Before I begin, allow me to get the bad news out of the way first.
Boy, did we have some crummy food on Kaua’i. Three poor egg breakfasts that took their precious island time getting to us at a place called The Tiki Room across from our hotel. With all the wonderful produce right outside the window, my mom’s side of fruit was canned mandarin segments, watermelon and a quarter apple. We went all the way to Kaua’i from Seattle to be served an apple? I can pull a papaya off the tree two feet away. Then there were the three miserable excuses for a burger at an island chain called Bubba’s. This was their version of Seattle's Dick’s Burgers, and if a burger makes you long for a Dick’s burger instead, you know there’s a problem. My burger hopes were redeemed slightly at Duane’s Ono Char-Burger on the Eastside, though they still weren’t as jaw-dropping there as we were led to believe. We also had a way over-priced salad experience at Duke’s Canoe House by the hotel. When the waitress realized we were ordering the cheapest thing on the menu (still $15) and I was sticking to water, her entire demeanor changed— smile vanished, she said, “You can help yourself to the salad bar.”
With that out of the way, on to the good news. I like to more vividly remember the couple fantastic things I did eat while on the Garden Isle.
First was the bounty of the glorious macadamia nut. I have grown to like macadamia nuts. Previously, my only exposure to them was when paired with white chocolate in cookies. I really dislike white chocolate macadamia nut cookies, because it’s two fatty things together which cover each other up so both just taste like fat in a cookie. I think you really have to toast macadamia nuts to make them tasty, and they are rarely so in these horrible cookies. On our journey along the South Shore, we stopped at the Hanapepe Cafe and Bakery for a snack. They had a case full of nice-looking fare, but not much I couldn’t get at any other bakery. I was about to settle for a slice of carrot cake, when I locked eyes with this macadamia nut pie. Its siren song tugged at my tummy and I had to posses it. I thought, “Man alive, that pie would cost $80 back home!” This thing was stuffed with macadamia nuts in a gooey caramely custard. Upon tasting it, I discovered the caramel was made with honey, and that cinched it. This pie was flippin’ out of this world. My parents each had a chocolate-dipped orange macaroon, that they each raved about.
The day after our disastrous egg breakfast, we were determined to have a better morning meal. We found a place in a strip mall called The Hula Girl. This place was very cute, we had a great server, and the menu is gloriously wacky. We all ended up ordering pancakes (anything but eggs!). My mom was in heaven with her banana pancakes, and I discovered the miracle of coconut syrup. Sure, it’s probably just coconut flavored corn syrup, but, boy, was it good. On the menu was also something called Hula Pie. Evidently a distinctly Hawaiian ice cream pie. If it wasn’t nine in the morning, I probably would have ordered one. This version was macadamia nut ice cream, Kona Coffee ice cream and chocolate ice cream in a chocolate cookie crust. At the afore mentioned Duke’s we ordered their Hula Pie to know what the thing was. Theirs was only macadamia nut ice cream, and what arrived was a monster slice of a domed ice cream pie. It was pretty crazy.
Next, there is the shave ice— it’s not shaved ice, and don’t confuse it with a snow cone either. Then what is it? It’s a packed snowball doused in syrup. After a failed attempt to get one at the stand by the hotel that decided to close while the surfing was good, I got my first one at a little shopping center somewhere on the Eastside/North Shore. I chose lychee and passionfruit. It was okay. The passionfruit syrup was not at all tart and the lychee turned me to a floral-breathing dragon afterwards. The kicker came from the back of a tchotchke shop in Kapa’a. A scoop of vanilla ice cream was placed in the bottom of the plastic, over-sized cone. The shave ice was packed tall over it. The root beer syrup was heavy-handedly poured over. The blue (?) vanilla syrup was crossed on top. A little dousing of cream finished it. What was presented was a dream come true. As I ate down the mountain of shave ice, it naturally started to melt in the hot sun, which mingled with the vanilla ice cream at the bottom, so when I got down to it, you had an actual root beer float at the end. This thing turned me ten again, I was so tickled.
Far and away the most stunning things we ate were at the restaurant 22º North in the plantation house at Kilohana. The restaurant sits in the back of the 1920’s main house on the covered patio. It is a farm-to-table establishment, with most of the produce grown right on site and the proteins coming from farms on the island. The water glasses are the bottom halves of wine bottles and the coasters are shapes punched out of the carboard wine boxes. Very clever recycling, though my heart goes out to the poor ones who have to sit there cutting out coasters.
