The Basics

Dining in Kauaʻi is casual – even when it is elegant. Top tourist restaurants require reservations (sometimes several days in advance).

  • Fish markets Taking a bentō box, poke or sushi roll to go is a local tradition and most towns have a worthwhile fish market – and rotating farmers markets – worth checking out.
  • Joints Be they taco stands, noodle spots, hamburger places or juice bars, the small-time joints of the island are the lifeblood of island cuisine. Look for lines out the door at lunchtime to pick a top spot.
  • Restaurants There are plenty of fancy tourist restaurants, often with live entertainment.

Eat & Drink Like a Local

Island-caught fish. Island-grown produce. Island-casual setting. Kauaʻi likes to keep it simple. Whether you’re savoring four-star Hawaii Regional cuisine or sampling that curious Spam musubi (rice ball), you’ll find a fascinating fusion of flavors – from Polynesian staples such as taro, banana and coconut to Japanese teriyaki, Chinese noodles and Hawaiian kalua (earth oven) pig. The real spoils go to those willing to hunt down the best fish markets, indie bakeries and farmers markets.

The Island Diet

The island diet is more than just a meal. It’s a window on the island itself. But defining it is no simple matter. It’s multi-ethnic, yet distinct from classic fusion cooking. It’s got a full-fledged highbrow cuisine, yet its iconic dishes are lowbrow local grinds (akin to street food). The only way to understand the island diet is to partake of its pleasures. We describe the major cuisine categories below, all of which have the following elements in common:

  • The primary starch in Hawaii is sticky, medium-grain white rice. Jasmine rice is tolerated with Thai food, but flaky rice is considered haole (Caucasian) food (and Uncle Ben’s is considered inedible).
  • The top condiment is soy sauce (ubiquitously called by its Japanese name, shōyu), which combines well with sharp Asian flavors, such as ginger, green onion and garlic.
  • Meat, chicken or fish is often integral to a dish. For quick, cheap eating, locals devour anything tasty, from Portuguese sausage to hamburger steak to corned beef. But the dinner-table highlight is always seafood, especially succulent, freshly caught ahi (tuna).
  • Nonlocal classics (such as pizza and bagels) are usually disappointing. Also bear in mind that ‘barbecue’ typically means teriyaki-marinated.
  • While Kauaʻi’s top restaurants can hold their own among statewide peers, you generally won’t find the cutting-edge culinary creativity that you’d find on Oʻahu and even on Maui or the Big Island.

Two excellent resources on Hawaii cuisine are Edible Hawaiian Islands (www.ediblehawaiianislands.com), which covers the gamut, and Hawaii Seafood (www.hawaii-seafood.org), which is all about just that.

Hawaii Regional Cuisine

If pineapple-topped entrées epitomized Hawaii cuisine till the late 1980s, locals are partly to blame. Fine dining in Hawaii meant copycat ‘continental’ fare that hid the basic appeal of local ingredients. While there were many decent, midrange Japanese and Chinese eateries, Hawaii lacked a recognizable local cuisine. Further, the local appetite for cheap, filling food (never mind that it’s made with canned goods) did nothing to push the gourmet envelope.

In 1991, 12 Hawaii chefs changed all that. Led by some now-famous names, they established Hawaii Regional cuisine, a culinary movement that inventively blends Hawaii’s diverse, ethnic flavors with the cuisine of the world. Some classic menus include Eating House 1849, the Beach House Restaurant and Postcards Café. You’ll also hear this cuisine called ‘Pacific Rim’ or ‘Island Contemporary.’ It has since led to more sophisticated fusion menus in general, such as the Mediterranean-inspired tapas restaurant BarAcuda, and Tortilla Republic in Poʻipu, whose modern Mexican involves contemporary takes on common dishes.

