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.