Friday, February 10, 2012

On Location: Eating Authentic on Kauai

Why travel? That enigmatic question is as varied as each person asking it. For some it is about deep relaxation while others travel for big adventure. Some travel out of necessity; some for a desire to discover an authentic experience.
For me, it is some mix of relaxation, adventure and discovery but what travel is really all about? For me? The food.
Eating out in another place is the real reason I go anywhere...even to the neighboring town or state.
Authenticity in travel, particularly with food, has become harder and harder to achieve in an ever-globalizing economy where Starbucks is the default coffee and there's a combination Taco Bell-Pizza Hut outside your front door. That said, when you are able to discover an authentic experience, one is rewarded exponentially.
The island of Kauai is not without chain restaurants but it is also dotted with some true gems of the culinary world. Everything we read or heard about the island suggested 'the less you pay, the better it tastes'. This became our mantra for our eating out guide:

Hamura's Saimin
2956 Kress Street
Lihue, HI 96766
(808) 245-3271
There is no place more authentic in all of Kauai then Hamura's Saimin. That sentence only sounds like hyperbole if you've never been to Hamura's. 
The noodle dish saimin, much like Hawaii itself, is a hybrid of Japanese udon, Chinese mein and Filipino pancit. Soft wheat noodles swim in a hot, rich dashi and combine with a hard boiled egg, pork, scallions and spam. Yes, spam. 
Occasionally, pot stickers are thrown in the mix for a real treat.
Saimin is on nearly every menu in Hawaii (including McDonald's) but Hamura's is known the island over for having the very best. Truly a hole in the wall, Hamura's is not for everyone. There is nothing fancy about the U-shaped countertops, the no-nonsense servers or the heaping bowl of hot noodle soup that lands in front of you moments after you order it. But there is something perfect about it.

Jo-Jo's shave ice
Kaumualii Highway
mile marker 23
Waimea, HI 96796

Arguably the next most Hawaiian thing to eat is shave ice. When you hear 'shave ice' you might think 'snow cone' (I know I did) but the two are distant 2nd cousins at best. 
Snow cones are made with crushed ice. Shave ice is made with by shaving off a block of ice with a sharp blade. The ice shavings then absorb whatever syrup it is soaked in, rather than the crushed ice sitting in the syrup as snow cones often do.
Ice cream is placed at the bottom of the cup to create the most decadent, delicious dessert with the word 'ice' in it. Jo-Jo's in Waimea is the leading authority on shave ice in Kauai. It is delicious just about anywhere you get it but Jo-Jo's has the ice shavings down to science. Paired with mac-nut vanilla ice cream on bottom and coconut cream atop, Jo-Jo's shave ice is well worth the seemingly absurd $6 price tag and inevitably long wait!

Puka Dog
5300 Punahoa Place
Koloa (Poipu), HI
(808) 742-6044
The discovery of Puka Dog was one of those happy accidents. We found ourselves hungry for lunch but couldn't tear ourselves away from Shipwreck Beach, our favorite beach on the south shore. The solution? DH drove to the nearby shopping village and discovered Puka Dog. Much like Jo-Jo's isn't just any shave ice, Puka Dog is not your average hot dog. Fresh baked bun-sized bread loaves envelop a polish sausage or a smartdog (for the veggies) and an array of delectable condiments including mango relish, lilikoi mustard and garlic lemon aioli.

Coffee on Kauai
Being based in the Bay Area, we are wildly spoiled when it comes to great coffee. Although Kauai Coffee Company is ubiquitous throughout the land, we found the smaller guys to be much better at the coffee game. Our favorites were Java Kai and Small Town Coffee in Kapa'a and Little Fish Coffee in Hanapepe. While small town had the foam art down pat, our vote for #1 would be Java Kai, who actually uses beans roasted on Hawaii. (The beans we bought from Small Town were from Sonoma County.) Little Fish wins for cutest signs and cutest baristas.

Mai Tai's on Kauai
DH is a beverage guy, hands down. Whether its wine, coffee or cocktails, the man knows his stuff about where to drink what and when. Since we were in Hawaii afterall, we did our fair share of 'research' discovering Kauai's best mai tai. The best was an even tie between Merriman's in Poipu and Tahiti Nui in Hanalei Bay. For our time though, the rough waitresses and smooth local music of Tahiti Nui made it our favorite spot every time.

Mermaid's Cafe
4-1384 Kuhio Highway #B1
Kapa'a, HI 96746
(808) 821-2026

Next door to Java Kai in Kapa'a is the friendly Mermaid's Cafe. Not more than a 10'x10' stand, this cafe offers outstanding ahi nori wraps, tropical fish tacos and vegan options galore in large, sharable portions. The fresh hibiscus lemonade and lemongrass ice tea aren't half bad either.

Hanalei Taro & Juice Company
5-5070 Kuhio Highway
Hanalei, HI 96714
(808)  826-1059

Hanalei Taro & Juice Company is not more than a mobile food truck with a canopy to the side and a few benches underneath. Most people drive right past, missing it entirely. We might have done the same had we not rented kayaks from the neighboring stand. The company specializes in traditional and innovative culinary uses of taro and poi such as taro hummus, taro mochi cakes and banana poi bread. We tried the taro veggie burger (which was excellent) and fresh tangelo juice (also excellent).

Hanalei Wake Up Cafe
5-5144 Kuhio Hwy
Hanalei, HI 96714
cash only
Open from 6:30-11:30am daily and walking distance from Hanalei Bay, Hanalei Wake Up Cafe is a surfer-friendly breakfast dive. The menu is short and oh, so sweet, the service is quick and friendly enough and the decor is adorably adorned with local surfing and fishing memorabilia. Wake Up won extra points with us when we met the head honcho kitty!
We opted for the breakfast quesadilla with hashbrowns and the 'over the falls' french toast with coconut whipped cream and chopped pineapple. We couldn't have been happier with our order. My only regret is not also ordering their famous mac-nut cinnamon roll!

Kilauea Fish Market
4270 Kilauea Road, #F
Kilauea, HI
Excellent Ahi wraps can be found the island over but for our time, the Kilauea Fish Market is king. A Mission-burrito sized wrap comes jam packed with seared ahi, brown rice, shredded carrots, bean sprouts and an incredible sesame dressing. It is a dish so good it is inhibiting. Ordering anything else on the menu became impossible for us both. I managed to order the ahi poke with brown rice just once but my heart was always with the ahi wrap. In fact, I still find myself daydreaming about that damn wrap!

Kilauea Bakery
2484 Keneke Street
Kilauea, HI 

No place on the island captured our hearts, stomaches, wallets and time quite like the Kilauea Bakery.
A small, modest bakery with excellent pastries, breads, soups and sandwiches and killer ice coffees; the Kilauea Bakery felt as much like home as Euro Pane yet distinctly Kauaian. It is quite possible we spent as much time here as at all the beaches put together. But the salmon cream cheese bagel, the savory breakfast turnover, the coco-macadamia nut macaroons and dark rye bread gave us no other choice. 
Travel, for us anyway, is all about discovering authenticity, especially through food and this bakery was the epitome of that.
And though it isn't often cited, the joy of travel can also be in finding a bit of home away from home which was also made possible at Kilauea Bakery.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic! although, I'd point out, that it's being from LA that has made us appreciate great coffee much more than living in the Bay Area has, but that's a butter-argument for another time...