We hadn’t been to the Islands in a year and a half. In that time, I missed Hawaii and its food, not having had it even on the mainland since our last island visit. I looked forward to the current vacation in Kauai and Oahu, not only to get Hawaiian sun but to get some serious local food (or grinds, as they say).
Since we flew in on Hawaiian Airlines, I thought I’d include a review of their refreshment hospitality. On two previous flights, uninspired was what I thought of their breakfasts, which were cobbled together from nothing but pre-packaged items you could get from any grocery store. So, it was a surprise that Thursday’s breakfast was at least interesting. The main course was a warm sandwich, an egg patty pocketed in a kind of lavash bread with bits of kim chee. Included in the meal were a small bowl of fresh fruit, a good cup of joe and a cookie from Honolulu Cookie. Prior to landing at Honolulu Airport, a snack of Maui potato chips and a cup of mai tai (even if poured from a bottle) was a nice aloha gesture. A step forward for Hawaiian Airlines, and I hope it continues.
Hamura Saimin (Lihue)
From Honolulu, we boarded an island hop to Lihue Airport and headed straight for dinner. Hamura is a true mom-and-pop restaurant, tucked away pretty much hidden from view and frequented by locals. There are no tables inside, only counters that look like they’ve been around since they first opened. The saimin here has long been a popular item, especially one called Special (saimin with the works—noodles, boiled egg, wonton, chashu, kamaboko, chopped ham, green onions and vegies). A mix-up with our waitress got me the Regular instead (sans chashu, egg and wonton), but I didn’t mind since the broth and noodles were important. Hawaiians seem to like their noodles soft. The tasty, somewhat salty broth tasted of shrimp shells. A pretty fair bowl of saimin. (☆☆½)
Beef and chicken barbecue sticks were a bit of a challenge to chew. (☆☆½)
But the truth is, the real reason we came here was to taste Hamura’s legendary lilikoi chiffon pie. It lived up to its reputation, but I gave it a mark down for barely tasting of passionfruit, which struck me as odd for such a strongly flavored fruit. Still, it was supremely light, meringue-y with just the right amount of sweetness. (☆☆☆)
Tahiti Nui (Hanalei)
After we got settled in our accommodation, we celebrated our vacation with a cocktail. Internet reviews give Tahiti Nui’s mai tai a big nod in the North Shore. It was potent but exceedingly sweet from pineapple juice (☆☆). Our french fries were serviceable (☆☆).
On our last night on Kauai, we had dinner here in desperation since Dolphin Restaurant appeared to have a long line, and there are very few restaurants in Hanalei. We didn’t expect much based on our first visit, but their special, Macadamia and sesame-crusted ono was perfection (☆☆☆☆), nicely grilled on the outside, almost raw in the center, augmented by an interesting purple yam mash, grilled kale and cumin-scented sauce.
Kountry Style Kitchen (Kapa’a)
For our first Hawaiian breakfast, we drove to Kapa’a. Kountry Style Kitchen does business along the main highway through town, which can at certain times experience painfully slow traffic for such a small town. The density of businesses, including restaurants, is relatively high, especially when compared to Hanalei and Princeville. One dish that intrigued me on Yelp was a fried rice omelette, but unfortunately fried rice is made only on Tuesdays and Sundays. We decided on two of their most popular items, Luau Omelette (☆☆☆½) and Polynesian Omelette (☆☆☆½). Aside from cheese and onions, one had kalua pork and spinach, the other, Portuguese sausage and kim chee, both very good omelettes. The wait staff was very friendly.
Smiley’s Local Grinds (Lihue)
Smiley’s is another hole-in-the-wall in Lihue, also frequented by locals. Lihue seems to have lots of them. Thursdays and Fridays are their prime rib nights. Our party also got Smiley’s Garlic Chili Chicken. There’s no skimping on portion sizes here. The prime rib was a generous 8-oz. slab, but chewy and short on beef flavor, except along the outer edge (☆☆½). The chicken was unbelievably salty, so much so that I could barely finish half of it (☆½). Local favorite or not, we’ll not be going back.
Hanalei Taro & Juice Co. (Hanalei)
It sounded so interesting that I had to buy one. Taro mochi cake was as dense and sticky from rice as I expected, a bit purplish from taro. A nice breakfast item, too heavy to have more than a single small slice. (☆☆☆)
Wishing Well Shave Ice (Hanalei)
Shave ice made only from organic ingredients? Cold brew coffee? Wishing Well is a food truck operation sharing the same lot as Hanalei Taro. The iced coffee was quite good (☆☆☆). The split yuzu-ginger shave ice was refreshing but more granular than we like (☆☆☆).
Hapa Grinds (Hanalei Farmers’ Market)
This stand served an excellent haupia square (☆☆☆☆). It had rich coconut flavor, the custard made with coconut milk, embedded with shredded coconuts, topped with toasted coconuts. It can’t get any better than this.
At one produce stand at the Hanalei Farmers’ Market, I was introduced to three varieties of avocadoes, all grown by the vendor. Many Americans aren’t aware (and count me among them) that Hawaii grows over 200 varieties, many of them considered superior in taste to the California Hass which dominates U.S. markets. The aforementioned stand was also selling a Hawaiian seedless lime, which together with avocadoes triggered thoughts of guacamole. But, it wasn’t until the farmer talked about his calamansi that I made the decision to make a Hawaiian version. This little citrus fruit has an intriguing flavor of lime, lemon and orange. The avocadoes the farmer picked out for me had such a high fat content that the guac had a creamy consistency.
Custard Apple, Lilikoi and Apple Banana
I also purchased other local seasonal fruits. One is popularly called a cream apple or custard apple, which looks more like a plum and has a soft pulp vaguely tasting like an apple.
Another vendor at the Hanalei Farmers’ Market grew three kinds of lilikoi, which was a surprise to me. The variety we tasted on the Big Island in September 2014 was oblong in shape, large and yellow, with a tart but intense passionfruit flavor. The three looked nothing like them, being spherical in shape and ranging in lilikoi taste from subtle to intense. Of the three, the purplish one was supreme. For breakfast on the following day, we ate all three with wonderful Hawaii’s apple banana.
Tip Top Motel Cafe (Lihue)
Another local legend for island food is Tip Top Motel Cafe, which as the name says is attached to a motel. Yet, it is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, testimony to having served comfort food to locals for a long time. As with our other Lihue experiences, the food didn’t impress us so much. Their vaunted ox-tail soup was to me just above ordinary (☆☆½). Grilled ono was tasty but overcooked, perhaps previously frozen (☆☆½). And we’ve had more appealing beef stew elsewhere (☆☆).
Wailua Shave Ice (Kapa’a)
There is no shortage of shave ice stands on Kauai. Every town of any size has at least one. But, none makes its syrups only from fresh fruit except one, Wailua Shave Ice in Kapa’a Town. The operation is a trailer parked in an empty lot. The syrups are made fresh seasonally, which unfortunately for my wife was not to her advantage because she so looked forward to a lilikoi shave ice, complete with seeds. The problem was that peak lilikoi season had just passed. We settled on three kinds: Coconut x Coconut x Coconut (coconut milk, haupia, roasted coconut flakes), Ginger Ale (ginger, lemon and lime) and Lava Flow (pineapple, coconut, strawberry). The ice was so finely shaven that a mere prod with a spoon caused it to slump. As expected, the fruit flavors tasted fresh and lively. The ginger in the Ginger Ale was so potent that my wife still felt its bite in her throat well after she’d finished. There was no excess of sugar here. It’s unlikely we’ll have better shave ice on this trip, even on Oahu. (☆☆☆☆)