Mar
15
2013

Wandering Traveler

Stunning rainbows were a daily occurrence, viewed from our Napili Kai deck

CRADLED in WEST MAUI

Article and photos by Virginia Miller

Our sun-filled room (w/ kitchen) at Napili Kai

Nestled in the cove of Napili Bay, swimming with the sea turtles and gazing out at the islands of Molokai and Lanai, Napili Kai Beach Resort was my favorite stay in Maui. First driving up to the resort off a winding neighborhood road, the appearance is dated: like a weathered 1980′s resort well past its prime. But I needn’t have feared: our corner room in one of the many buildings lining the coast was modern and lovely, with expansive windows gazing out at the sea and neighboring islands.

Nestled in Napili Bay at dusk

Lounging on our Napili Kai deck

Lounging on our deck, we beheld more than one rainbow each morning, reveled in sunsets and were lulled to sleep by the sound of waves. The peaceful resort features a restaurant (see Sea House below) with an unexpectedly different, delicious brunch. The resort is decidedly unhip or flashy and is, instead, what I would hope for in Hawaii: a retreat, an escape, a restorative place.

Slack Key Guitar Show at Napili Kai

For music lovers, Napili Kai offers a rare treat: a humble, open air concert hall featuring slack key guitar shows hosted by George Kahumoku, Jr. We were lucky enough to be there when the great Ledward Kaapana played a show, mesmerized by his Hendrix-level-of-greatness guitar stylings. As a gentle backdrop to his tunes, rainstorms passed over, the air full with moisture, leaving a soft dewiness in its wake.

Cradled in Napili Bay and our quiet room facing the sea, I already dreamed of returning.

The great slack key guitar & ukelele master, Led Kaapana

Restaurants/Eateries

LEODA’S KITCHEN & PIE SHOP, Olowalu

Leoda’s charming shop

Just south of the town of Lahaina is my top West Maui meal: Leoda’s Kitchen & Pie Shop. The shop is run by a former Californian Rosie Robbins, Cali clearly being an influence on farm fresh ingredients and modern, gourmet aesthetic – she talked of gathering inspiration and ideas for Leoda’s in San Francisco. Reminiscent of home, local farms featured in the menu are listed on a chalkboard near the register.

Local cuisine is highlighted in the likes of dreamy cream pies (macadamia chocolate praline!) and a rare, sashimi-grade ahi tuna sandwich ($15) on grilled rye bread, layered with avocado, caramelized Kula onions, Jarlsberg cheese, basil pesto, garlic aioli and watercress.

Rueben lumpia

Playfulness shows in appetizers like rueben lumpia ($8.25): corned beef, sauerkraut and provolone cheese fried and crispy, dipped in 1000 Island dressing. Reclaimed woods and farmhouse accents make the bright dining room inviting, but it’s also an easy roadside stop (being order-at-the-counter) to grab food to take back to one’s hotel or for a beach picnic, as you drive along the West Maui coast.

Sake flight at Star Noodle

STAR NOODLE, Lahaina

Ahi Avo

Up the hill from downtown Lahaina, Star Noodle is the hip, fun kind of noodle restaurant one finds in big cities: ultra fresh fish, festive drink menu and a modern aesthetic. Chef Sheldon Simeon is a James Beard nominated chef and Top Chef star, churning out an all-around pleasing menu downed with flights of sake and Stargaritas ($10-12), margaritas lively with fresh citrus like calamansi lime, lemon and orange.

Pork buns

Highlights include ahi avo, essentially a raw ahi tuna poke (market price), brightly tossed in lemon-pressed olive oil with a hint of heat from sambal chili sauce, or the common-but-nonetheless-satisfying Momofuku imitator of steamed pork buns ($10) dotted with hoisin sauce, shiitake mushrooms and cucumber. It’s hard to find a bad dish in the lot.

Beneath the lush mountains of Kepaniwai Park

TOUR DA FOOD, Maui – Bonnie Friedman

Chinese pagoda in Kepaniwai Park

True foodies would do well to schedule a tour with opinionated, informed local food writer and chef, Bonnie Friedman. During her intimate food tours, Tour Da Food, she leads you through completely under-the-radar food treasures. As a NY native, her no-nonsense, frank nature offers a unique perspective on Maui, while her nearly thirty years on the island means selections will be thoughtful and unusual.

