Kauai Trip – Part 2: Foodie’s Guide to Kauai
Last month we vacationed on the island of Kauai. It truly is a magically green island with amazing beaches, great hiking, snorkeling, dolphins, sea turtles, breathtaking sunsets/sunrises, and people who made us feel like family! In all seriousness, we were ready to move to the north shore. Well, pack up the pups, and then move to the north shore. Life wouldn’t be the same without our whole little crew. 😉
We truly had an amazing time, and I wrote about my recommendations for where to go and what to do on Kauai in part 1… I included roughly a bazillion photos, while I was at it. Sorrynotsorry.
Today, I am going to recap my favorite foodie finds from the trip!!! I researched like it was my J.O.B. before our trip! Then we met some locals who recommended some total winners as well! We ate well, friends. We ate everything from the most ridiculously awesome donuts and super fresh poke take-out, to a farm-to-table pop-up restaurant meal I will never forget!
Kauai and Hawaii in general might not have always been known for its food, but thanks to a number of renowned mainland chefs migrating to the island and a growing appreciation for local, farm to table cuisine the culinary scene has really kicked it up a notch!
Again, I want to include my disclaimer: Restaurants, hotels, and hospitality businesses work very hard! So, I’m going to keep things positive by ONLY sharing my true favorites. If it wasn’t somewhere that truly stood out, I just won’t include it.
I am going to categorize our finds into the following categories:
- “When in Kauai…” Classics
- And FINALLY, one truly stand-out dining experience!
If there was ever a person predisposed to be a coffee snob it is me. I am of Italian descent and live in Seattle. Italian macchiato espressos are my go-to. And I name the 5 best lattes in Seattle without blinking. But, friends, as different as Italian and Seattle style roasts are, the one thing they have in common is that both are best served in the form of an espresso shot. Americanos, lattes, macchiatos, cortados, con leche. Whatever your espresso drink of choice is, so long as lovely espresso is pulled and the barista knows his or her way around with steamed milk…. You are setting yourself up for success – in Seattle, Portland, Italy, and most of Europe at least.
But Hawaiian coffees are a different story. They are silky smooth, less acidic and bitter, and tend to achieve a lighter roast. We could talk about flavor hints like cocoa or fruity vs. floral…. but that depends a lot on the roast and varietal. I don’t find the flavor profiles of Hawaiian coffees well suited for espresso drinks, personally. Instead, know that you are in for one of the smoooooooothest cups of brewed or cold brewed coffee of your life.
Speaking of cold brew, it was amazing! Hawaiian cold brew – particularly the cold brew at Little Fish Coffee Company has RUINED me for cold brew in Seattle. I have never understood how people can drink coffee 100% black. But with that coffee, I now understand. It was so smooth and without a hint of bitterness! I even opted to go without my go-to splash of almond milk a couple of times!
If you find yourself on the south side of Kauai near Hanapepe or Poipu, you MUST go to one of the Little Fish Coffee Co. locations! (Note: I also hear great things about their breakfast options, but can only personally attest to the coffee!!)
If you have a spare 30-40 minutes on the south side of the island, Kauai Coffee Company is worth the stop! Its a super impressive operations with millions of coffee bushes. No exaggeration. The short self-led walking tour is super informative and scenic. If you care about sustainability, coffee, and the processes involved, don’t skip it!
Their free coffee tasting room allows you to taste all of their many many roasts in one place! When you go, be sure to try as many as you can, but ESPECIALLY try the peaberry! Peaberry coffee – I learned – is when the bean inside the coffee cherry only forms on one side. The peaberries are typically smaller and because of their smaller size, roast more evenly creating the most ridiculously smooth coffee imaginable! I bought a couple bags to take home and am contemplating their coffee of the month club for Christmas gifts to myself and other coffee lovers.
In case you aren’t convinced, we are talking about organic, sustainably harvested, US grown and roasted coffee! I’m telling you, this stuff makes the french press and cold brew of your DREAMS!
On our first trip to Kauai, a guide recommended Aloha Sweet Delites to us and raved about the buttermilk donuts. Its a very unassuming looking location, just off the highway in a stand alone building that looks like an old convenience store. That’s because it is an old convenience store. When you walk inside, most of the women who everyone refers to as Aunties are either slicing, kneading, or making dough. The ones who aren’t are adding more warm treats to the case!
While they have tons of options, get the buttermilk donuts. They are heaven. I doubt that I will ever have a donut that measures up to that tender texture with a not-too-sweet glaze. I have spent the past 6 years comparing every donut to that donut. And in August, I was reminded why. Again, they are HEAVEN!
When we first went 6 years ago, they only made the buttermilk variety certain days of the week. Now, they make them every day. Thank goodness;)
Its true that you can get poke just about anywhere. Gas stations, even. But, not all poke is created equal. Some poke is just ok. And some, like these two outstanding examples are FANTASTIC!