The drink that jumped out at me was the pineapple ginger caipirinha. I am usually not one to order cocktails, because they are usually over-priced, under-poured and just end up not tasting like anything. However, this cocktail was outstanding. The thing that tickled me most was it was sweetened with sugar cane juice right from the fields steps from the kitchen. My mom had a tangerine thyme mojito that was quite refreshing and delicious. How can you go wrong with tangerines picked from the kitchen window?
To start the meal, we chose the olive poppers and crispy potato croquettes. The server set them in the center of the table and all three of us let out an “Ooooo.” She laughed, saying, “Ooo! I love serving you guys!” The olives were stuffed with a local goat cheese and breaded, and served with a house-smoked bacon vinaigrette and micro-greens. To say these were delicious would be an understatement; we could have eaten two more orders. The croquettes came served in a martini glass; they had the thinnest fried surface to them that, after dipping in the accompanying aioli, melted away in your mouth into a thick cream. The bread service was okay, the crust had gone soft and the bread itself was lacking salt.
My dad started with a salad. The lettuce alone was so flavorful, and still slightly warm from perhaps having just been picked out of the sun? I can’t say for sure, but it’s nice to think so. With lettuce that good, it didn’t need more than its simple dressing, a few crumbles of gorgonzola and toasted macadamia nuts.
The list of entrées was filled with fish, beef and pork (ironically, given that chicken is in no short supply on Kaua’i, there was no chicken on the menu). I chose the snapper. It was a generous portion laying on a bed of quinoa topped with a crunchy green papaya salad with Sicilian olives and severed with a swipe of preserved lemon emulsion. I loved every bite and didn’t want it to end.
The extensive dessert list showed up at the table next. My mom had to go with the ooey-gooey chocolate cake. It lived up to its name, arriving in the baking bowl with a side pitcher of fresh cream to pour over. My dad got the bag of donuts, still quite piping hot from the fryer and tossed with cinnamon sugar. While all the other desserts looked delicious, I had to go with the one with hibiscus syrup, because I’m a sucker for hibiscus and how often do you get to have hibiscus directly from the source? It was an orange and vanilla panna cotta with diced pineapple and hibiscus syrup. The plating was little old-fashioned for my aesthetic, and the panna cotta had way too much gelatin for my taste, but it was really delicious, with just the right amount of orange and the hibiscus syrup didn’t disappoint. They also offer a number of floats for adults that all looked quite tempting.
Before our dinner at 22º North we stopped in to the Kōloa Rum Company tasting room at the plantation. We sampled their white rum, mixed with their Mai Tai mix with a float of their dark rum. Since the dark rum was a float, it was easier to taste, full of vanilla and caramel. I couldn’t really judge on the white rum as the Mai Tai mix covered it up. Some law prevents them from serving more than one ounce per person per day. And for whatever reason we had to try them with the Mai Tai mix. So we weren’t able to sample the gold rum. What I would have rather had was a teaspoon of each of the three rums by themselves. That wouldn’t even be one ounce, so you’re still within the law and then you’d be able to taste them on their own to catch all their nuance. If I’m just sampling, I don’t need more than a teaspoon to get the taste anyway. Oh well.
At a little bodega somewhere on the South Shore, I picked up two organic apple bananas. No, not a hybrid, but a type of banana grown on the slopes of Kilauea on the Big Island. They are about half the size of your typical banana, but about four-times the flavor; they have a very robust banana flavor and just the right amount of sweetness, not the slightest bit cloy.
So, some foodie things to do on the next visit to Kaua’i...
- Taste that final rum at Kōloa (and have the money to buy a couple bottles to bring back)
- Do lunch at 22º North (and a couple more dinners, while we’re at it)
- Do the orchard walk tour at the Kilohana Plantation
- Find some better restaurants (because I can’t imagine locals putting up with that crappy food we had)
- Go to one of the farmer’s markets
- Do the Kaua'i Coffee plantation (even though I'm not a coffee drinker it would still be interesting to see)
- Do the sunset dinner at the Allerton Garden of the National Tropical Botanical Garden (this must have been a new addition, because it wasn’t in the guide book and we didn’t learn about it until we were on the tour of the garden on our last day, it would be spectacular)