Want to feel like a local when you travel to Kaua’i? Start by identifying the restaurants that excite those who live there.
Kaua’i, one of the Hawaiian Islands, is a land of “bests.” It has the best waterfalls, the best outdoor markets, the best views, and the best attention to fresh and local that we’ve seen anywhere. One of the reasons for the latter is simply “because they have to.” Importing food is expensive, yet land is limited, so restaurant operators are basically forced to figure out how to make the best of what they have.
The Best Of The Best
Two things stand out with the restaurants we found during our time in Kaua’i. One is that there are some amazing entrepreneurs working in the restaurant scene—with attention from everyone from the Food Network to the everyday tourist. The other is the flavors they are able to pull out of simple ingredients. Gluten-free items are available at most of these locations.
Let’s take a look at the restaurants that caught our attention.
The first place you visit when in a new place is often the most memorable. Combine that with great tasting food, an interesting selection, and, possibly, a little jet lag, and you get a food experience that sets the tone for the rest of your trip.
That’s how we felt at Hamura Saimin. It’s not far from the Lihu’e airport, making it convenient whether you are coming or going. We walked into the unprepossessing restaurant, where the line forms at the back of the restaurant against the wall. There’s almost always a line, so don’t worry—you won’t make others feel uncomfortable, nor will they hurry. If anything, they’re thinking, “I have a seat and you don’t!”
Standing there gives you a chance to study both the menu and the food as it comes out to those who are seated. The tempura is tempting, but the secret to getting your second wind is the saimin. A small offers plenty, so unless you’re really hungry, don’t go bigger than the regular size. The Specialty is where you should start—it’s full of great ingredients and allows you to get the best of what the road-side stand has to offer.
Top it off with Lilikoi Chiffon Pie for a true taste of the island. You’ll never thing of broth bowls the same way.
When you walk into Sam’s, it’s an “oh, my” experience—from the ocean view all the way to the food. One whole side of the restaurant is open to the beach, giving you an elevated view of palm trees, waves, sunsets, and pleasant gazebos. The views practically command you to pay attention to the fresh fish on the menu, including Ahi Poke Nachos, Kauai Shrimp al Ajillo, or the Fish & Chips made with beer-battered fresh island fish.
We made it to Sam’s for brunch—one of the best times to go for a laid back, enjoy-the-view experience. The house made Banana Macadamia Nut Pancakes (with coconut syrup) were delicious, and paired beautifully with the local seared catch of the day, something called “opah,” and a build-your-own omelet.
Sam’s offers great food, open walls, and a beachfront location. A definite Hawaii experience.
Known locally simply as “Hemingway’s,” this restaurant is all about mindful eating and healthy food. What’s more, they aren’t afraid to take the time and attention to make it right, even if it means plates come out as they are ready.
Let me repeat that. Plates come out as they are ready—meaning they don’t sit under a lamp waiting for someone else’s plate to be prepared. You get it right away, and you get it right. That includes specialty drinks, like the memorable mocha latte we tried. It’s all what they call “real food.”
The restaurant opened in late 2011, and is a farm-to-table concept created by the daughter of a chef and restaurant owner who grew up in the business of food. The owners have a farm that feeds the restaurant with fresh organic herbs and more; other ingredients are locally sourced as much as possible. Pair that with awesome ambiance and you have a winner—quite possibly our favorite of the many places we ate while in Hawaii.
During our visit they were taking contributions to the Quolmus project (find it on their Instagram), where people were asked to envision their ideal world of the future. The engagement offered even more “mindfulness” during the meal, as we pondered the future of food, and left our contributions to the project, as well.
Going to Duke’s is sort of a rite-of-passage for anyone heading to Hawaii. It’s a beautiful setting, both in the main dining room and the Barefoot Bar, and home to many memories for travelers over the years.
The restaurant named after Duke Kahanamoku, Olympic gold medalist who is known as the “father of modern surfing.” While this location overlooks Nawiliwili Bay and the Hoary Head Mountains, it is part of a family of restaurants across the Hawaiian islands.
At Duke’s you can get fresh Hawaiian fish served in a variety of styles—as a sandwich, fish taco, fish and chips, or simply grilled. They also show off the variety of Kaua’i with menu items such as Ahi Poke, Korean Street Tacos, and Huli Huli Chicken. The upstairs dining room is where you can get steaks, ribs, seafood, and Duke’s famous salad bar. However, our recommendation is the more casual atmosphere found downstairs, where you can get a decent handcrafted burger made with island beef, bacon, bleu cheese, caramelized onions, and a tasty mango bbq sauce.
Fans of Chef Roy Yamaguchi know that this Hawaiian chef believes in creating flavors that showcase his state. The combination of flavor, service and a commitment to community gives you a great restaurant experience. This restaurant is located at the same site as a Wednesday evening farmers market, the Kaua’i Culinary Market—so plan on ending your day there.
