I spent some brilliant days -- and the first three of five installations in my Hawaiian series -- exploring Oahu. But based on what every traveler I'd ever met had told me, I knew it could only get better with Kauai. This time around, let's talk the restaurant scene on Kauai – next time, I'll feature its hotels and drink.
But first, the ugly: traffic jams are jarring shocks on the island's east side near Lihue, particularly in Kapaa. One-lane roads at a dead stop along stetches of strip malls are downright irritating. I almost missed my flight home when it took one hour to go 10 miles from Kapaa to Lihue Airport (the day before the same route took 10 minutes).
But on the South and North shores there was little to no traffic. Even in Lihue, where the main airport is based, mountains and fields surround the tiny town. Kauai is imminently more laid back than the already relaxed Oahu -- a distinction I savored, even if Honolulu is clearly the leader in food and dining.
A helicopter ride over the famed Napali Coast and around the entirety of Kauai is nothing short of magical. Though you will spend roughly $350 per person, it's worth it. It cost $250 when we payed in cash at Inter-island Helicopters – whose friendly, fun staff and pilot gave us a wonderful, hour-long tour, just take note: those shiny, red copters on the website are not the ones we rode, ours was more like an old army helicopters, with open air, no doors -- terrifying to take off in, but one quickly acclimates to the feeling.
You'll need a helicopter ride to take in the Napali Coast, sans blisters
I can honestly say this was one of the best travel adventures of my life, and I’ve traveled to five continents. Views are breathtaking, yes, but getting up close and personal is the real thrill.
On a less windy day, our pilot flew close into craters and mountain niches, through the gorgeous Waimea Canyon, over blowholes and coffee plantations, and along the coastline. We covered the entire island, smelled rain from the highest peaks, and took in the pristine blue of the ocean.
Whatever you do on Kauai, do this. Next time I will try an ocean boat ride, the only other way to actually see the Napali Coast without hiking it (an arduous journey meant for the hardcore and even then, limited paths mean you can't hike it in its entirety). I'm sure a boat ride can be full of thrills, but it can't give the all-encompassing view of the entire island you can see via air.
But no matter how you see it, see Kauai at least once in your life. It’s incredible how a tiny island can enchant. Even for a big city girl like myself, Kauai had a way of wrapping my days up in its mellow spell.
Mark's Place, Lihue:
Mark's Place musubi, for those who like their Hawaiian snacks authentic
My favorite plate lunch of the trip, Mark’s Place is a true local's gem. It’s a clean hole-in-the-wall with creative daily specials and desserts and salads on top of traditional loco moco, beef stew, and chicken katsu.
Specials were not just ultra-fresh, they were gourmet. I loved a dish of blackened mahi mahi ($8.95) gently drizzled in a lilikoi (passion fruit) mustard sauce, served over quinoa and sauteed spinach. A green salad in papaya seed dressing accompanied the fish.
At that price, the dish was a steal, and you'd expect it to shine in any restaurant setting – only you order it as take-out in an industrial neighborhood frequented by blue collar workers, with whom you'll be sharing one outdoor picnic table. Mark's Place's simple, fresh musubi ($2.25), particularly the teriyaki beef variety, makes a fine snack.
Kountry Kitchen, Kapaa:
Kountry Kitchen was my top breakfast on Kauai. Packed with locals, my eyes widened at the sight of what must have been the most massive pancakes I’ve seen (and I’ve had some gigantic ones). Good thing I saw them before ordering two -- it’s a mere $6-8 for two pancakes, which could feed a few tourist between them.
Macadamia nut pancakes are a popular pick at Kountry Kitchen, but I couldn’t resist the day’s special: Elvis pancakes. Yes, this means peanut butter and bananas, the King’s beloved combo. Accompanied with awesome housemade coconut syrup, they were perfection.
Shrimp Station, Waimea:
If you’re going to Waimea, don’t miss this classic shrimp window with outdoor picnic tables, reminiscent of the shrimp trucks and window fronts on Oahu’s North Shore. Shrimp Station serves killer coconut shrimp, plus beer-battered, garlic, or sweet chili garlic.
A basket of coconut shrimp was juicy and savory with ginger-papaya tartar sauce. Our pace was slow while we lingered at the picnic tables in this sleepy little town. Quintessential southern Kauai.
Koloa Fish Market, Koloa:
An authentic, plate lunch take-out only shop, Koloa Fish Market is beloved in southern Kauai. It serves heaps of Kalua pork, lau lau (shredded pork wrapped in a taro leaf), and all kinds of poke, from raw ahi to octopus. Ordering food and taking it back to our Grand Hyatt porch with a bottle of wine was a pleasure.
Though cheap and plentiful, I found Koloa's flavors not particularly impressive. I’m crazy about fish (raw, cooked, any which way), but this is no pristine poke experience. Fresh as it is, I find eating at similar hole-in-the-walls around Hawaii, authenticity seems to mean hunks of seafood drowning in oil -- well-prepared but lacking that ultra-fresh, of-the-sea taste. I find plenty to love in local Hawaiian cooking, but personally find more flavor and finesse with raw fish in other culinary styles.
