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Kauai Trip Report (long)

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Just returned from our first trip to Kauai. From what previous posters have written, I wasn't expecting too much from the food scene there (didn't want to set myself up) but overall, we came away very pleasantly surprised.

Mark's Place, Lihue ~

As soon as we picked up our rental car, we made a beeline for Mark's and a plate lunch. Got a bit turned around, as it's in an industrial area not too far from the airport, plus the building doesn't have a sign. However, what I can tell people is the building is a distinct powder blue color as is Mark's Place II in Lawai. We managed to go here twice for plate lunches and by far my fave is the beef stew. Huge portions and great, friendly service. My husband's fave was the hamburger patty on rice with gravy. If you're not positively starving, order a 1/2 portion. Another thing you might want to try is the Ginger Fried Chicken. Large fingers of house-cut breast meat (not formed fingers) that have been in a zesty ginger marinade and deep fried. They seem to look dried out, but we got generous samples to try and are tender and juicy.

Other offerings I saw were roast chicken with mushroom sauce, grilled mahi-mahi with butter sauce, plus they have Pau Hana specials now, available at Mark's Place in Lawai -- sized for a family for 4, great if you don't want to go out for dinner. The food sounds simplistic, but the quality is great and it's very fresh. Hands down one of our fave places on the island.

Bubba's Burgers, Hanalei ~

Tons of tourists at Bubba's but very good burgers -- my husband is a burger fanatic and was impressed with the freshness and how the burger patties are flavorful and juicy. My fave was the Teriyaki. Make sure to get the cheese AND pineapple, plus add some grilled onions (trust me on this one) Mango shake was good, they seemed to use real fruit puree.

Nanea, Westin Princeville ~

Though pricey, the food impressed us and we had a great dining experience here. The seafood fettucine is wonderful and light with generous chunks of local fish and seafood. Our fave dish here was the sublime sous vide Opakapaka with shitake mushroom, Chinese Lop Chong sausage, and black beans. We also ate at Nanea once for breakfast and the food was very well prepared, though as I said this is a pricey place to eat.

Polynesia Cafe, Hanalei ~

Located in the Ching Young Village in Hanalei. Parking can be very tight and busy-- I suggest parking a block away behind Tropical Taco and walking a block -- it seems absolutely no one parks behind Tropical Taco and you can easily get in and out. We tried a couple of plate lunches. I went for the traditional Hawaiian foods one with the Kalua pig, Poke, and Lomi Lomi Salmon, which came with the two scoop rice and sauteed cabbage. The Kalua pig was beautiful -- tender and smoky and juicy. Poke was fantastic, but the Lomi Lomi salmon was a disappointment. I don't know if it was because we were there pretty late for lunch, but it was watery and with tiny microscopic bits of salmon that were almost non-existent. My husband had the Kalbi rib and teryaki chicken plate. Ribs were flavorful but quite tough, however the chicken was gorgeous, juicy and tender.

We did not try the desserts, but they looked amazing, like little jewels. Apparently they have their own pastry chef and it shows. We would be probably try this place again.

Tropical Taco, Hanalei ~

Pleasant but extremely sloooooooow service, probably waited close to half an hour for our order. We had the fresh fish of the day burrito, which was Marlin. I was skeptical, but it was cooked well, not overdone (Marlin can be tough). Came with a pile of fresh taco chips and ok salsa. Overall, it was an ok dining experience. The fish was very fresh, but the burrito to me was bland. Also the portion of fish was fairly small for $10.00. Probably would not return here.

Kilauea Fish Market ~

The seared Ahi wrap is definitely the way to go here. It was amazing, though they did overcook the ahi a bit ( I like mine seared on the outside and raw on the inside). Fabulous. My husband had the opakapaka with garlic butter lunch plate. Definitely would return, though service was extremely slow, timed at 25 minutes for our order.

Banana Joe's (near Kilauea) ~ We couldn't try this place as it's closed until approx June 10th or 12th. I would phone ahead to see if they're open.

