Many a haole (mainlander) will tell you açaí bowls are a passing craze, saturated by corporate smoothie giants, and that the Brazilian purple berry was a brief trend amongst the omega-3 obsessed hipsters who have moved on to pitaya (dragon fruit). This is not the case in Oahu. The islanders have adopted the expatriated fruit, piled on some killer island purities, and started an island craze. Take one pass through the açaí bowl magnates on Hawaii’s most populous island and enter into an island-wide debate of who does the berry up best.
Having tried an açaí bowl here and there on the mainland, namely Paradise Bowls in Manhattan Beach and the occasional pressed juicery, I was eager to taste what an island friend was going on about. I was determined to find the best açaí bowl — or at least dig in to the best “ah-sah-EE” bowl debate.
We set out our first morning with the windows down, humidity up, ready for the first of many stops that would turn our tongues and lips bright purple. We worked up an appetite by skidding, barefoot in the mud, toward the Maunawili Falls and jumping off the cliff into a narrow pool. Aside from some sore arches and a run-in with a centipede, the barefoot approach proved less dangerous than expected. We ducked under some 15-foot shore-break at Sandy’s Beach, then headed into town for a local favorite.
1. Diamond Head Health Bar
The walls at Diamond Head Health Bar are filled with classic Hawaii black ‘n’ whites, signed surf posters from the Eddie Aikau contest, and neon colors on all four walls. But my eyes were solely entranced by that majestic deep purple açaí blend. Fresh bananas and strawberry, local honey, and cinnamon-infused granola brought it home. But just as I scraped the bottom of my bowl, a woman behind me piped up to her girlfriend, “Oh, ya, Haleiwa bowls are way better.” Bubble burst!
2. Haleiwa Bowls
This place is textbook Hawaii: a roadside shack on the North Shore, cut-to-serve ingredients, and a team of laid back, go-with-the-flow employees who are all students from Waialua High School. Haleiwa Bowls stays true to their brand, given that development and gentrification are making a play at old town Haleiwa. The Haleiwa Bowl açaí blend oozes North Shore vibes; it’s thick with the perfect amount of almond milk and a generous dose of fresh coconut flakes that created a flavor powerhouse I couldn’t help but tell any lost-seeming tourist about.
My stomach was beyond full from all the açaí and overstuffed poke (raw fish salad) bowls, but I had no choice but to power through, because another local favorite was waiting at Bonzai Beach.
3. Pupukea Grill
This food truck dishes out classic poke, smoothies, shaved ice, and an açaí bowl to rival its North Shore counterparts. Their soy milk added a new dimension to the flavor, but I sensed something unique, something the staff wouldn’t disclose, a mystery which will forever be unknown in the açaí bowl world. Irked at my inability to pinpoint the ingredient in the blend, and disappointed in the toppings, I ranked them behind Haleiwa bowls and charged down the hill for some afternoon surfing.
After a much-needed beachside nap, I was revitalized and ready to make the trek to Kapolei for an açaí bowl I was told I would love, but also love to hate.
4. Island Vintage Coffee
This chain coffee shop in Kapolei proved the best açaí blend — blend, not bowl — I’d ever had. It drove me crazy. Why? Because it’s in Kapolei! Kapolei is synonymous with Aulani, which is synonymous with Disney, which is synonymous with commercialized tourism. I hated myself for loving their açaí blend so much but that didn’t stop me from returning to Island Vintage on my second and third trip to Oahu. Every time felt like I had betrayed my integrity as a world traveler. Nonetheless, it was the fresh açaí berry and vanilla almond milk that created the magic. But! They don’t win, because their granola, honey, and toppings don’t come close to the previous three contenders.
On my third and most recent trip to Oahu I maintained my diet of poke bowls, açaí bowls, and Kona Brewing Company beer. I made another pass through the best acai bowl joints I’d already found and discovered a few new entrants, like Jewel or Juice, Vita Juice, and Lanikai Juice, none of which made the top three. I even stopped at Jamba Juice in Kailua for a watered-down açaí concoction, just for laughs.
5. Sweet Home Waimanalo
A late contender emerged when I visited Sweet Home Waimanalo at the recommendation of Guy Fieri (Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives). The windward side food shack has some of the freshest ingredients on the island, and their açaí blend was on point. The bananas were picked that morning and the whole bowl was cohesive and well-balanced. With that, this roadside stop tied for second.
As I sat at Fresh Airs beach on my last afternoon, no winner emerged. To this day, I tentatively place Haleiwa Bowls first, Diamond Head Health Bar/Sweet Home Waimanalo second, and Pupukea Grill third. But I want a piece of each one so much that I can’t declare a winner.