Salty, fall-apart pork (in lau lau or Kalua styles) was better than the seafood but not as satisfying for me as pulled pork barbecue from the South.
Papalani Gelato, Koloa:
It’s no Italian gelato or San Francisco ice cream (à la Humphry or Bi-Rite), but Papalani Gelato is organic, with straightforward island flavors like lilikoi, mango, papaya, and macadamia nut. It’s the go-to local ice cream shop (as opposed to sugary, lower quality cream at the shop a couple doors down – I tried both).
Mermaids Cafe, Kapaa:
Mermaids Cafe is about one thing: ahi nori wraps ($9.45). Basically a giant burrito made with a green tortilla with a layer of nori, or seawood, they come stuffed with seared ahi tuna tossed in wasabi cream, pickled ginger, and rice.
This hippie-spirited walk-up counter isn’t quite what I’d call gourmet – there is something slightly amateur about the food (are things cooked in burnt oil?) But the cafe does bring fresh, vegetarian-oriented food and hippie clientele to the island -- and those factors hardly mask its Hawaiian spirit. Plus, you can fill up for $10.
22 North, Lihue:
Maybe the best meal I had in Kauai, and certainly the most creative, 22 North is on the grounds of Kilohana Plantation. Kilohana, if you squint past the touristy jewelry shops and such, is among the last remaining glimpses of the sugar glory days of Hawaii. The 1930s spirit prevails, lazy breezes blowing through the original house (where a few rooms still showcase '30s decor), while whiffs of whole pig roasting underground in expectation of a luau intoxicate.
Tourist trappings aside, I enjoyed an hour and a half ride on the plantation's 1939 Whitcomb diesel engine train, taking in 50 varieties of fruits and vegetables growing alongside the tracks that ran through the working farm. The best part was stopping to feed bread to a herd of pigs.
Afterwards, I sat in the courtyard of the plantation house for a meal at 22 North. Farm fresh is no exaggeration here -- many ingredients come straight from the surrounding fields.
The playful, contemporary hand given to many a dish is reason enough to dine here. But 22 North's cocktails were the best I had on Kauai. Intriguingly, one was unlike any other I’ve had before – a rare occurrence for me anywhere, much less in a region not known for cocktails. Blue Rhum ($8) impressed me with its light rum, home-grown Kilohana pineapple, lime, and a stunning frond of African blue basil – it was aromatic and sophisticated.
The rest were a mixed bag. The Paloma Fresca ($8) was unable to find a harmony between its tequila and grapefruit, but it benefited from local citrus and Kiawe honey. Fried Green Tomatoes ($11) gave a nod to the Southern United States with tomatoes from the farm encrusted in cornmeal, served with a romaine salad in a Maui onion buttermilk chive dressing.
22 North's burger ($11) was satisfyingly juicy, made with local meat (rotates between beef, lamb, and veal). The cubano sandwich ($9) was pulled pork and house-cured ham laden with homemade pickles and mustard. The restaurant serve gougères ($5) made with fennel honey butter, baccala fritters ($7) with macadamia nut romesco, and sesame-crusted tuna ($28) poached in carrot, ginger, and white wine with a “forbidden rice cake.”
Dessert (all $8) is another highlight here. Local fruit pie benefits from even more home-grown produce, served warm, enclosed in a surprisingly French pie crust that was flaky and buttery, and topped with a scoop of Kauai’s own Lappert’s vanilla ice cream.
22 North has four different “adult floats” ($12) all made with ice cream and beer or spirits -- oddly delightful. Though I’ve had beer floats before, I've never had one with the refreshing tang of the coconut porter float made with Maui Brewing Co. coconut porter and toasted coconut.
All around, this meal was the most uniquely satisfying of my Kauai visit, and the one that best represents local bounty.
Tidepools at the otherworldly Grand Hyatt captures the magic of its setting in a Disneyland-esque way. It almost feels fake: tiki torches light up a lagoon as you dine under open-air, thatched-roof huts listening to frogs croak. Idyllic.
Certainly the menu reads old school – and there is a dated air about the place, but there are culinary surprises that hold the spell of the setting. It’s $32-55 for entrees and a more reasonable $9-15 for appetizers. You’re right: in the scheme of fine restaurants, it’s not worth that high price tag. But you’re in Kauai and this is one of the best meals you’ll have there, in an environment that helps that cost go down more easily.
Salads (like $9 Manoa lettuce with a creamy Maui onion-garlic dressing and shaved manchego cheese) and sashimi starters (like $15 ahi with Hawaiian hearts of palm and shiso leaf) are fresh and pleasing. Brandt Farms organic prime NY strip steak ($48) is shockingly juicy when cooked medium-rare, and packed with flavor. The other surprise is the crowd-pleasing macadamia nut mahi mahi ($32): lightly encrusted in nuts over coconut jasmine rice in a tropical rum buerre blanc. It tastes of Hawaii: redolent of the sea, gently sweet, with a nutty goodness.
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