Dondero's -- The Grand Hyatt, Poipu ~

Very uneven and I doubt we will be back. We went here for a special birthday dinner and came away fairly disappointed. I, unfortunately, picked all the wrong things on the menu. Service that evening was slightly sniffy and pretentious. I had the crab fettucini for my primi and it had a watery, soupy consistency. I thought I was having saimin! Part of the problem is they use these serving plates that look like small soup bowls set in a very large plate. My secondi beef filet had a rosemary and pepper rub on it, and the rosemary was really overpowering. Filet was not done medium rare as requested, but was extremely rare. My lime "mousse" parfait with hibiscus syrup was frozen solid.

If I can recommend anything here, it's the pappardelle with bolognese sauce, which my husband had and was done very well, plus his chicen breast with pancettta was passable. All in all, I cannot recommend Dondero's, and your money is best spent elsewhere.

Yum Cha -- The Grand Hyatt, Poipu ~

The food we had here was wonderful. Everything we ordered was very well done, but the highlight was probably the Szechuan Beef -- Slice rib steak stir fried with dried hot peppers and Chinese long beans. Excellent! Not too hot, though a slow burn starts building up as you eat the dish. Other dishes we loved -- the lobster and shrimp, plus the Korean Short Ribs.

Olympic Cafe ~ Kapa'a

Great place to have a long, leisurely meal, as it's located on the second floor and has open-air tables that overlook the street. The hummus here is some of the best I've ever had. I also had the ahi wrap, which wasn't quite as good as the one in Kilauea -- the fish seemed not as fresh. My husband had an excellent burger here. Great prices, with good portions and friendly service. One of our friends had the fish tacos and they looked amazing. Highly recommended.

Over the Moon Bakery ~ Kapa'a

Wonderful treats; we bought the cookies over and over again, they are huge and I thought a pretty good deal at $5.00 for 3 humungous cookies each the size of salad plates. Peanut butter is the way to go, but the choco macadamia nut comes in a close second. Very friendly service. For malasadas, they recommend a lady who sells them outside of K-mart in Lihue in the early afternoon. We didn't get a chance to try, but I'm passing this on to the malasada fans out there.

Hamura Saimin ~ Lihue

I was thinking, hey, they got a James Beard Award! It's gonna be great! But I had built myself up for disappointment. I tried to like my food, but sadly, I do not recommend this place at all. Service was ok though, and actually quite pleasant, unlike some of the other accounts I've read, and the food was very hot and fresh. However, the broth was just salty with no depth of flavor. I think I drank about of litre of water afterwards. I had the saimin bowl with everything (I think it was called the special). BBQ pork was flavorless and tough and the noodles seemed just blah. My husband wasn't hungry at the time and ordered the tempura shrimp. Do not order the tempura shrimp -- the batter was tough and greasy, like you would find on frozen battered fish you heat up at home.

Our favorite places on the island -- Mark's Place, Yum Cha, and Kilauea Fish Market. Now, I'm wondering .... what do one of those free range Kauai chickens taste like? haha

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  1. Very nice report: Any positive experiences with shaved ice or gelato?

    1 Reply
    1. re: kel

      Thanks! I forgot to mention we did make it to Wishing Well Shave Ice. The guy operates out out of a van in one of the parking lots just before you hit Ching Young Village. I've never had Shave Ice before to compare it to, but it was really good. My husband and I shared one as just the regular size was huge. We made up our own: orange/pineapple and raspberry syrups with macadamia vanilla ice cream on the bottom. He has other "specials" you can try.

      He advertises hours of 11-5 pm every day except Sunday -- however, it seems he opens when he feels like it as we drove randomly by for about 5 days in a row before we found him open.

    2. Sorry to hear your disappointment with Hamura Saimin.
      They got a James Beard Foundation award for "preserving America's culinary heritage and diversity".
      For me saimin isn't about the broth and it's all about the saimin which they're famous for making. The tempura shrimp is frozen.

