I have a love/hate relationship with eating in Kauai, Maui and Hawaii (the Big Island). I'm leaving Oahu and the smaller islands out of this culinary conundrum as I hear Oahu has a pretty great food scene and I've never been to Molokai, Lanai or the other smaller isles (although I'd love to go). As a mom, I'm always disappointed with the quality of food in family restaurants on the islands. They're full of fried foods and overpriced entrées. I am always left wondering why, in a state full of farms and surrounded by fresh fish, are most of the restaurants so lacking. And then I remember, Hawaiian restaurants are for tourists.
First let's talk about the love: I ADORE all the fresh and ripe tropical fruits that are so hard to come by on the mainland. Pineapple sweetened in the field is a completely different fruit than what you find in your local grocery here. And the papayas! Sweet and fragrant, ripened on the tree as they should be, they are the ultimate tropical treat as far as I'm concerned. Oh wait! I forgot about the apple bananas, which are tied with the papayas on my love list. If you've never had one, they’re worth a trip to Hawaii all by themselves. I am also always impressed with how much better the fish tastes in Hawaii. Restaurants and fish markets on the mainland may officially tell you that their catch of the day was just flown in and is fantastically fresh, but when compared to the local fish you find in Hawaii -- fish that really was caught that day -- you can see, smell and taste the difference. The only problem is going someplace that knows how to prepare that fish. Which leads me to my hate list…
I DETEST the abundance of mediocre restaurants serving overpriced and poorly cooked food. As Hawaii's main industry is tourism, most restaurants seem to cater to a clientele that will come only once or twice, so they focus on island ambiance and big Mai Tai's instead of quality food. As a mom, these places have no appeal, even if they have great views. First of all, the prices are outrageous. $30 for an overcooked fish entrée slathered in butter is bad enough when you’re paying for just you and maybe your partner, but throw in a couple of children and you start eyeing the kids menu, which is usually just the standard fare of chicken fingers, burgers and pasta with butter. Now normally I try to avoid kid menus, but the idea of paying $60 for my kids to pick at their meal brings out the devil on my shoulder -- there he sits, smugly convincing me that French fries served with mac and cheese is a perfectly acceptable and nutritious meal for my growing girls. After all, they can get their vitamins from the pineapple slice in their POG (passion fruit, orange juice, and guava juice cocktail), right? Of course there are a few high-quality restaurants serving fresh seasonal foods, but these are far and few between and a dinner for four can often reach $300.
So last week, when my family and I were in Kauai, I tried to seek out some food love on the Garden Island, Yelping, Chowhounding and asking around to find some alternate food opportunities that would allow me to feed my kids (and myself) a variety of local and fresh food that didn't break the bank. Following is a list of my top picks. After finding an abundance of $39-an-entrée establishments that served food similar to what you'd get at Fisherman’s Wharf, I am hoping to steer you to some better locations for your own island getaway. Unfortunately, those expensive restaurants with overcooked fish covered in macadamia-nut butter often have the best views, so you may find yourself in one or two of them anyway. I admit we spent an evening in a restaurant that was overpriced and barely passable, but only because my daughters wanted to spend their birthday eating Japanese food and the only other sushi restaurant was in a strip mall 20 minutes away. Plus this place made virgin Mai Tais with umbrellas, which really made my daughters smile from ear to ear.
The following list highlights restaurants, markets and one farm that are focused on serving the best fresh local food the Island of Kauai has to offer. If you know of a place not listed, I'd love to hear about it in the comments section.
Koloa Fish Market
5482 Koloa Road, Koloa, HI
The Koloa Fish Market is everything a fresh fish place should be. With a case full of Ahi, Ono and Mahi Mahi, this is an old school market that only sells locally caught fish. I also love that you can purchase their products a few ways.
Raw: When you buy raw fish to cook at home, you will be asked how thick you want the slices, how many people are eating, and how you plan to cook your fish. The fish mongers (is that still a current-day term?) will cut your fish the way you want it. Be sure to get some sides of teriyaki and wasabi cream sauces to go with your fish as they are fantastic.
Poke: There are a variety of pokes available in the refrigerated case (poke is a Hawaiian dish of cubed raw fish, usually Ahi, that has been flavored with various herbs or spices). I tried the Ahi with Sweet Maui Onion, Korean Poke, and Tako Poke (made with octopus). All were great, but the Korean Poke was my favorite as it was slightly spicy yet still mild and perfectly suited for that fresh tuna taste.
Cooked: Each day the market features a couple of cooked fish plates that you can top with their teriyaki, wasabi cream or butter and garlic sauces. You can't go wrong with any of these. The plates are served with cooked rice, macaroni salad (which is pretty good) and a random lettuce salad. And if fish isn't your thing, you can get pork or beef dishes as well.
When you go to the Koloa Fish Market, be sure to avoid the lunch hour if possible as the store is full of hungry locals and the employees try to rush everyone through quickly. They can also get a little testy if you take too long to decide what to order. Also, be sure to grab a bag of cooked edamame and a container of seaweed salad to go with your meal. Both are fresh and cheap.