First of all, I am from a seafood family. As a result, I have a couple of rules when it comes to choosing seafood in general. Eat whats fresh and local. If a poke on any Hawaiin island is boasting salmon or halibut, don’t order it. Guess what, salmon and halibut are cold water fish. They don’t come from anywhere near Hawaii. On a side note, a cold water white fish – like halibut – has a mushy when uncooked. Ick! Thats why its served at upscale sushi restaurants.
First of all, eating locally caught fish is more sustainable. Second of all, its likely much fresher – which is extremely important with raw fish! So look for fish that can be caught in Hawaiian waters like ahi, yellowtail, or mahi-mahi.
Makai Sushi had an amazingly flavorful sushi bowl! We both got the Ahi poke bowl which had surprising flavor combos, excellent textural balance, and perfect ratios. Keeping with my preference for hole in the wall spots…. The sushi counter at Makai Sushi is separate from but located inside of a small grocery store in Koloa (near Poipu).
As with most people in Kauai, the people behind the counter were super friendly! Everything was made to order in front of us, and the dude behind the counter had way more skill and experience than he is putting to use making poke bowls. But, heck, they were ah-mazing poke bowls! And GIANT! We took them to the water to watch the sunset! And you better believe, I ate every last bite.
For a more typical poke stop, make sure you stop at the very popular Koloa Fish Market. At lunch time, its packed with locals so the tiny little building will have a line out the door. After a few bites, the reason people are willing to line up becomes clear. This poke is so fresh! They have a few flavors each day to choose from. Our two favorites were the Spicy Ahi and the Korean!
I also picked up a fillet of mahi mahi to make fish tacos that night! My hubs dubbed it the best fish for fish tacos.
Consuming as many fresh Hawaiian grown fruits as you possibly can should almost be a requirement. I think my diet was primarily mango, pineapple, papaya, avocado, and smoothies or smoothie bowls from Aloha Juice Bar in Hanalei! Their special smoothie (the #26…even though its listed after #5 ) quickly became my go-to! Their Acai bowls are also tasty, but that smoothie was just TOO GOOD! The creamy coconut made it super filling while still being refreshing. Since it was 90+ degrees for a few days, it was my lunch of choice for those hot-hot days!
The very popular Kauai Juice Co. has a huge following. So I wasn’t sure what to expect. They have multi-day cleanse packages like lots of places back home and since I was on holiday, a cleanse wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. But, I had heard glowing things about their nut milk concoctions. And was skeptical of staff’s recommendation for the strawberry milk since I was never a strawberry milk fan – even as a kid! But, I was not expecting the super creamy, date sweetened, strawberry beverage I received! With a super creamy hand-pressed almond milk, it was the protein-packed, re-fuel my dehydrated muscles needed that day. If you need to treat your body right after a hot and sweaty day of hiking, snorkeling, tennis, kayaking, etc. pop into Kauai Juice Co.
“When in Kauai…” Classics
There are a few Kauai “musts” that you just gotta do. In my opinion, these are Puka Dog and Lappert’s Hawaii.
Puka Dog (hotdogs: polish sausage or soy-based veggie dog) are served inside a soft warm Hawaiian bread bun. The bread is freshly baked with a hotdog shaped hole in it! They add a garlic lemon sauce, tropical relish (get mango!) and Hawaiian mustard! With their fresh squeezed lemonade, you just gotta stop in at least once on your trip. Not stopping would be like going to Italy and never eating the pizza.
Lappert’s Hawaii is an ice-cream and coffee chain with several locations on Kauai and other islands. With ice cream flavors like caramel coconut macadamia nut, kona coffee, Kauai pie, luau delight, and many others, their ice creams are rich, creamy, and made with premium and – when possible – local ingredients. They get a bonus thumbs up from me for having a number of super delicious and creamy vegan and dairy free choices! I will forever crave their Luau delight sorbet!
Hello, avocado as big as my face! These are available in pretty much every roadside produce stand, farmers’ market, and and grocery store on the island. They are deliciously creamy and flavorful. You are probably doing something wrong, if your Kauai trip doesn’t involve a ridiculous amount of these. Why-oh-why do we not have these beauties in Seattle???
Oasis on the Beach was another tip from a local! We never would have found this spot without their insistence. I am ALWAYS super skeptical of restaurants that appear associated with a hotel. But Oasis is actually an independent establishment that happens to be located in a hotel. They source the produce and juices used in just about everything they make from local organic farms and distilleries on the island! The result is evident in every single drink we tried. If you want to sip the most ridiculously flavorful Mai-Tai of your life, go here! We are talking about a Mai-Tai with local rum and fresh organic pineapple juice! The pineapple juice in this drink is out of this world! Who would have thought; better ingredients make a better drink! 😉
Also, you can’t beat their location right on the water in old Kapa’a!!