      No mention of the lilikoi chiffon pie?

      2 Replies
      1. re: monku

        I'm sorry too. It did not come together at all -- I was expecting something like ramen, where there is some depth of flavor - but all I tasted was salt and the noodles were flavorless. I wanted to try the chiffon pie, but my husband was already tetchy from the tempura shrimp and wanted to get out of there. Nice local atmosphere though.

        1. re: sweeterpea

          Understandable.
          Sometime broth it gets salty because they aren't paying attention and they need to add more water when it cooks down. I'll say something when that happens.
          It is quite a place and if you go again give them another try. They do good chicken sticks and people come from all over to take out their noodles (in those pink boxes).

      2. Since you put it that way, we will give them one more try. Have to try to the Lilikoi pie :o) We also didn't get a chance to try the Oki Diner or Dani's. Opinions from anyone out there?

        2 Replies
        1. re: sweeterpea

          We haven’t been to Oki Diner since they moved to Rice St., but we didn’t think it was worth a special trip at the old location. We’ve been to Dani’s once and thought it was pretty good, but not memorable. One restaurant that doesn’t get mentioned on this board is Waipouli Restaurant, which is in the corner of the Foodland shopping center in Waipouli. It’s a family run place (mom and daughters), with mom, the longtime driving force in the kitchen, taking a less active role recently. We’ve been going to the island regularly since 1992 (every year since 1999) and eat several meals there each time (full disclosure: we stay right across the street from Waipouli Restaurant). It’s very much a local place that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner (they close for a couple of hours between lunch and dinner and tend to close for the day at around 8:30 pm) and draws a mostly local clientele. I love their special saimin (everything but the kitchen sink) and most of their mixed plates. Their omelettes, French toast, and pancake plates and oxtail soup are also very tasty. The food isn’t going to be nominated for a James Beard award any time soon, but It’s amply portioned, tasty, and quintessentially local at very reasonable prices (cash only). We’ll be there in a couple of weeks.

          By the way, we like Olympic Cafe a lot, too. It's our regular breakfast stop when we do our morning walk to the north.

          1. re: beantowntitletown

            Thanks! the Waipouli sounds like a place we'd love to try.

        2. Nice report. Sounds like you managed to visit a good variety of places.
          Sorry to hear that you didn't enjoy Hamura's...It is one of our favorites. Now, we have never been tempted by the Tempura shrimp. Pretty much stick to the soup , chicken stick and pie.
          Years ago ... before we discovered Hamura's ( Had heard of it but had just not found our way there)... we were on the car rental shuttle back to the terminal to fly home..when on the shuttle came a group of what I thought were Japanese tourists?? There were maybe 8 of them...each carrying a couple of boxes in plastic bags. They look like cake boxes and they were trying to be very careful to hold the boxes upright. We assisted them holding a box or two as they settled on the bus. We fell into conversation with them... turns out that they were residents of Honolulu (Japanese descent) visiting Kauai for Lunch... primarily for the soup and to bring home the delightful Lilikoi Chiffon pie...They had close to 20 pies between them. It was at this moment ...my spouse and I looked at each other and knew that when we returned.... we would have to check out that pie!
          It really is not to be missed. I'm not even much of a dessert eater, If we are extended a dinner invitation to someone's house while on the Island, we always make a point of picking up a whole pie as a gift for the hostess..

          1. Sounds like we were in Kauai at the same time!

            I was staying in a condo, and restaurants are so expensive and iffy in Hawaii I cooked all but one of my meals (the one I ate out was Shrimp Station in Waimea, which was okay).

            My favorite chow experience was definitely the Hanalei farmers market (Tuesday at 2 p.m.). As reported, get there when it opens, or things will be sold out. I got there at 2:10 and people were already leaving! I bought various tropical fruits (chicko, mountain apple), a weird squash and some fabulous pesto made with organic basil and macadamia nuts (from the goat cheese stall). If I hadn't been leaving the next day, I would have bought more.