New England salt box-style house in Heritage Gardens

She might begin the tour in the shadow of lush, green mountains in Kepaniwai Park’s Heritage Gardens. Having studied up on Hawaiian cuisine and history during each of my visits to four Hawaiian islands, I’ve seen no better snapshot of the range of cultures that formed its unique cuisine in one place. A Chinese pagoda, Japanese lake, Portuguese gardens and Spanish fountain coexist next to Hawaiian plantation structures and signs of Filipino influence – a few of the countries that collided here, forming Hawaiian cuisine. There’s a sacred spirit in the gardens, the right place to catch a bit of Friedman’s passion about for local food.

Butter mochi from local Hand Maid Bakery

Bring your appetite. You might begin with rich butter mochi from over 50 year old Home Maid Bakery, a local interpretation of Japanese mochi made with (you guessed it) butter. Then you’ll move on to out-of-the-way spots for a series of bites: markets, chemical and paper plant (true), even gas stations.

Sam Sato’s

Friedman leads a tour solely on gas station eats for those seeking the truly unusual. A mayo-rich casserole of Hawaiian opakapaka fish at a Chevron was a highlight of the tour, a special the owner only bakes on certain Fridays. These are the tips Friedman has in her deep knowledge of Maui food. Exploring the town of Wailuku, the one well-known stop we made was lunch at Sam Sato’s for dry mein (the non-broth version of classic Hawaiian noodle soup, saimin), teriyaki meat sticks (skewers of jerky-like, grilled beef), and warm pineapple or coconut turnovers.

Gorgeous & delicious: Molokai sweet potato egg frittata

SEA HOUSE RESTAURANT at NAPILI KAI BEACH RESORT, Lahaina

Da Kitchen Sink fried rice

Napili Kai’s Sea House open-air setting is a dreamy beachside respite (7-11am daily), and easily the best breakfast I had in Maui. Unusual dishes are even artful, like a fluffy Molokai sweet potato egg frittata ($10), dramatic with local purple potatoes, laced with spinach, caramelized Maui onions, and cheese in a spiced hollandaise and vegetable ragout.

Guava mimosas

Da Kitchen Sink fried rice ($10) is jasmine fried rice mixed with “da kitchen sink” catch-all of this and that: Portuguese sausage, onions, carrot, water chestnuts, pineapple and rock shrimp topped with two fried eggs over reprints of a vintage Honolulu newspaper. Sipping champagne (sparkling wine) and fresh guava juice, breakfast here is leisurely, soothing, truly a vacation.

ONO TACOS, Lahaina

Ono Tacos platter

Rather than the Hawaiian-style ahi tacos one finds throughout Hawaiian islands, roadside taco stand, Ono Tacos, transported me straight back to California with Sonoran-style tacos and authentic Mexican street food, even what is ubiquitous in SF: bacon-wrapped hot dogs.

LAHAINA GRILL, Lahaina

Tomatoes, bufala mozzeralla & sweet Maui onions

In the center of the bustling, touristy yet engaging little town of Lahiana is Lahaina Grill, locals and tourists’ favorite night out. It’s pricey, in keeping with $30-40′s entrees one typically sees around Hawaii, especially for what is a comfortable, not fine dining, setting.

Packed since 1990, Lahaina Grill is fiercely local, showcasing some of the best interpretations of Maui cuisine. $23 is outrageous for a tomato salad, but it’s a beauty of layers of local Olowalu tomatoes, bufala mozzarella and Maui onions doused in shaved basil, truffle oil, aged balsamic vinaigrette, olive oil and black Kilauea sea salt.

The Cake Walk: seafood cake trio

Their most popular starter is The Cake Walk ($24), a trio of mini seafood cakes: Maine lobster crab cake, Pacific Northwest white rock shrimp cake and seared ahi cake. Though each wasn’t quite as complex and interesting in flavor as I hoped, presentation was impressive.

Seared scallops

I fared best with generously portioned entrees, like hefty, seared California lion paw scallops ($41) over a celery root-herb mash. The dish is decadent in a relish of roasted Kula corn, sweet, grilled tomatoes, a lobster champagne sauce and crisp pancetta chips.

MALA OCEAN TAVERN, Lahaina

Mala’s ahi burger

The patio of beloved, tiny Mala Ocean Tavern was an ideal afternoon respite for watching sea turtles hovering along the shore just below the restaurant.

But I was let down by each dish and cocktail, including a flavorless ahi burger ($18.50), a thin, dry patty on a whole wheat bun… the one disappointing meal from my heavily researched Maui list of go-tos.