Hawaii Regional cuisine started as a four-star phenomenon, but is not just defined by complex culinary fusions. It is also rooted in local, seasonal, organic ingredients, handpicked if possible. This trend toward eating local, known as locavore, might help struggling island farms survive. Regrettably, 90% of the state’s basic food supply is imported, including 80% of fresh milk. So by frequenting farmers markets, you’ll not only eat better, you’ll help sustain Kauaʻi’s budding farming industry.

There's a farmers market somewhere on the island nearly every day. You'll be rewarded with occasional food trucks, plenty of fresh grinds, and a convivial atmosphere that moves lyrically with the island breeze. Markets are another good source of locally prepared foods. Farmers markets include the following: Anahola Farmers Market, Hanalei Farmers Market, Hanapepe Farmers Market, Kalaheo Farmers Market, Kapaʻa Farmers Market, Kekaha Farmers Market, Koloa Farmers Market, Kukui Grove Center Farmers Market, Lihuʻe Farmers Markets, Namahana Farmers Markets and Waipa Farmers Market.

Looking to get even more local? Consider a sportfishing tour where you can catch (or catch and release) favorite Hawaiian fish.

Local Food

Cheap, filling and tasty, local food is the stuff of cravings and comfort. Such food might be dubbed ‘street food’ but street vendors are uncommon, except at farmers markets.

No list is complete without the classic plate lunch, a fixed-plate meal containing ‘two scoop rice,’ macaroni-potato salad and your choice of a hot protein dish, such as tonkatsu (breaded, fried pork cutlets), fried mahimahi or teriyaki chicken. Often eaten with disposable chopsticks on disposable plates, they are tasty and filling. Typically fried, salty, gravy-laden and meaty, plates now include grilled fish, brown rice and green salad.

The local palate prefers hot rice or noodle entrées to cold cuts and sliced bread. Thus another favorite is saimin, a soup of chewy Chinese egg noodles and Japanese broth, garnished with colorful toppings, such as green onion, dried nori, kamaboko (steamed fish cake), egg roll or char siu (Chinese barbecued pork). If you’re in a hurry, pick up a bentō (prepackaged Japanese-style box lunch) containing rice, meat or fish, and Japanese garnishes such as pickles, at deli counters and corner stores. And you can’t go home without trying a Big Island invention called loco moco, a bowl of rice, two eggs (typically fried over-easy) and hamburger patty, topped with gravy and a dash of shōyu.

Consider yourself lucky if you snag an invitation to a pupu (appetizer) party at a local home. Go casual and expect an endless spread of grazing foods (forget the cheese and crackers), such as fried shrimp, edamame (boiled soybeans in the pod) and maki (rolled) sushi. A must-try is poke (pronounced ‘po-keh’), Hawaii’s soul food, a savory dish of bite-sized raw fish (typically ahi), seasoned typically with shōyu, sesame oil, green onion, sea salt, ogo (seaweed) and inamona, a flavoring made of roasted and ground kukui (candlenut).

Nowadays kids veer toward mainstream candy and gum, but the traditional local treat is preserved fruit (typically plum, cherry, mango or lemon) known as crack seed. It can be sweet, sour, salty or licorice-spicy. On a hot day, go for shave ice, the island version of a snow cone.

Native Hawaiian

Native Hawaiian food is like no other. Today several dishes are staples in the local diet, but they’re generally harder to find than other cuisines. The best venues for good, authentic Hawaiian food are plate-lunch shops, diners, fish markets and supermarket delis. Commercial luau buffets include all the notable dishes, but the quality can be mediocre.

Perhaps the most famous (or infamous) Hawaiian dish is poi (steamed and mashed wetland taro), which was sacred to ancient Hawaiians. Locals savor the bland to mildly tart flavor as a starchy palate cleanser, but its slightly sticky and pasty consistency can be off-putting to others. Taro is highly nutritious, low in calories, easily digestible and versatile to prepare. Also try taro chips (made with dryland/upland ‘Chinese’ taro), available from local grocers.

