Kauai Trip Report - May 2010
My husband and I traveled to Kauai for ten days at the end of May and were amazed by the beauty of the island and the truly relaxed pace of life. We weren’t expecting to be blown away by the food (it’s not known as a food-centric destination and it’s difficult for places to live up to our native Bay Area!), but thanks to many of your suggestions, we were pleasantly surprised by the quality and variety of the options. We stayed on the south shore in Poipu for four nights and then in Princeville on the north side for five nights, so we were able to experience the food around the island. Sorry in advance for the LONG report!
Day 1: Poipu
We arrived late at night into the airport at Lihue and, despite our hunger, held ourselves over until we arrived at our hotel, the Koa Kea in Poipu. The hotel is small but has a stellar food program (anchored by the Red Salt restaurant), and we were impressed by the service and food quality at every turn. We sidled up to the bar and were immediately helped by the very friendly bartender, Jim. We were able to order off the bar menu and the room service menu, so we tried the ahi trio (sashimi, tartare, and togashi seared), the crisped kalua pork gyoza served with three different sauces (aji amarillo gastrique, pineapple barbecue, and ginger shoyu), and the burger (served with Maui onions and an assortment of toppings, plus homemade potato chips). Everything was fantastic. The wine menu is small but well-curated, and all in all, this was a perfect meal to begin our Kauai vacation.
Day 2: Waimea, Kalaheo, Poipu
After waking early thanks to the time change, we decided to drive up Waimea Canyon. At our valet’s suggestion, we stopped at the Ishihara Market in Waimea to pick up a pre-packaged meal to eat on our way up. The market had a variety of local favorites packed and ready to go at 8am, so we picked up a bento box consisting of chicken katsu, teriyaki beef, and rice. It was nothing special but certainly adequate and filling for our trip up to the canyon.
On our way back to Poipu, we stopped at the Kalaheo Cafe & Bakery in Kalaheo. My husband had an egg sandwich, which was satisfactory, and I had the Bagel Benny (a toasted bagel topped with grilled ham and a poached egg) with salsa, which was quite tasty. The spot had a lively environment and seemed very popular with locals.
That night, we had a 6:30 reservation at the Beach House in Poipu, which ended up being the perfect time to see the spectacular sunset. We started with the crispy crab-stuffed ahi roll with a soy-wasabi vinaigrette and the ceviche, both of which were fantastic, and then moved on to the watermelon salad, also delicious. For mains, I had the wasabi-crusted snapper (served with a lillikoi lemongrass beurre blanc) and my husband had the sashimi-grade ahi (with mashed potatoes, black beans, and a ginger lime beurre blanc). The flavor of the snapper was great but the fish was slightly overcooked. The ahi was well-prepared but not mind-blowing. Overall, we thought the restaurant was good but not great; however, given the setting, it’s certainly worth a visit. We would return for drinks and appetizers, since those were the highlights of our meal, and the bar area had the same lovely view as the main dining room.
Day 3: Lihue, Poipu
The following morning we had an early helicopter tour, after which we stopped for lunch (albeit at 10:30am) at Lihue Barbecue Inn. This place is a great local haunt -- friendly service, traditional fare, and really reasonable prices. We both had a plate lunch -- the teriyaki chicken and the tempura mahi were highlights, while the Korean short ribs were a bit too fatty. The lunch special includes the entrees, rice, mac salad, soup, and dessert for somewhere around $10, a truly cheap eat on Kauai. We skipped the included dessert and walked right down the block to Hamura Saimin for a piece of the famous lillikoi chiffon pie. I thought the filling itself was delicious but the crust was a bit dry and bland. The atmosphere was great, however -- locals and tourists of all walks of life gathered together in a place that looks frozen in time.
We split a Puka Dog-style hot dog (stuffed into a baked bun) back at the Koa Kea for an afternoon snack and then went to our hotel’s own Red Salt for dinner. This was easily our best meal on the south shore and my favorite meal of the trip. To start, we split the crusted seared ahi (delicious and a standout, even among the many variations on ahi we had throughout the trip) and the Kalaheo baby greens salad (incredibly fresh and tasty). We then moved on to the vanilla seared mahi (with black rice, avocado ginger salsa, and a mango vinaigrette) and that evening’s special, ono (I think?) in a coconut milk broth. Both were perfectly cooked and uniquely flavored. For dessert, we split the truly unique “root beer float” (house-made root beer ice cream served with Wailua cream soda and warm chocolate mac nut cookies). Our waiter poured the soda over the ice cream and then we dipped the warm cookies into the float. So great. While the restaurant doesn’t have the view of the Beach House, it is a warm, casually modern environment with friendly, knowledgeable, laid-back service, and would be my first choice for a special occasion dinner on the south shore.
Day 4: Poipu, Kalaheo
We began with an early morning breakfast at Joe’s on the Green, just north of the Poipu Shopping Village. The early bird special (before 8:30am, I believe) is a bargain, with many entrees around $5. The food was nothing special, but considering the dearth of good breakfast options around Poipu, it was adequate and way cheaper than the hotel options.