Nighttime in Napili Bay

Gelato, Shave Ice, Guri-Guri, Cookies

ONO GELATO, Lahaina

Gelato & espresso from Ono’s back deck

With two locations (Lahaina and Paia), Ono Gelato is top quality, local Maui gelato. Luxurious with heavy cream and whole milk, their flavors delight, from refreshing lemon thyme Chardonnay or cool cucumber mint to bracing chocolate stout or bacon doughnut. As a peanut butter fanatic, I am nuts about the Sandy Beach flavor. Peanut butter gelato, fortified with sea salt, graham cracker crumbs (the sandy part) and coconut crumble? Beautiful.

Worth a stop on its own, their coffee is the best I had on Maui from local roasters, the one place I found espressos and cappuccinos prepared with a European, even third wave, precision.

ULULANI’S HAWAIIAN SHAVE ICE, Lahaina

With three Maui locations, including a window tucked off the waterfront in Lahaina, Ululani’s is simply the best shave ice I’ve ever had on any of the islands. Akin to what Hansen’s Sno-Bliz does for sno-balls in New Orleans, Ululani’s steps up typically sugary, neon-colored flavorings and syrups with quality ingredients and a purer, fresher taste than you’ll find elsewhere. Special combos call out from a daily specials board, like a banana, lilikoi (passion fruit) and li hing mui (dried salted plum) winning me over with tart, tropical coolness. Add on traditional, creamy condensed milk and it’s perfection.

TASAKA GURI-GURI, Kahului

Tasaka Guri-Guri

In a humble, dated strip mall in commercial Kahului (near the airport), Tasaka Guri-Guri is a classic Maui shop serving merely two flavors of guri guri: strawberry and pineapple. With Japanese roots, the beloved treat of Hawaiian children is like a creamy sherbet, mixing juices and condensed milk in a secret family recipe. Candy sweet strawberry didn’t appeal to me but pineapple was lively and palate-cleansing. Around (moving locations) for nearly 100 years, it’s a Hawaiian institution worth visiting.

OLOWALU GENERAL STORE, Olowalu

Li Hing Mui ice

Right next door to Leoda’s Kitchen & Pie Shop, is Olowalu General Store, a humble general store/liquor mart since 1932 selling ready-to-eat snacks like bento boxes, spam musubi, and shave ice.

Where many drinks or shave ice versions of li hing mui (dried salted plum) around the islands are far sweeter than they should be (the best li hing mui-flavored items contrast salty and sweet) this shop does it right, blending a killer li hing mui ice, a salty-sweet refresher I’d stop by for any time on the road to Lahaina.

TOM’s MINI-MART, Wailuku

Tom’s shave ice

One of the stops during my tour with Bonnie Friedman (Tour Da Food), Tom’s Mini-Mart, serves giant shave ice with house made syrups from sweet staff who’ve been perfecting shave ice in this liquor mart for years. Powdery ice is best with condensed milk added over vivid tropical flavors.

BROKE DA MOUTH COOKIES, Kahului

Though a recent change in ownership at this cookie shop near the airport means I have no comparison to its earlier incarnation, Broke Da Mouth Cookies still seems to remain quite popular with locals. Everything is blessedly cheap, but I was disappointed in cinnamon rolls and dry cookies in general, but for a coffee mac nut shortbread, flecked with espresso bean flakes. Thankfully, they offer samples of all their shortbreads and cookies so you can decide on your favorite.

Idyllic luau setting, pre-sunset

LUAU

OLD LAHAINA LUAU, Lahaina

Whole pig being uncovered after roasting underground

From the owners of Leoda’s, Star Noodle and neighboring Aloha Mixed Plate (where one can dine on the food served at the luau), Old Lahaina Luau is known for serving above-average food from the majority of luaus available to travelers. Despite the kitschy nature of a touristy luau, I’ve always wanted to go once (even better, get invited to a locals’ luau). After the quality of their other restaurants, I knew this was the one.

Dessert platter

The food is a step above for buffet style food served to hundreds of people, even if not a destination for on its own merit.  It’s traditional fare like sweet potato, he’e poke (octopus), island crab salad, fried rice, lomilomi salmon, kalua pua’a pork, and the best: taro (poi) salad, lush in creamy coconut milk.

Old Lahaina Luau performance

Hand-cracked coconuts

Despite sickly sweet, juice-heavy Mai Tais (better to stick with Maui Brewing Co. beer) and herds of tourist families and couples, Old Lahaina Luau manages to capture that unique-to-Hawaii magic in its idyllic, seaside setting. Set to live music pre-show, attendees wander around getting their photos taken, drinking coconut water from coconuts cracked on rustic tools, watching demos of basket weaving and other local traditions.

After a spectacular sunset, wandering amidst palms, monkeypod trees, tiki torches and statues, tables are released one-by-one (like being at a wedding) to a massive, orchestrated buffet dinner. After dusk, lights go out and a slick but engaging show of dance, music and Hawaii’s history plays out, mesmerizing and well worth seeing once in a visit to Hawaii.

