Earlier this month I spent a week on Kaua’i as part of my 25th anniversary trip with my lovely Lolly. The island is unimaginably beautiful and scenic, and our week was full of hiking, scuba diving, kayaking and snorkeling, and of course several afternoons on some of the most stunning beaches you will ever hope to see.
But in between all that we ate. Man oh man did we eat! Yeah, we did some of the fancy-schmancy places and lots of super-fresh seafood of course, but as much as possible we tried to sample the truly local fare — dishes that are unique to Kaua’i when possible, but at least part of the broader Hawaiian repertoire. For today’s installment I thought it would be fun to share a few of our discoveries.
For starters we have that mouth-watering delight of questionable provenance known as saimin, a local noodle specialty that can be found in several small mom-and-pop establishments around the island. As we discovered, what passes for “Hawaiian” food actually derives from a variety of culinary traditions, and saimin is an example of that. Depending on who you ask, they will say it is Chinese, Japanese or Korean in origin, and it bears a strong resemblance to ramen dishes of southeast Asia — but it’s still totally Kaua’i. A hearty meat broth loaded with plenty of long noodles, topped with smoked chicken, julienned radish and scallions. Toss in some hot chili sauce and you have a true feast on your hands, wherever it comes from. A shout-out to The Noodle House in Kapa’a for the best on the island, in my humble opinion.
At another stop on the north shore, in the village of Hanalei, is another quaint local joint with some truly butt-kicking nosh. They did their own version of saimin (pictured above), but they are famous around Kaua’i for their chili pepper chicken, which is deep fried and drizzled with a spicy-sweet, soy-based sauce that will have you begging for more. There’s an expression on Kaua’i for food that is super good: “Grinds broke da mouf!” I think they invented the phrase for this dish.
And oh, by the way, your eyes were not deceiving you — that second bowl of saimin does indeed include Spam. Evidently cooking with Spam is totally a thing on Kaua’i. The local WalMart carried nine — count ’em, nine — different varieties of Spam for your dining pleasure. Who knew?
Moving on, we have an amazing local specialty called Manapua. These are little pastry balls stuffed with a variety of sweet or savory fillings. We happened to try them for breakfast a couple times (Noodle House, you rock yet again!), and we found them both stupidly delicious and very filling. One of these with a cup of joe will hold most mere mortals for hours. I asked the lady at the shop for the recipe, but she made it clear that some secrets will never be allowed to leave the island.
Next we have GENUINE Hawaiian pizza. What makes it “genuine”, you ask? Kalua pig, baby, Kalua pig. What is “Kalua pig”, you ask? Only one of the most flavorful, succulent ways you will ever indulge in the wonders of good pork. Kalua pig is a traditional Hawaiian dish that involves slow-roasting a whole pig in an underground oven called an imu, which traps the smoke and infuses it into the juicy and incredibly tender meat. We had Kalua pig several different ways during our visit to the island, and it was far and away our favorite culinary discovery. As an aside, we found this pizza at a north shore restaurant/bar called Tahiti Nui, which made an appearance in the George Clooney film “The Descendants” (totally worth watching, by the way). We included a pic of my Lolly enjoying an appropriately themed adult beverage at the aforesaid bar.
Another local culinary wonder is the world-famous Puka Dog. I’m not kidding about the world-famous part — it is featured periodically in a show on the Travel Channel. It’s a hearty Polish sausage (a veggie dog is also available, but why?) stuffed into a uniquely shaped bun and loaded up with home-made sauces and relishes. You simply have to experience one for yourself to understand.
And after all of that, I hope you saved room for dessert. First we have the inimitable Hawaiian shave ice (not “shaved” ice, thank you very much). Unlike the crushed ice of a mainland snow cone, shave ice is exactly that — shaved off a large block of ice into light, delicate flakes, piled high over a bed of macadamia nut ice cream, and topped with your favorite fresh syrups. We shared a mango-pineapple-passion fruit variety. And I emphasize “shared” — what you see in the picture is the small size.
And for the piece de resistance, the coup de grace, or whatever French phrase you prefer, we have the ultimate in daunting desserts — a true Intimidator — known as Hula Pie. We watched entire tables of four people struggling to tackle one of these monsters. A quarter of a solid macadamia nut ice cream pie (did I mention that everything there has macadamia nuts?) built on top of an Oreo crust, with a hard chocolate shell, topped with hot fudge and, you guessed it! — macadamia nuts. We made it our special mission one night to do a light dinner so we could bring the smack-down on this bad boy — and we got it done. The valet had to haul us out to the car in separate wheelbarrows, but it was well worth it.
There you have it, a quick culinary tour of Kaua’i for those with a hankering to try some new delights in between trips to the beach and bottles of Longboard. Until our next time together: Aloha! Eat well, my friends!