We met one of the chefs who works here, and—while we couldn’t fit in the full experience—his enthusiasm and pride in the restaurant was definitely catching. If you can go, ask for Carla’s husband!
It’s an unassuming restaurant with an unassuming name, but it says all you need to know—they have really good Korean barbecue! We went specifically hunting bulgogi, after some of our team sampled it for the first time at the Kaua’i Kimchee LLC stand at the Kaua’i Community College farmers market in Lihu’e.
Korean BBQ Restaurant did not disappoint with their bulgogi, called out on the menu as BBQ beef. We also sampled the Hawaiian style kalbi, a short rib, the meat jun, and the tempura. One of the sides is a unique potato-macaroni salad that was a nice balance to the abundance of meat.
Now, to see if we can conquer a bulgogi recipe…
There is a feeling that Chicken In A Barrel is ubiquitous across the island, with four locations on the small island of Kaua’i. However, given the fact that locals avoid traffic whenever possible and don’t stray too far from their corner of the island, it just means everyone can stop for some pretty delicious BBQ at any time.
That includes Christmas day, when the crowds were lined out into the street and signs were beckoning more in with the offer of “free food.” We were on our way to the restaurant where we’d made reservations, and assumed the generous gesture was meant for those in need. Shows what we know.
We went back the next day, thinking we’d support a place that supported the community like that—and sort of curious about how something cooked in a barrel and sold from a rickety outdoor stand would taste. Turns out the free food is an every-year gift from the owners, who apparently have a connection with Calvary Chapel, known for its early support of contemporary Christian music during the “Jesus Movement.” The website makes it clear that Chicken In A Barrel has “one intent; which is to spread the love of God and this extraordinary culinary joy.”
And, it wasn’t just for the needy. Not by a long shot. As we gathered our sampler plates to go, full to the brim with really, really good chicken, beef, pork, and baby back ribs, we learned that one of the visitors taking advantage of the free meal was none other than Mark Zuckerberg—yes, he of Facebook fame. We saw the photo to prove it.
As we left, we noticed the large tip jar was pretty full. Here’s hoping Mr. Zuckerberg did his part.
At Gaylord’s, we found the best of history, beautiful setting, good food, and an atmosphere that makes you feel like you are a guest at a long-ago plantation. Perhaps that’s because it was, indeed, a sugar plantation—one of the relics of Hawaiian history that has managed to reinvent itself into something both contemporary and educational.
Our experience here was on a holiday, so we opted for the brunch tables that were replete with mounds of shrimp, oysters, prime rib, and ham, plus all the salads, sides and more desserts than we even tried to count. The good thing was it was all you could eat, and those desserts were offered in bite-sized amounts so it took a bit of tasting to get to a whole piece of cake. That’s what we told ourselves, anyway.
The setting offered a garden view, live music, and a gazebo effect that kept you protected from Hawaii’s scattered showers while still outside. The service was excellent—definitely a place to go for a special occasion or just to enjoy one of their rum tastings or tours.
The resort also has some lovely and unique shops carrying handmade and island merchandise—a great place to collect a souvenir or two. No matter what, you’ll want to walk through the English Tudor style mansion, which houses the restaurant in courtyard. It was part of what was the most expensive home of its time (early 1990s) ever built in Kaua’i, commissioned by Gaylord Parke Wilcox and his wife, Ethel.
If you can, make time for the narrated train tour of the Kilohana Plantation before or after going to Gaylord’s. You can even turn it into a lunch tour, with a boxed lunch and freshly-picked pineapple served between the train ride and a walking tour of the tropical forest.
We’ll confess: we had shave ice at least three times during our stay in Kaua’i. But who’s counting? We loved this location for its creativity, its flavor, and the totally surfer dude feel.
They willingly explained the difference between shave ice and Hawaiian style shave ice, which has sweetened condensed milk added to it (and is kind of a game changer). They also have creative names, like the tribute to Bob Marley, made with pineapple, cherry, lime. We sampled the espresso, we sampled various combinations both plain and Hawaiian style . . . and the winner was the Kaua’i Sunset, full of pineapple, mango, cherry, and the ever-present lilikoi (also known as POG, or passionfruit). That doesn’t mean there was a loser, of course. Any one of the combos was better than any snow cone we’ve ever experienced! Tip: Let it melt a bit and use the straw for a delicious drink.
Oh, and they say that there are fewer and fewer “degrees of separation” among people these days. As we ordered our shave ice and chatted with the proprietor, telling him we were from Missouri, a voice from one of the picnic tables called out, “You are from Missouri? I am from Missouri, too!” Two minutes later we had it narrowed down to the town, street, and block where he ran his own restaurant, and within two weeks we were sitting there eating at Sam’s Southern Eatery.
Good food creates a small world.
Photos for Hamura Saimin by Kay Logsdon. Additional story photos by Paul K. Logsdon.
Find links to other stories from our visit to Hawaii here.
Partial promotional benefits provided by Tasting Kaua’i.