Locals typically eat poi as a counterpoint to strongly flavored fish dishes such as poke and lomilomi salmon (minced salted salmon tossed with diced tomato and green onion). Salmon is actually an imported food, first introduced to Hawaiians by the crews of whaling ships.

No Hawaiian feast is complete without kalua pig, which is traditionally roasted, whole, underground in an imu, a sealed pit of red-hot stones. Cooked this way, the pork comes out smoky, salty and quite succulent. Nowadays kalua pig is typically oven-roasted and seasoned with salt and liquid smoke. But if you attend the Luau Kalamaku, you’ll see it done the old way.

A popular restaurant dish is laulau, a bundle of pork or chicken and salted butterfish, wrapped in taro leaves and steamed in ti leaves. When cooked, the melt-in-your-mouth taro leaves blend perfectly with the savory meats.

Another food hardly seen on menus is raw ʻopihi (edible limpet). You might see locals picking these off shoreline rocks.

Drinks

Cafe culture has taken root on Kauaʻi, with baristas brewing espresso at deli counters, indie hangouts and, of course, Starbucks. Local old-timers balk at paying $3-plus for coffee, but today’s youth are eager converts to lattes and cappuccinos. You can learn about coffee production at the Kauaʻi Coffee Company.

While fresh fruit is plentiful at farmers markets, fresh fruit juice tends to be pricey and sold mainly at health-food markets and roadside fruit stands, such as the Coconut Cup, which makes tropical smoothies to order. An offshoot of the smoothie is the frosty, an icy dessert with the texture of ice cream, made by puréeing frozen fruit in a food processor. Try it at Banana Joe’s Fruitstand. Forgo the supermarket cartons and cans, which tend to be sugary drinks.

Unique to Hawaii are two fruit-juice ‘tonics’ nowadays marketed mainly to tourists: ʻawa (kava), a mild sedative, and noni (Indian mulberry), which some consider to be a cure-all. Both fruits are pungent (if not repulsive) in smell and taste, so they are typically mixed with other juices.

Among alcoholic beverages, beer is the local drink of choice. Wine is gaining in popularity among the upper-income classes, and all top-end restaurants offer a decent selection. There are a few breweries worth checking out too, such as Kauai Island Brewery & Grill in Port Allen and Kauai Beer Company in Lihuʻe.

Festivals

Now that agri-tourism and gourmet cuisine are trendy, food festivals are garnering much attention. The Hanalei Taro Festival, a biennial event (even-numbered years), features poi-pounding and taro-cooking contests. More extravagant is Taste of Hawaii, a line-up-and-sample extravaganza dubbed the ‘ultimate Sunday brunch.’

Many public festivals and events offer family-friendly outdoor food booths, serving much more than standard concession grub. The Waimea Town Celebration, Koloa Plantation Days Celebration, Coconut Festival and Kauaʻi County Farm Bureau Fair showcase not only local culture but also local food, from shave ice to plate lunches.

Luau

In ancient Hawaii, a luau commemorated auspicious occasions, such as births, war victories or successful harvests. Today only commercial luau offer the elaborate Hawaiian feast and hula dancing that folks expect to experience. A $75 to $100 ticket buys you a highly choreographed Polynesian dance show and an all-you-can-eat buffet of luau standards – usually toned down for the Western palate – such as poi, kalua pig, steamed mahimahi, teriyaki chicken and haupia (coconut pudding). The food isn't great...but somehow the whole slightly kitsch, totally over-the-top luau experience should make it to all but the most cynical of tourist itineraries. It's something you only have to do once.

For the most impressive show, Kilohana Plantation’s Luau Kalamaku offers a compelling theatrical production and professional-caliber dancers. The long-running luau at Smith’s Tropical Paradise is a family affair and, while touristy, the multicultural performances with dancers of all ages have their appeal. Both the Grand Hyatt and Sheraton offer beachside luaus in Poʻipu.

If you want to save some bucks, you can sit beachside and watch the show with a bottle of wine…but remember, by paying for the show, your money goes to local performers and local waiters, and is an important part of the local economy.

