Affectionately referred to as “The Garden Isle” of Hawaii, the island of Kauai is a bit of an emerald anomaly. Although it may not be as popular as its sister islands Oahu and Maui, Kauai is the oldest geologically and famed for its breathtaking scenic wonders such as Waimea Canyon as well as the rugged 3,000-foot-high mountain cliffs that rise from the ocean bed to form the Napali Coast.
With an abundance of navigable hiking trails, golden sandy beaches and rivers to kayak on, you’ll need some sustenance and Hawaiians know where to get good food.
Whether you’re a tourist or a local, these are the best food experiences and dishes the island has to offer.
Tiffany Leigh is a Toronto-based food, travel and science writer.
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1. Pono Market's Spicy Ahi Tuna Poke Bowl
Located on the east side of the island in Kapaa, not far from the famed 10-mile Royal Coconut Coast (once reserved for Hawaiian royalty), is Pono Market, a local favorite that has been around to satiate growling tummies since 1968. The Kubota family has always run operations, with its third generation owner Robert Kubota currently at the helm. The shop initially started out as a meat market and transitioned into a full service grocery store. With the state of the economy and competition from big stores, they recently turned their focus to fish and evolved into a busy, quick-service specialty lunch plate spot.
One of the biggest sellers is their poke bowl. Their Spicy Ahi poke is a simple mixture of Sriracha sauce, mayo, slivers of white onion and spring onions—all delicately tossed with fresh red tuna and placed on top of seasoned sushi rice. Grab a table outside and soak up sun with your meal.
Photo by Tiffany Leigh
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2. Wailua Shave Ice
The quaint town of Wailua boasts a bevy of artisan and local shops. One of these is a shave ice spot that has quickly garnered a loyal following from the locals. Open for about two years now, Wailua Shave Ice prides itself on in-housemade syrups, and sourcing local ingredients; moreover, there are no additives in any of their creations. Menu items reflect a Hawaiian state of mind. If you're overwhelmed with the choices, the best bet is Love Potion #9. It features vanilla bean milk, strawberry puree and fresh cut strawberries on top. It tastes like a marriage between sweet vanilla ice cream and a strawberry milkshake.
And perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this sweet spot? One of the owner is chef Brandon Baptiste, a former protégé of chef Thomas Keller. After working in California and NYC (at French Laundry and Per Se, respectively), he returned to his home island of Kauai with a desire to support his community; as a result, he opened Wailua Shave Ice with his partner and friend, Josh Tamaoka.
Photo by Tiffany Leigh
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3. Waipa Foundation's Farm Tours and Dinners
Hanalei is located on the north shore of Kauai and is legendary for its green mountains and acres of taro fields ("kalo" in Hawaiian). The region has plenty of fertile land—primarily volcanic soil that is lush in nutrients and provides the growing power for crops in this region. The Waipa Foundation has taken advantage of this land for its numerous endeavors. For the uninitiated, this nonprofit organization strives to empower and support its north shore community by growing, teaching and learning about crops grown on the 1600 acres of land. In additional to providing food, staff educate and mentor youth by teaching local values and lifestyles while working the land together. If visitors would like to support these initiatives, they are welcome to help make poi (mashed taro root) every Thursday morning. It is a traditional staple in many Hawaiian and Polynesian diets, and although it requires strenuous effort to make, it is ultimately rewarding; volunteers get an immersion into farm life and opportunities to engage in meaningful conversation with native Hawaiians.
Another experience visitors shouldn't miss out on is the He 'Aina Ola Farm Tours (which translates to "A Nourishing Feast"). Guests receive guided tours of Waipa's farm in the late afternoon, traverse the grounds and learn about how Waipa creates sustainable food systems for the community-at-large. The event culminates in a sit-down supper that features live music. The local Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villa's executive chef Eric Purugganan takes the produce from the farm and creates a three-course meal right in Waipa's Laukupu Hale Imu (an open-air veranda overlooking the farm). The dinner series (held on the second and fourth Monday of each month from 4:30 p.m.) is a newly launched collaborative project between the two organizations; the aim is to create more awareness about Waipa and spread the message of how to "live local and eat local" better.
