Valley, while another pair of Honolulu restaurant chefs, Chris Kajioka and Anthony Rush of Senia, met working at Keller’s Per Se in Manhattan. The minimalist decor of Senia evokes a Scandinavian style that has dominated the upper echelon of fine-dining restaurants in recent years.
But Hawaii’s influence comes through subtly in the serveware designed by local artists; the sprinkling of li hing mui (salty dried plum powder) on foie gras “bonbons”; the sweet rolls served with bone marrow; and the breadfruit sticky toffee pudding.
For Kajioka and Rush, the distance from the touristy crowds of Waikiki was a feature, not a bug. “We wanted to have a casual restaurant in the heart of Chinatown,” says Kajioka. “To have fun with it, not be too rigid.”
It’s an attitude carried over from next door at The Pig & the Lady, where Andrew Le marries Vietnamese cuisine with American traditions, most famously in his French dip banh mi but also in his pizzas served on grilled rice paper. In the drinks menu, Hawaiian flavors dominate—a “Le Swoon” cocktail mixes local rum with Okinawan sweet potato, pandan, coconut milk, and cinnamon. And for dessert, look for lilikoi malasadas (Portuguese-style fried doughnuts with passion-fruit curd) and guava soft-serve ice cream.
Like Senia, MW Restaurant, and Mud Hen Water, The Pig & the Lady is a short drive from Waikiki, but the meal is miles away from what you’ll find in tourist traps.
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