Sunset at the luau

Written by in: Wandering Traveler | Tags:
Mar
15
2013

Wandering Traveler

North shores of Maui on a stunning late morning drive

MAUI: Wailea and Upcountry

Article and photos by Virginia Miller

Meeting a crane along Wailea shores

My favorite stay in Maui was on the West side (see my article on West Maui). Wailea, with its posh resorts and mega-malls reminded me of the OC or Beverly Hills of Hawaii – not what I wanted to head to Hawaii for. But I relished in the sugar cane fields, country towns and mountain glories of Haleakalā.

Wailea

Though I’d choose to stay elsewhere on the island than “Real Housewives”-frienldy Wailea, a few of my best Maui meals were here… and sunsets were glorious.

MONKEYPOD by Merriman

Best Mai Tai on the island

The most contemporary, fun meal of my stay on this side of the island was Monkeypod. From famed Hawaii chef Peter Merriman, its beach-y, casual feel belies the chain-like exterior in a small shopping mall atop a hill looking down to the ocean.

Drink-wise, there’s 36 craft beers on tap, a sustainable wine list, and the best cocktails ($12 each) I had on all of Maui… craft cocktails are not easy to come by in these parts. Mai Tais are particularly butchered around the islands – often sickly sweet – despite being a signature Hawaii drink.

Monkeypod’s lively space

Not so Monekypod’s Mai Tai: Old Lahaina light rum and Maui dark rum co-mingle with lime, orgeat and orange curacao, the soft, egg-white of honey-lilkoi (passion fruit) foam making the drink a textural beauty. House cayenne-ginger beer enlivens Makers Mark bourbon, Angostura bitters and lemon, this drink, like each cocktail on the menu, light and bouncy, in keeping with island spirit, yet elevated.

Kale salad

Raw ahi poke tacos are pricey ($18.95) but bright with ginger and shoyu (soy), fresh with cabbage and avocado cream sauce in a crisp wonton shell. Kale macadamia nut salad ($10.95), enhanced with Maui onions, golden raisins, oranges, and a miso sesame vinaigrette, delivered the deep, leafy greens I was craving after over a week of fish and beef. Though a common style of salad in SF, kale is still a rarity on the islands (for the moment).

Creamy house pies

While the catch of the day fish sandwich ($17.95) was a little drier than I prefer, Thai chili aioli and slaw stepped it up. Rotating pies ($7.95 a slice) are one of the standouts here, whether a creamy strawberry or a salty caramel and chocolate.

Monkeypod doesn’t forge new territory but it’s one of the few places on Maui that’s current, hip and blessedly focused on organic, sustainable, local ingredients.

Waterways & private dining rooms inside Amasia

ALAN WONG’s AMASIA at GRAND WAILEA

Amasia – tucked away at Grand Wailea

I am sorry to report in my experience, Alan Wong’s new Amasia is style over substance. It’s an enchanting space, from the walk down through the massive, Vegas-like Grand Wailea resort, across a pond alight with lanterns, into the subterranean restaurant featuring curtained-off tables, bridges over waterways, and comfy lounge/bar area. Service is attentive and sitting on the floor at a private table is a memorable setting.

Amasia tomato

If only the food weren’t so uneven. When best-tasting dishes out of a creative-sounding menu are basics like $12 garlic-chive potstickers, you know you have a problem. Wong’s signature skinned, whole tomato makes for a striking “salad” ($12). It intrigued in what should be salty-sweet li hing mui (salty dried plum) dressing, but it was a sickly sweet pool of sauce clashing oddly with a bland tomato. “Soup and sandwich”($12) sounded delicious: a mini-grilled cheese and Kalua pork sandwich is decadent with foie gras over a martini glass of chilled, vine-ripened tomato soup. The sandwich was greasy, the soup tepid and the martini glass unwieldy, difficult to dip the sandwich in.

Haupia sorbet in dark chocolate shell

Sushi and robata were average and more costly than better options elsewhere. It’s all about the setting, decor and celebrity chef backing, but well-traveled foodies will be disappointed. Dessert, however, ended with the right note: light haupia (coconut milk-base) sorbet in a dark chocolate shell crusted in coconut flakes, graced with tropical fruits and passion fruit sauce.

KO at the FAIRMONT

Bread offering: no afterthought

The most consistent, upscale meal during my Wailea visit was Ko, a locally farm-sourced restaurant at the Fairmont hotel. Chef Tylun Pang crafts beautiful dishes, and even the elaborate bread tower to start is no afterthought.

