Tales from the Road: Kauai
Kauai’s food & beverage scene, from the visitor’s perspective.
Circumstances had us jetting off to the garden isle of Kauai (Hawaii) this month, not a bad place to be after finishing up a month of record cold, snow and ice in Portland (Oregon, USA). And writing this on the way back, we’ve got more cold and rain ahead. You can imagine that we truly appreciated the weather on Kauai.
Kauai is popular, but it isn’t the most popular of the Hawaiian Islands. Still, it’s arguably the most beautiful of the archipelago. Dramatic lush volcanic landscapes, tropical flora and fauna, postcard perfect beaches, waterfalls at every turn. Yes, you can find these on the other Hawaiian islands, but they abound on Kauai.
In our pre-trip research, we discovered that coffee grows on the island, and we assumed there would be fresh seafood and of course pineapple. We had also heard that Spam was popular in Hawaii. Apart from some images of the landscapes, we literally had no idea what to expect. Pre-trip food and beverage information about Kauai exists only in bits and pieces for hungry food travelers. In advance of our arrival, we found information about restaurants at our hotel, hotel amenities and other attractions on the island. We definitely got the impression that Kauai was not marketing itself as a destination for food and beverage lovers.
After arrival, we were pleasantly surprised that a food culture does exist. On the first day, we found our way to the Kauai Coffee Company. The company has a live plantation that visitors can tour, a small museum and a small gift shop. Admission is free, as are tastings of nearly 20 different types of coffees produced by the company. So far, so good.
On the way to the famous Waimea Canyon, we stopped into Ishihara Market, loved by islanders as a lunch sport. The chicken katsu plate was OK but the real stars here go to the seafood salads. Various kinds of ahi poke abound. Our favorite poke was the spiced shrimp salad, followed by the spiced lobster salad. Just get a half-pound or full-pound container (about US$13), a fork and some napkins and dig in.
A journey to the north end of the island to Princeville and Hanalei Bay, we found Jojo’s Shave (not shaved) Ice. We didn’t really know what to expect with this delicacy. Think a scoop of ice cream (or not), in a dish covered with fresh packed snow and as many flavors as you want (they recommend no more than 4). Jojo’s has been around a while. The boast that their syrups are made with pure cane sugar, for which they get a gold star. Stand at the counter as they make your concoction — you’ll be fascinated.
One night’s dinner was spent at Garden Island Grille, where I feasted on the Kalua pork tacos. This is the kind of pork available on the island and it’s delicious. Our server recounted stories of eating this pork at family luaus growing up. Live music (sometimes Hawaiian songs) adds a pleasantness to the repast. At another meal at Da Crack, I ordered a chicken burrito and got Kailua pork instead. I wasn’t terribly upset because I do eat pork, but this just proved servers who don’t pay attention are everywhere on the planet.
Speaking of Kalua pork, on our last day, we ate breakfast at Olympic Café. The locals turn their noses down at this place, perhaps because it’s not as sexy-looking at the Anuenue Café next door. Still, the food was quite good. I enjoyed a breakfast burrito with tropical salsa and Kalua pork (easily shared by two), which reminded me of the flavor of the pork I enjoyed growing up in the American south. If you eat pork, you haven’t lived until you’ve enjoyed pork in the American south or now, on Kauai. In the same shopping complex is Puka Dog, serving Hawaiian style hot dogs, “as seen on TV”. Apparently, “Hawaiian style” means with a tropical fruit and sugar puree. We weren’t impressed.
Rum is also made on Kauai, and you can taste it at the Koloa Rum Company. It’s really quite good, which you would expect since the island used to be home to a massive sugar crop (ever heard of C&H Sugar?). Get there early because tasting slots fill up fast. Kids will appreciate the Kauai Plantation Railway on the same plantation estate in Kilohana.
Off to dinner. Chef Roy Yamaguchi’s Eating House 1849 offers classic colonial-inspired Hawaiian cuisine, a nod to restaurateurs like Peter Fernandez who allegedly opened one of the first restaurants in Hawaii, called the Eating House, back in the mid-1800s, using only what was available from local farmers, ranchers, foragers and fishermen. Interestingly, “colonial” works here, but in some cities, the fooderati eschew “colonial” cuisine, espousing an affiliation between it and slavery and a general disregard for human rights. History is history, whether or not we are proud of it. Food isn’t racist or self-righteous. Roy’s Eating House offered great colonial-inspired food in a pleasant, upscale setting.