We returned to the hotel for the afternoon and shared a great room-service lunch on our patio courtesy of the Red Salt kitchen (that incredible burger once more, a grilled mahi sandwich, and some edamame).
After a day in the sun, we weren’t up for a big night out, so we went and picked up a pizza from Brick Oven Pizza in Kalaheo and ate back at the hotel. Friendly service and good pizza (we loved the whole wheat crust with the brushed garlic).
Day 5: Poipu, Anahola, Princeville
Before departing Poipu, we walked from our hotel down to the Grand Hyatt and had the brunch buffet at Ilima Terrace. The buffet was pricey ($25 per person or so) and completely mediocre, but we enjoyed touring the spectacular grounds of the resort.
On our drive to Princeville, we stopped at Duane’s Ono-Char Burger in Anahola. Contrary to reports, we didn’t need to wait long and there was plenty of room on the patio. We both ordered the Local Boy (a burger with cheddar and teriyaki), which was good but loaded with melted shredded cheddar. I love cheese but ended up scraping some of it off since it was just overwhelming. We split onion rings and a root beer float (after Red Salt reminded us of the glory of the classic!), and it was all in all a satisfying meal.
We checked into the St. Regis in Princeville and ended up just ordering room service. It was average at best. I don’t usually expect room service to be that great, but (1) we’d been spoiled by the Koa Kea, and (2) I thought that the St. Regis -- particularly with its much-touted Jean-Georges restaurant -- would have a decent offering, but it was not good. We shared the poke and lettuce wraps. The lettuce wraps were okay but something was definitely off with the poke. The hotel’s setting is *stunning*, though, so it was hard to not enjoy the meal while overlooking Hanalei Bay.
Day 6: Kilauea, Hanalei, Princeville
We started our tour of north shore beaches with a brunchtime visit to Kilauea Bakery in Kilauea. This is such a cute cafe that is clearly popular with local residents. I had a slice of veggie pizza (fantastic) with a side salad, and my husband had a chicken panini of some sort (also great). The service is pretty disjointed but well-meaning.
After snorkeling at Tunnels, we stopped at the roadside stand Red Hot Mama’s, west of Hanalei. The menu was limited by that point in the day (and the service a bit surly), but we enjoyed some chicken and carnitas tacos. These are decidedly American-style (with shredded cheese, lettuce, sour cream, and salsa), but the meat was tender and flavorful.
For dinner, we went to Jean-Georges’ Kauai Grill at the St. Regis. We had a late reservation so we missed the sunset, but the view from the restaurant is incredible and the room has a cool sixties vibe. We began with the grilled black pepper octopus (outstanding) and the hearts of palm salad (good but not particularly interesting), and then moved on to the main course. I had the onaga with pea greens ravioli and a smoked bacon vinaigrette (tasty but heavy), and my husband had the nut-crusted moi served in a rich broth (fantastic). For dessert, we split the lillikoi caramel souffle, which was heavenly. Overall, the meal was very good but the expectations (for the setting, the pedigree, and the price) are really high as well. All in all, we would definitely recommend the restaurant to anyone visiting the north shore, particularly when you include the view from the St. Regis.
Day 7: Hanalei, Princeville
We spent our morning on a sailboat cruise of the Napali Coast and afterward stopped for lunch at Tropical Taco in Hanalei. I had a fried fish taco while my husband went for grilled. The fish was really flavorful and well-cooked. It’s worth noting that the fried fish taco is served in a hard shell, and the grilled in a soft tortilla. I think the ideal combo is fried fish in a soft tortilla, so that’s a special request to keep in mind. Overall, the tacos were great if pricey (although one is large and filling).
After spending the rest of the afternoon at the pool, we we were exhausted and couldn’t pull ourselves out of the hotel for dinner, so we once again ordered St. Regis room service. This time, it was truly terrible. The burger and turkey club were really sub-par and we ended up leaving most of the overpriced meal uneaten. Such a disappointment considering the quality of Kauai Grill!
Day 8: Kilauea, Hanalei
We took a late morning break from beach-hopping to stop at the Thai 2 Go food truck (just off the main road between Kilauea and Princeville). This is such a great Chowhound find -- the panang curry and green curry chicken were fantastic, with rich flavors and a nice amount of heat. Along with the entree and rice, you are given a choice of pad thai or papaya salad, so we tried one of each, and they were both delicious as well. The Thai iced tea was the perfect accompaniment.
We headed into Hanalei for a late dinner at The Dolphin, on the recommendation of several people we’d met on our trip. We had to wait for about 20 minutes (which you can do from outside tables with drink service) before being seated at the sushi bar. We told the chef we’d like to do omakase, and she asked about our preferences. We are both adventurous eaters and I told her my only restriction was monkfish liver and the like. She seemed surprised and said they didn’t have anything like that anyway. This kicked off the string of dishes, all of which were very fresh and tasty, but seemed oriented to a broad tourist palate. The fish choices were very mainstream and the dishes seemed a bit overdone -- always topped with tempura flakes and various sauces. We enjoyed the meal but wished we’d just had some less fussy dishes that allowed the freshness of the fish to come through. That said, the fish was high quality and the atmosphere was lively.