Private luau celebrations, typically for weddings or first birthdays, are often large banquet-hall gatherings. The menu might be more daring – perhaps including raw ʻaʻama (black crab) and ʻopihi (edible limpet) – and the entertainment more low-key. No fire eaters.

Habits & Customs

In most households, home cooking is integral to daily life, perhaps owing to the slower pace, backyard gardens and obsession with food. Meals are held early and on the dot: typically 6am breakfast, noon lunch and 6pm dinner. At home, locals rarely (perhaps never) serve formal sit-down meals with individual courses. Even when entertaining, meals are typically served in a potluck style, often as a spread of unrelated dishes.

If you’re invited to a local home, show up on time and bring dessert. Remove your shoes at the door. And don’t be surprised if you’re forced to take home a plate or two of leftovers.

Except at top resort restaurants, the island dress code means that T-shirts and flip-flops are ubiquitous. The local, older generation tends toward neat and modest attire.

Kauaʻi restaurants typically open and close early; late-night dining is virtually nonexistent. In general, locals tip slightly less than mainlanders do, but still up to 20% for good service and at least 15% for the basics.

In top restaurants, you may consider a reservation – otherwise you are generally good to go. Takeaway picnic lunches are an excellent option for lunches. Many hotels, condos and vacation rentals have barbecues, making grilling out and catering your own Hawaiian feasts easier than you'd think.

There's not a lot of nightlife in Kauaʻi. Most places close early, with a few exceptions in the bigger tourist centers.

Vegetarians & Vegans

Although locals love their sashimi and Spam, vegetarians and vegans won’t go hungry on Kauaʻi. A handful of restaurants cater to vegetarian, vegan, fish-only or health-conscious diets. Notable venues include Postcards Café, Kauaʻi Pasta and Kalaheo Café & Coffee Co, which focus on vegetarian and fish dishes. The high-end Hawaii Regional cuisine menus always have vegetarian options. Asian eateries offer varied tofu and veggie options, but beware of meat- or fish-based broths.

Seafood Decoder

Hawaiian seafood has some typical crowd-pleasers, plus a few unknown standouts that you'll want to try.

ahi – served seared, grilled, raw...it's a top on everything

aku – this tuna is smaller and has a more robust flavor

akule – bigeye scad with a sweet oily flavor like mackarel

hapuʻupuʻu – say that five times fast; noted for its delicate white meat

hebi – a mild-flavored billfish

kajiki – Pacific blue marlin

mahimahi – delicious and everywhere

monchong – medium flavor with a high fat content

onaga – ruby snapper

ono – local word for wahoo; can be a bit rubbery

opah – moonfish...a top with local chefs

‘opakapaka – crimson snapper served in filets

shutome – swordfish

tombo – albacore tuna

ulua – jack crevalle

Regional Treats

Don’t miss these local Kauaʻi specialties:

The Other Pink Meat

Simply put, locals love Spam. Yes, that Spam. It’s a local comfort food, typically eaten sliced and sautéed to a light crispiness in sweetened shōyu. Expect to see Hormel’s iconic canned ham product served with eggs for breakfast or as a loco moco option. It’s especially enjoyed as Spam musubi (rice ball topped with fried Spam and wrapped with dried seaweed, or nori) – folks of all stripes savor this only-in-Hawaii creation that’s culturally somewhat akin to an easy, satisfying PB&J sandwich.

The affinity for Spam arose during the plantation era, when canned meat was cheap and easy to prepare for bentō (box) lunches. In Hawaii, unlike on the mainland, there’s no stigma to eating Spam. If you acquire a taste for it, plan a trip to Honolulu for the annual Waikiki Spam Jam (www.spamjamhawaii.com) and go wild in your own kitchen with Hawaiʻi Cooks with SPAM: Local Recipes Featuring Our Favorite Canned Meat, written by prolific cookbook author Muriel Miura.