We skipped a luau experience which would have cost nearly US$150 per person. Granted that food and entertainment were included, still US$300 for dinner for two was more than we wanted to spend. We guess that it’s more than most people want to spend as well.
Rumfire is the fine dining restaurant at the Sheraton Kauai “Resort”. As is unfortunately typical with so many of these holiday hotels, the drinks were expensive and left a lot to be desired, including the alcohol apparently. You’re better off buying your own liquor of choice and preferred mixer at a nearby grocery and preparing your own drinks in your room. We had a pleasant dinner experience with a great waiter, who clearly knew how to perform.
Starters of ahi poke and taro chips (pictured left), as well as shrimp lumpia, were well received, as was the chai-inspired popcorn, a house specialty. Our two main courses were combinations: butterfish and braised short ribs, and catch of the day with butterfish on a tasty herbed risotto. These were the most expensive main courses (US$46 and US$44 respectively) and truly underwhelmed. Dessert was also rather disappointing, featuring mostly just a “sweet” flavor, although we were impressed with the fruit-juice filled pods reminiscent of tapioca beads, which literally burst in your mouth with flavor. Rumfire has a very well chosen wine list and part of your daily resort fee includes the not daily, but every so often, “Wine Down” “complimentary” 4 ounce wine tasting pour. All in all, the meal was OK. For us, the server and the view of the sunset were the best features of Rumfire. Advice for future guests: grab a glass of wine and a starter (appetizer) around sunset, and then move along.
We also visited the Sheraton’s less expensive poolside Lava’s restaurant. Unfortunately, after waiting 20 minutes for service, even after we asked for the server to come to our table, we had to leave. The server only visited once to tell us that we should not order the local Lappert’s ice cream because it comes in ½ scoop containers — the kind you get on an airplane. Hmmh. Good advice because if we had paid the US$4.50 price for a half-scoop of ice cream served in an airplane sized individual portion container, we would not have been happy. Incidentally, there is a full service Lappert’s ice cream store in the Shops at Kukui‘ula, less than a 5 minute drive from the Sheraton.
While this is an assessment of the food and beverage experience on Kauai, and not of individual businesses per se, we need to just state that the Sheraton Kauai “Resort” is more like a three-star hotel, on a beach, with some activities, and a couple of great staff members, masquerading as a resort. Enough said.
To us, the PsychoCulinary profile for Kauai appears to be Localist, Ambiance and Gourmet (we can only guess based on our experience, as accurate profiling requires formal research). There are plenty of local products in use that will satisfy those who want to eat and drink what is locally made. Keep in mind that “local” may include products brought from the other Hawaiian Islands and not just those made on Kauai. It is clearly a destination where you’ll need to spend a lot of money to have a good time. There are cheaper experiences of course, but you can’t go cheap for every meal every day and even then, $5 coffees aren’t cheap compared to other destinations. If you’re a Gourmet traveler, you’ll probably be mostly happy, but don’t expect Michelin star-level experiences. This isn’t Paris or New York.
Speaking of coffee, we loved the Puhio area’s Cortado Coffee Bar (no website), owned by surfer dude Skyler. Besides selling great coffee drinks, he uses biodegradable cups and straws, and mixes drinks with coffee ice cubes so when they melt, they don’t dilute the coffee strength. Two gold stars from us.
Kauai scored a 53/100 on our Experience Assessment scale, meaning that you’ll probably visit the destination first for a different reason: golf, a company retreat, honeymoon, or just the sun. The food and drink offerings, while generally good, are secondary to the destination experience.
In step with our new approach, our Tales of the Road column has evolved into abbreviated experience assessments of the destinations we visit. These articles are generally about 1500 words in length and are a mere shadow of the 50+ page assessment that destinations and businesses hire us to perform. Assessments go into much more detail than we have space for here. Readers should note that we use “food” to convey both food and beverages, merely to save space and prevent repetition. Disclaimer: we received no free food, drink, lodging or admissions in exchange for this assessment. Get in touch to order an experience assessment for your destination or business.