Day 9: Hanalei
We headed into Hanalei after a morning hike and tried two different places without success (note: “Gone Surfing” is a valid excuse and renders posted restaurant hours virtually useless) before stopping at Kalypso cafe. The food (fish tacos and a fish sandwich) was very average, but we did appreciate the $5 corkage fee! There’s a wine shop just down the street, so we sat with a view of the street and drank a bottle.
After enjoying a gorgeous Hanalei Bay sunset, we headed back into Hanalei for dinner at Bar Acuda. The restaurant is beautiful -- comfortable and beautifully appointed, with low lighting and wood floors. Despite not having a reservation, we were able to grab a couple seats at the bar and order from the full menu. As San Franciscans, we appreciated the comfortably Californian menu, filled with local, seasonal ingredients, simply but elegantly prepared. I enjoyed a couple glasses of wine while my husband took on some of their interesting cocktails, and we split several small plates: the Medjool dates with celery salad, parmesan, and aged balsamic; fresh honeycomb with Humboldt Fog goat cheese and crisp apples (one of my favorite dishes of the trip); a pizzetta with sweet onions, cherry tomatoes, and some other ingredients which have since slipped my mind; and shrimp in a romesco sauce. Every dish was outstanding. The service was a bit scattered, but that was likely since we were sitting at the bar and the bartenders were swamped. The restaurant led to us fantasizing about a life spent on the north shore as weeknight regulars at Bar Acuda. This was definitely our best meal on the north shore and my husband’s favorite meal on Kauai. Highly recommended!
Day 10: Kilauea, Kapaa
For our final lunch in Kauai, we headed to Kilauea to try the fish wrap at Kilauea Fish Market (after many glowing recommendations from fellow travelers), but alas, they were unexpectedly closed (gotta love island life!). Instead, we returned to Kilauea Bakery and once again had a delicious lunch.
Prior to flying back home, we stopped at Kintaro in Kapaa. We sat at the sushi bar and ordered an assortment of sashimi, nigiri, and rolls. Everything tasted good but once again was not particularly unique (not sure if this is a tourist-oriented menu consequence or if there isn’t actually as wide a variety of fish locally available as one would expect).
Overall, we loved Kauai and the meals -- for the most part -- only enhanced our experience. A tip on logistics: I had prepared an extensive list of recommended places (thanks to the incredible Chowhound community) and used that to create a custom Google map (called My Maps on the site). I added all of the places I wanted to try and then color-coded them by price range/formality. This helped us to be flexible once we’d arrived. If we happened to find ourselves in, say, Lihue at lunchtime, I had the map on my phone with some casual lunch spots highlighted. This will be my go-to strategy for all future trips!
Hope you find this report helpful. Happy traveling (and eating)!
Brick Oven Pizza
2 2555 Kaumualii Hwy, Kalaheo, HI
Kintaro Japanese Restaurant
4-370 Kuhio Hwy, Kapaa, HI 96746
Hanalei Dolphin Restaurant
5 5016 Kuhio Hwy, Hanalei, HI
Lihue Barbecue Inn
2982 Kress St, Lihue, HI 96766
Joe's On the Green
2545 Kiahuna Plantation Dr, Koloa, HI 96756
Red Hot Mama's
5-6607 Kuhio Hwy, Hanalei, HI 96714
5-5088 Kuhio Hwy Shop A, Hanalei, HI 96714
Duane's Ono-Char Burger
Anahola, Kapaa, HI 96746
Brick Oven Pizza
2-2555 Kaumualii Hwy, Kalaheo, HI 96741
Beach House Restaurant
5022 Lawai Rd, Koloa, HI 96756
Kalaheo Coffee Co & Cafe
2-2560 Kaumualii Hwy, Kalaheo, HI 96741
5-5156 Kuhio Highway Bldg Bldg G4, Hanalei, HI 96714
Kauai Grill - St. Regis - Hawaii
5520 Ka Haku Road, Princeville, HI 96722
Koloa, Koloa, HI
Nice report. After two visits to Red Salt last year, we loved how Ronnie Sanchez is pushing fine dining on Kauai to a higher level (e.g., deconstructed insalata caprese and root beer float). Not everything worked for us (e.g., the foie gras with pineapple and sweet bread didn't bring out the best in the ingredients, and the New York steak was unexceptional), but we look forward to going back next month and in September. On the other hand, we've loved everything about our three visits to Bar Acuda except the 20 mile drive back to our digs in Waipouli after dinner. We're also interested to see what Kauai Grill has to offer, but what we're hearing is pretty lukewarm so far. The buzz about Josselin's, however, seems to be overwhelmingly positive..
Koloa, Koloa, HI
I really appreciate your trip report. Are there any places that made your google map (that you wanted to visit) but didn't make your report?
Aloha and great report shoop!
Jim the bartender at Red Salt is a great guy and he owns the wine shop in town.
Love Red Salt..great food and vibe.
Thank you for the report.
We are on Kauai now and will try some of these spots. We had dinner at Josselin's last night, in Poipu. It was very very good. Some great dishes and good sangria. Likely Roy's tonight. Aloha.
Thanks for the report. We'll be there in 2 days, your post bookmarked. Good idea about the google maps.