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How Did This Diner Chain Become One of the Most Iconic Spots in Hawaii?

Here's a hint: chili.

The Hawaiian archipelago is world-renowned for its diverse landscapes, ocean views, friendly locals, and of course, mouth-watering cuisine. Hawaiian food has become as diverse as its population, and Zippy’s—one of Hawaii’s most beloved diner chains—nostalgically incorporates a melting-pot of flavors.

I traveled to Oahu for the first time in 2015, where I was invited to an honored tradition, a first birthday, or Baby Luau. I spent an action and food-laden week with Kānaka (Native Hawaiians) friends, their families, and Kamaʻāina (Hawaiian residents regardless of their racial background). I was urged to sample their favorite dishes with almost every encounter and instructed to dine at Zippy’s, popular with people of all ages and families, serving as one of the go-to youth hang-out spots.

The well-seasoned and crispy fried-to-perfection chicken thigh, savory white rice, and aromatic chili enveloped my senses, nearly bringing tears to my eyes at the first bite. All I needed was a slice of buttered cornbread to feel as if I’d been transported back to my grandmother’s home. I was so enamored by that feeling that I neglected to share that I’d been to Zippy’s and seized opportunities to visit twice more that week.

Nearing the end of newfound mania for all things Zippy’s, my companion recommended I order takeout to tide me over during my flight home. Upon sharing my recollection with Kevin B. Yim, the Vice President of Marketing and Communications exclaimed, “[I]t’s a time-honored mark of the well-traveled Hawaiian Local to take a Zippy’s ‘Zip Pac’ on board your mainland-bound flight. So, you did Hawaii the right way!”

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Chili BowlZippy’s

He continues, “The menu at Zippy’s reads like the story of Hawaii itself, reflecting the various waves of immigration from Japan, China, Korea, and more, and Native Hawaiian and American cuisines. It’s that diverse menu that makes Zippy’s a local icon.”

Yim describes some of the most popular (and delectable) items on the extensive menu. “The Zip Pac, Zippy’s best-selling menu item, combines Asian-inspired teriyaki beef and fried fish with classic American fried chicken and a slice of Spam, all unified by sitting on a pillow of rice and packaged into a singular, harmonious bento box. The Zip Pac is the perfect way to take lunch to the beach.”

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1. Zip PacZippy’s 2. Korean Chicken

Social media influencer Bretman Rock gushed about their love for Zippy’s friendly staff and the many sweet and savory dishes that brought them joy as an adolescent—and continue to do so to this day.

“The Korean Fried Chicken is a close second on the menu—lightly crunchy fried chicken pieces tossed with a salty, sweet, and garlicky Korean-inspired sauce, served with the ubiquitous two-scops rice and macaroni salad that rounds out any plate lunch in Hawaii,” Mr. Yim shares.

A trip (or several) to Zippy’s is one of the best ways to get a taste of the incommensurable Polynesian food culture. The extensive menu offers specials of the day, freshly baked goods, like the Apple Napple turnover, and take out. Even if you live on the mainland, a taste of Zippy’s chili can be available within a few hours at select supermarkets and e-commerce sites.

INSIDER TIPZippy’s sells over 100 tons of the famous chili every month. Don’t miss out!

After more than 50 years of operation and 23 locations on Oahu, Maui, and Hawaii Island (the Big Island), Zippy’s remains active in the Hawaiian community, raising millions of dollars for non-profit clubs and organizations through their Benefit Fundraising program. A portion of the proceeds from tickets sold, for example, is donated to schools to spend on travel expenses and other needs.

Supporting local businesses is the ultimate way to show your appreciation, respect, and curiosity while visiting any location in the world. Whether you choose to bask in the local ambiance at one of the diners, join the fundraising program, or purchase the pre-made chili kit, Zippy’s and many locals will think fondly of you.

Editor’s Note: Per the Hawaii Tourism Board, Fodor’s recognizes “the proper use of the Hawaiian language, ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i,’ which includes the ‘okina [‘], a consonant, and the kahakō [ō] or macron.” The Hawai‘i Board on Geographic Names was created to “assure uniformity and standardize spelling of geographic names to communicate unambiguously about places, reducing the potential for confusion.” In order to ensure our readers the best experience reading our Hawaii travel guides, we follow the standardized spelling, but hope to expose readers to the importance and cultural significance of the written Ōlelo Hawai‘i language

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