Photo by Tiffany Leigh
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4.Ho`opulapula Haraguchi Rice Mill and Taro Farm Tour
The town of Hanalei is set against the backdrop of the misty, Namolokama Mountain. The Hanalei River bisects the town and access is via a one-lane steel truss bridge that was built in 1912. It still remains the only gateway to Hanalei. The region is perhaps most famed for housing the only remaining rice mill left in Hawaii. Due to the rice industry's collapse in the 1960s, the mill is not in operation anymore; however, it remains an important cultural treasure and museum (listed on the National Register of Historic Sites) to teach visitors, locals and school children about Hawaii's agricultural past. In fact, for over 30 years, the Haraguchi family has strived to provide free school tours and educational programs to its youth across the island.
Dating back to the 1800s, six generations of the Haraguchi family have owned, and continue to own both the rice mill (museum) and the taro farm. Guests learn about the importance of taro in the diets of Hawaiian people, and its many uses today and as a traditional Polynesian food source.
Visitors receive intimate tours hosted by Lyndsey Haraguchi-Nakayama, a fifth generation farmer who has worked in the fields since the age of six. Currently, she is the owner and operator of both properties. Tours last approximately 3-4 hours and begin in the morning with hands-on activities at their 30-acre wetland taro farm. There, she explains the hardships and challenges of being a farmer including flash floods and invasive species of apple snails, which can easily devastate taro stalks. But it is evident that she has a deep love and appreciation of this land that provides sustenance for the community.
At the Rice Mill, Lyndsey walks visitors through the process of harvesting the grains on machinery dating back to the 1830s.
A picnic luncheon awaits guests upon their return from the mill and farm; it is prepared by the staff at Hanalei Taro & Juice Co.. founded in 2000 as a "value-added venture" of the family farm. The locals clamor for the hearty Hawaiian lunch plates that source ingredients directly from the taro farms to highlight the quality and freshness. The choices include Pork Lau Lau (steamed taro leaves and pork) Hawaiian Plate Lunch, Chicken Lau Lau (steamed taro leaves and chicken) Hawaiian Plate Lunch and Kalua Pig (Hawaiian pulled pork) Hawaiian Plate Lunch.
Photo by Tiffany Leigh
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5. Chilli Pepper Chicken at North Shore General Store
Princeville is named after beloved Crown Prince Albert Kamehameha's royal family visit to the area in 1860. Prince Albert was son of King Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma; he was also the godson of Queen Victoria. Today, locals and tourists alike enjoy the 9,000 acres of land. It has become prime real estate for vacation homes and condos on the north shore of the island. The tightly woven community is known for hospitality and great food. For instance, a gem tucked behind a Chevron Gas Station called North Shore General Store has been serving up affordable comfort food since 2006.
Although the setting you're having a meal in is a gas station, make no mistake that the food here is top notch. Darron White, general managing partner, is no stranger to quality, having owned numerous restaurants in Texas before making the jump to Kauai for new opportunities. All menu items use fresh and locally sourced ingredients; for instance, burgers and steaks are made of North Shore Kauai Beef, which comes from a neighboring business down the road. Cattle are grass-fed and locally raised; the meat contains no antibiotics, steroids or hormones, which is impressive, especially for gas station digs. Even more astonishing is the range of calzones and pizzas, made with homemade dough no less, and baked in a brick oven.
But perhaps the claim to fame here at this no frills eatery is the Chilli Pepper Chicken Plate Lunch. Dark meat is breaded with seasoned flour, deep-fried in non-hydrogenated, non-trans fat oil, and sprinkled with chili pepper flakes. It sits in a pool of dark, mahogany, chili pepper sauce comprised of soy, ginger, sugar and other special spices. It comes with two mountainous scoops of sticky rice. Warning: You'll require a nap after this filling meal.
Photo by Tiffany Leigh