Hanalei Coffee Roasters / Java Kai
55183-c Kuhio hwy, Hanalei, HI
After my various coffee adventures this summer, I was excited to stumble upon a local roaster in Hanalei. The Hanalei Roasting Company does small-batch roasts of locally-grown Kauai coffee (yes, the beans are grown right on the island) and also Kona coffee. Mild and slightly sweet with a rich coffee taste, their beans were really amazing. They also make a variety of lattes and cappuccinos from their home-roasted espresso and have a wide array of teas as well.
The restaurant is also run under the name Java Kai, which is a small breakfast and coffee chain, so if you're in Hanalei, look for the Java Kai sign. This seems to be the go-to breakfast spot for the North shore of Kauai. I can vouch for their banana macadamia nut waffles, which were nutty and fluffy, while their smoothies -- made with apple bananas, fresh papayas, and a hint of ginger -- are sublime. My kids loved the freshly baked bagels and muffins, and the patio was a beautiful and relaxing spot to spend a morning before we hit the beach.
1 Numila Rd, Kalaheo, HI
I am very sad to say I didn't actually go to the island's coffee plantation, but I did try (sort of). My kids and husband weren't all that interested in going -- "Mom, that's boooooorrrrriiiing" was the response I got when I suggested we head over to see it. I also have to admit that once I was sitting in my beach chair, it was almost impossible to get me out of it, especially as I already had locally-grown and roasted coffee sitting in my cupboard from Hanalei Coffee Roasters. That said, I am sorry I missed seeing how coffee is grown and have vowed to get my arse off the beach and to the coffee farm next time I'm there. Also, if you are interested in buying Hawaiian coffee, there's no need to make sure it's fair trade as coffee farms in Hawaii adhere to all US labor laws (it is the United States, after all) and many are unionized, so you can rest assured you're drinking coffee where everyone is getting paid at least minimum wage.
5-5075 Kuhio Hwy # A, Hanalei, HI
Postcards is a very cute organic restaurant in Hanalei. I ate there during our last visit to Kauai, but as we were staying on the south shore this time (and they're located at the north), I wasn't in the area for dinner this visit. When I was there previously, however, their menu was full of locally-raised vegetables and fruits, locally caught fish and Kauai-raised meats. I asked a few locals about it and they all said it was still great. This is also a wonderful place to eat if you are vegetarian or vegan.
Truck on corner of Lawai Road and Poipu Road
Koloa, HI 96756
Sitting on the side of a lonely little road in Poipu Beach is Savage Shrimp. Susan -- the owner, chef and server of this food truck -- offers shrimp three ways. You can go with the Garlic Scampi, the Bahia Scampi (which uses a Brazilian coconut and tomato sauce sauce), or the GrassHoppa Scampi (a spicy concoction). We tried he first two and devoured each and every shrimpy morsel on our very full plates within five minutes flat. Maybe I was really hungry, but at the time I was thinking this may be the best shrimp I've ever had. Served with rice and a salad, the dishes of fresh local shrimp are filling and more than worth the $12.50 price tag.
Koloa, HI 96756
This food truck is widely admired by many, so I wanted to mention it here. I need to come clean and tell you, however, that I didn't actually get to eat a taco here. When we stopped by for lunch, the very nice lady who cooks for Monster tacos informed us that she only serves her fish with Cajun blackened spices. Although I'm not a big blackened fish fan (and neither are my kids), I wanted to give the tacos a try. I figured I'd quickly order one little taco and then go someplace else to get something for my hungry kids, but after being told it would take 15 - 20 minutes for my one taco, even though only one guy was sitting on a bench ahead of us, we left. That said, people rave about this place, so if you like blackened fish tacos and are on the south shore of Kauai, this is your place.
Sunshine Farmers' Markets
Located in a different town Monday - Saturday of each week
The state of Hawaii runs a series of local farmers' markets on Kauai Monday through Saturday. These are a bit of a scene as they're run almost like tourist attractions where some guy with a bullhorn opens the market at noon to a crowd of people and then let's everyone loose. But don’t be turned off by the management as the fruit and vegetables awaiting you are worth the septuagenarians elbowing each other out at the gate. Full of fresh local fare, you can find exotic fruits that just aren’t available anywhere else at these markets. We purchased some star fruit and dragon fruit, along with fresh and ripe guavas, wing beans, the cherished apple bananas and papayas, along with regular cucumbers, lettuce, spinach and bok choy. As we were staying in a condo, it was fun to bring home our bags and explore the variety of produce available from local Hawaiian farmers.
Various locations throughout Hawaii
What visit to Hawaii would be complete without an enormous scoop of ice cream, and what better place to get it than Lapperts? With frozen yogurt, gelato, sorbet, and ice cream on hand, you can pretty much get whatever frozen treat you’d like -- oh, and they serve coffee too. My favorite flavor was the caramel macadamia nut, although my husband had a few servings of the triple summer berry, which was also mighty nice. Whichever flavor you choose, this is a great way to cool off in that tropical sun.