The Best Dining Experience
Ok, I have been bursting at the seams to share this experience with you, but I may have had the best overall dining experience of my life in Kauai. And if you even think you are heading to the island in the next couple months, you need to reserve a seat!
I have read about the chef in articles. He has a resume that includes a chemistry degree, culinary school in Europe, and Michelin starred restaurants. He opened Kauai Ono which is available for private events and ……..wait for it….. a pop-up restaurant with 1 or 2 seatings per week! He calls the experience Farm Fish Forage and his passion for locally sourced ingredients guides the entire 5 course tasting menu. This means the dishes will vary based on what is currently in season and available on the island. Even the tables and chairs are made on the island from recycled palates. Get ready to dine on long tables under a giant tent with strings of lights while being served 5 of the most creative, fresh, and flavorful dishes of your life.
Everything was beautifully plated of course and perfectly prepared. Each dish had some sort of unexpected component like a hint of vanilla in a salad dressing or a macadamia nut and avocado pesto atop mahi-mahi, or a pleasantly tart papaya relish atop slow roasted pork to name a few…
Because of the limited number of seats at these meals, many people book months in advance. I unfortunately was not that organized. I put our name on a wait list a few days ahead of the meal in case of a guest cancellation. When my phone buzzed that they opened up additional seats, I had 5 minutes to respond “yes” to the text notification and you better believe my fingers flew typing those 3 little letters! “YES!”
The service was impeccable, the food was extremely memorable, and the setting was beautifully decorated and well appointed for an outdoor meal. Everyone at our end of the very long table was super friendly, and we had a great time getting to know them!
The meal is set up in a BYOB or wine style, but they also partner with a local wine shop who will deliver your wine to the event (chilled, if appropriate!). Because they work closely with the chef and have an idea of what types of things are served, they were able to recommend a bottle that paired excellently! I’m not great at wine pairings for multi-course meals, so their insights about wine and the menu were spot on. The bottle we purchased for the event was light, smooth, and extremely versatile. It paired beautifully with the fish, meat, and vegetable courses! It’s actually one of our new favorite wines.
Little Fish Coffee Company – Such good cold brew!! The original location is in Hanapepe but we frequented the Poipu location while we were on the south side of the island.
Kauai Coffee Company – If you are interested in coffee growing, processing, and the history of coffee on the island of Kauai, I highly recommend doing the self-led walking tour. Make sure you try the peaberry coffee in their tasting room!!
Aloha Sweet Delites – Widely considered the best bakery on the island!! The malasadas are very popular there, but I cannot recommend the buttermilk donut highly enough!! It is 100% worth a trip to this bakery just for that donut! They stay open pretty late at night, too!
Makai Sushi – Highly recommend! Order the ahi bowl! This is a great grab-n-go spot! Great price for the quality and quantity, too. I would have eaten here multiple times if we had been in that area longer!
Koloa Fish Market – Ready-made poke to go! Spicy ahi and Korean poke were standouts! Very fresh and a good selection of other fresh fish as well. Of the ready-made poke we ate on the trip, this was by far the most fresh and flavorful. Cash only!
Aloha Juice Bar – Smoooooothies! Order the #26. Acai bowls are also popular here. This place seems to get mixed reviews based on the staff member, but I didn’t have any issues with quality or consistency.
Kauai Juice Co. – Get the strawberry nut milk! I was skeptical, but whoa! I also tried their Gingersnap elixir and it tasted like Christmas. I am curious to try more of their juices next time we visit – one is called “Rainbow Unicorn Juice” for crying out loud!
Puka Dog – You just gotta try it at least once. Order the hand squeezed lemonade with your hot dog. We are fans of this combo: mango relish, Hawaiian mustard, and spicy garlic lemon sauce. I always get the veg dog, and the hubs always gets the polish.
Lappert’s Hawaii – Great selection of ice creams and sorbets made with premium ingredients. Multiple locations on Kauai and other islands. If you are dairy free: get the “Luau Delight.” The coconut makes it so creamy!
Oasis on the Beach – We both agree, this was the best Mai-Tai ever. They source the juices and other organic ingredients used in their drinks from the island, and it makes a giant difference! I had another really creative and tasty drink as well with a locally produced smoky chili powder on the rim, that was super good, but those Mai-Tais really stole the show!
Kauai Ono – HIGHLY RECOMMEND! The BEST overall dining experience of my life. Pop-up restaurant is 1-2 times per week in Princeville.
Princeville Wine Market – The staff is extremely knowledgeable both about suggesting wines that pair well with the Kauai Ono menu. Their bottles can be delivered to the meal and make for a seamless dining experience.