I’d never set foot in Hawai’i before our vacation there last week, so we spent a lot of time getting oriented and didn’t really start nailing the culinary tourism until the fourth or fifth day there, after which point I found a bunch of spots worth recommending. I’ll get to the food in a moment, but first some quick thoughts on touring Kauai and Oahu in general:
* Kauai was gorgeous; we spent five days there at the Marriott Beach Club in Lihue (everything was via Rewards Points), which has a great pool, including a kiddie pool with a slide, and a beach on a large, calm lagoon. The rooms were nothing special at all, and the food all over the hotel was overpriced. The biggest lesson for us was that it was worthwhile to rent a car at least for a day or two – we drove to Waimea Canyon, also called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific; and Kalalau Point, which overlooks the Napali coast and the northwest shore of the island. The car also allowed us to tour the Kauai Coffee plantation, visit the Koloa Rum Company (and buy a bottle of their dark – pricey at $30, but smooth with a bright vanilla finish), and do a little more shopping.
* The big shocker on Oahu was the traffic – I can see why there’s a local push for a light-rail line into the western suburbs, because traffic on I-H1 (an “interstate” highway) is pretty brutal, and there seemed to be no enforcement of HOV lane restrictions. We stayed out at Ko Olina, so the car was a necessity, and also drove to Sea Life Park so my wife could swim with a dolphin, which was a longtime wish of hers. I can understand people who skip Oahu entirely and fly straight to Maui or Kauai, though – the scenic parts of Oahu are a hike from Honolulu.
I’ve got two food spots to recommend on Oahu, plus one that’s great if you’re up for the price. The Whole Ox Deli isn’t actually a deli but is more of a lunch counter with picnic tables, and reminded me in many ways of our favorite Arizona haunt, The Hillside Spot, for the focus on sourcing local ingredients and making everything from scratch. The Whole Ox got its start via Kickstarter, which raised funds for a smoker that they use to smoke pork shoulder for their pulled pork sandwich, although I ended up getting the porchetta sandwich with cracklins, mustardy mayo, and caramelized fennel, everything in perfect balance on a soft baguette. The fried potatoes are like grown-up french fires, skin-on red potatoes halved or quartered, either steamed or parboiled (I assume) and then fried till brown and crispy all over. This was absolutely worth fighting our way into downtown Honolulu to visit.
So was Downtown Coffee, which is located in the Fort Street Mall, a tiny shop run by a husband-and-wife team who roast their coffees every Saturday and sell a handful of artisan pastries including a matcha torte with bamboo charcoal crust that defied any expectation I’d had – it’s sweet but subtle, without the bitter grassy taste I associate with matcha. As for the coffee, I had a cup of their downtown blend and liked it enough to buy a 7 ounce bag of their beans to try at home as espresso, as well as a smaller bag of their lighter Maui Mokka peaberry roast, on the owner’s suggestion. He was kind enough to spend about 10-15 minutes walking me through all their roasts, showing me samples of five different ones to discuss their qualities for espresso, and even gave me a sample of another drip coffee for comparison’s sake. I’ve already finished off the Maui Mokka, which produced a very smooth shot with a strong crema, a little less assertively acidic than the lighter African roasts I’ve gotten from Intelligentsia.
The one pricey meal we had on Oahu was the result of me being a company man and visiting Disney’s Aulani resort to try their dinner buffet at Makahiki. The resort is gorgeous inside, reminiscent in style of Disney’s Polynesian Resort but more updated with more open space inside. I generally avoid buffets, with two exceptions – Las Vegas and Disney, where the quality is higher and the turnover is faster. Makahiki’s buffet was very broad, with a raw fish table that included poke, sashimi, and oysters on the half-shell; cooked shellfish, including red snow crab legs; a wide selection of meat and vegetable dishes, including Hawaiian purple sweet potatoes both steamed and fried tempura-style; and a dessert table that had molten chocolate cakes that were more molten than cake, making it a great dipping sauce for the fresh berries on the next table. For a buffet, it was great. It also runs $46 per adult and $21 per child, so even with my employee discount we still dropped over $100, including two drinks and tip. They did have a full selection of local beers from Kona, including the Big Wave Golden Ale which had a very pronounced citrus flavor and virtually no bitterness.
Moving over to Kauai, the best meal option at the Marriott is the overpriced Duke’s, which earns raves for a salad bar that is really just a nice salad bar. Their fish was very fresh, and I liked their basmati rice pilaf, but the “hula pie” dessert is incredibly overrated, probably more famous for its size than its taste. We fared much better heading across Rice St to the Feral Pig, a fairly new spot with no ambience but amazing food, including house-smoked bacon and pulled pork and a solid selection of local beers as well. They hand-cut their French fries and incorporate pork belly into a number of dishes, including two specials I ordered – the potstickers, made by hand and fried just until hot through without drying the pork out, and the special burger with half Kauai-raised beef and half pork belly as well as bacon on top. I asked how they cured the bacon, and the owner said he used a recipe from one of Michael Ruhlman’s books, although they don’t use sodium nitrite, so the bacon is grey rather than pink and has a porkier flavor. Everything was excellent and it was about half of what we’d pay for inferior food at the hotel.
Lappert’s is a local ice cream chain with four locations on Kauai and two on other islands. Try the Kauai Pie, Kona coffee ice cream with fudge swirl, coconut flakes, and macadamia nuts. I never tried another flavor because why bother. Next to the Lappert’s in Hanapepe is a new-ish looking taco stand called Paco’s Tacos, which makes outstanding carnitas, slow-cooked but crispy on the outside, probably deep-fried once it’s done cooking but so, so good. The only disappointment was the guacamole, made fresh but lacking salt and acid for me. It’s a good one-two combo if you remember to save room for ice cream.
I had an interesting twist on poke at the Hanalei Dolphin restaurant in Hanalei, down towards Poipu, near a shop my wife wanted to visit. Two kinds of raw fish (one was ahi) and some cooked prawns were tossed in a coconut-lemongrass sauce that threatened to overpower the fish but never quite got there, served over a bed of mixed greens with some root-vegetable chips on the side (taro and purple sweet potato, I think) if you’d rather not use a fork. I only had poke three times on the trip, never at a truly local spot like a good fish market, so I can only say that this had the best overall flavor but I can’t speak to its authenticity.
My final recommendation is the Saturday morning farmers’ market at Kauai Community College, right near Lihue and next door to the Koloa Rum Company. The fresh fruit there was out of sight – large, juicy starfruits with orange flesh and a subtle sweet-citrus flavor; papayas with reddish-orange flesh that were also bursting with sugar; plus huge jackfruits, apple bananas, pineapple, and more than we could hope to try. We did buy some butterscotch roasted macadamia nuts from the Kauai Nut Roasters and jams from Monkeypod, but had to pass on the desserts offered by one vendor whose name I can’t find – she had a lilikoi (passion fruit) custard that was absolutely incredible but would have spoiled in the car since we were headed out to the Canyon.
One more note – several readers recommended a noodle shop called Hamura Saimin in downtown Lihue, but after talking to several locals, I passed. Every person I asked said the shop uses too much MSG in their broth, and that the place isn’t very clean, which is about the one non-food-related variable that I care about when deciding where to eat. I also read a few reviews that mentioned the use of a Spam knockoff in some of their soups, and I won’t touch that stuff, even if it is a local tradition. Meat doesn’t come from cans.