            To take home I bought some dark, rich coffee blossom honey that in fact does have a faint coffee aftertaste and some specialty salts. The woman who had the salt booth said that this is a "fast" market and although technically it's scheduled until 4 p.m., they're usually sold out and packed up by 3:15.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Ruth Lafler

              We saw quite a few people going into Hamura's and not eating, just picking up boxes -- either pies or saimin noodles, I guess.

              We did drive by Shrimp Station, as we had a very early morning trip to Waimea Canyon while it was still clear (luckily, as there was a complete whiteout at the Canyon 10 minutes after I got all my shots) We didn't stop as it wasn't open yet. We also saw Savage's Shrimp Truck on the road to Spouting Horn, and sadly, didn't have time to stop. It was lunch time, though, and curiously there was no one there. Unfortunately, we didn't get a chance to go back to either.

              We only got one chance to go to a farmer's market and it was the Kilauea one. The highlight for us were organic lychees, so juicy and fresh they sprayed out juice when you peeled them. So refreshing!!! So many other fun things -- Star Apples, Soursop, Ice Apples, delicious Sunrise Papayas, local pink grapefruit and gorgeous bunches of tropical flowers, plus just chatting with the vendors. I made sure we got there early as I've read about the curious local practice of the market only being for one hour and not being able to buy until the horn sounds!

              I forgot to mention a good, cheap, lunch -- Costco in Lihue. We shared two hot dogs, bottomless drinks and a gigantic ice cream sundae for less than $5.00 We're from Canada and amazed at the size of the hot dogs; at least a third bigger than you get at a Canadian Costco; plus the ice cream sundae is almost 3 times bigger, haha!

            2. Mahalo for a comprehensive report, especially from the north side of the Island. Not enough reports from there.

              I do agree about Dondero's. While I had a marvelous meal, my poor wife was caught by the uneveness of the evening. Her meal was any thing but spectacular. Now, I would return, but only with hopes that we'd get two meals, as good as mine on the last trip. Matter of fact, I had the filet and it ranked up within my all time top-10. That is tough territory to enter, and I'm sorry that yours' was not anything like mine.

              Thanks for taking the time to put this review together.

              Hunt

              1. Hamura's is a dive... and we return every time we're on the island. We yak it up with the Filipino staff and the other tourists who have also returned for the umpteenth time. The food is not great, but is a kind of link to the past... and we leave with at least two boxes of lilikoi pie.

                Thanks for the write up of the north shore eateries. I have also found myself cooking a lot of our meals at our condo or on the beach. We can buy the more expensive fish and meats this way and prepare the dishes the way we like them. We still indulge in the shaved ice wherever we find it (they are all good) and we gorge on the different fresh fruit. I still get amazed that pineapple can taste so good there. When we get lazy we buy the deli whole chickens at the Safeway and use the leftovers for sandwiches. It makes the two weeks there a lot more affordable and casual.

                1. We were on Kauai in 2006. Polynesia Cafe had some tasty lunches as described in original post. The ginger lemonade is very, very gingery. Ask for a small taste before you order it.
                  Hanalei Mixed Plate (right in front of Polynesia Cafe) had good plate lunch: Kalua pig and cabbage, ginger chicken, etc.
                  Koloa Fish Market in Koloa town (just up the road from Poipu Beach area) was all locals and had great authentic Hawaiian plate lunch and other specialties (poke, lomi lomi salmon, lau lau, chicken long rice, haupia coconut dessert, etc).
                  Another favorite was Caffe Coco in Kapa'a. Order at the counter, sit at plastic tables under a tent in a gravel parking lot. The seared ahi with wasabi cream, sesame rice and salad with Asian dressing was great. Live music several nights per week makes it a really great experience. We liked the dive type setting.
                  Bali Hai restaurant in Princeville: the food is nothing special, but you pay for the view (which is very nice).