Macadamia nut crusted fish of the day

Ko combines the many cultural influences on local cuisine, from Filipino to Portuguese, in its Hawaiian dishes. Dishes are pricey ($20′s-$40′s for entrees) but not atypical for upscale dining in Hawaii. Standouts included fresh fish catch of the day crusted in macadamia nuts doused in tomato ginger butter with artfully whipped purple Molokai sweet potatoes. “Ahi On the Rock You Sear It” ($26) is a long name for raw ahi seared to your preferred degree over a stone, then dipped in shichimi-spiced orange ginger miso sauce. A presentation akin to what you might see at Morimoto restaurants.

Live Hawaiian music from solo musicians on guitar or ukelele ideally suit the outdoor setting.

Sear your own ahi on a sizzling stone at Ko at the Fairmont Hotel

SWEET PARADISE CHOCOLATIER
In a nondescript shopping mall next to Monkeypod is Sweet Paradise, my favorite chocolatier on Maui. Local flavors play in truffles like Island Spice utilizing Big Island ginger, cloves, vanilla bean, or Kiawe (a local thorny tree) – smoked sea salt caramels covered in dark chocolate. More local delights: lime in the coconut, POG (the island juice beloved by Hawaiian children mixing passion fruit, orange, guava juices), or lilikoi silk, a blend of passion fruit, mango and Cognac.

View from my Wailea Ekahi Village condo

Kihei

FABIANI’S BAKERY & PIZZA

Stunning Maui sunsets from Wailea coastline

In the low key town Kihei, humble neighbor to ritzy Wailea, Fabiani’s Bakery & Pizza is a surprising breakfast respite, particularly for impeccable quiche. It’s not the best I’ve ever had (that title belongs to Tartine in SF), but it’s closer to that then the standard quiche one usually finds. Flaky, buttery crust and fluffy eggs with local vegetables and meats make for a lovely breakfast with bracing Hawaiian coffee, hefty cinnamon rolls and pastries.

LAVA JAVA COFFEE

Convenient kitchen in my Wailea condo

My coffee fix in Kihei/Wailea was Lava Java. Winning numerous awards, even up against pricier, famed Kona coffee, Lava Java’s robust roasts stood up in iced coffees on warm Maui days and felt like a return to the island as I brewed their beans at home the following week.

Striking sugarcane fields in Upcountry Maui

Upcountry

Doughnuts on a stick

Maui’s bountiful farmland, ranches, rolling hills and sugarcane fields leading to the base of 10,000 ft. Haleakalā… sigh. Driving through Upcountry was one of my favorite Maui explorations. A surprising hippie and farm-fresh contingency proliferates in tiny Upcountry towns.

T. KOMODA BAKERY, Makawao
Legendary Komoda Bakery is ALL that. Expecting the dingy but beloved bakery, renowned for its cream puffs, to be overrated, I was delighted to find it worth a detour, though not being a cream puff fanatic, my loyalties were fully to the macadamia and coconut doughnuts on a stick and to the oozing guava malasadas. Let the cravings commence!

RODEO GENERAL STORE, Makawao

Komoda: baked fresh each day

Rodeo General Store: an unexpected gem I stumbled upon for local, fresh produce, a range of kale salads, fruit smoothies and juices, served with a smile from friendly staff.

COLLEEN’s, Haiku
Breakfast at Colleen’s was a bit of a disappointment (bland mountains of egg and ok pastries), though how I could not be charmed by a town named Haiku, poetry lover that I am? I have it on trusted authority (Bonnie Friedman of Tour Da Food, among other writers) that dinners here are among the most underrated on the island.

AKAMAI COFFEE CO., Kahului

Akamai drive-thru

Not located in Upcountry but rather in the congested town of Kahului near the airport, Akamai Coffee Co is an excellent drive-through coffee stand. Iced coffees are bracing and invigorating, dark and rich perfection.

HIGHER GROUND CAFE, Haleakala

View from Higher Ground

Roughly halfway up the mountain is Higher Ground cafe, serving basic teas, coffee and pastries. These elements aren’t notable, rather it’s worthwhile as a rest stop up or down the mountain, with striking views, horse rides, gardens and a lavender farm.

Aloha Cowboy – example of shops in the tiny, Wild West-meets-Hawaii-town of Makawao

Written by in: Wandering Traveler | Tags:
Jan
19
2013

Wandering Traveler

An unforgettable moment: flying over Big Island volcanoes with Paradise Helicopters

Hawaii, the Big Island

Article and photos by Virginia Miller

Northern coast from Paradise Helicopters

Volcanoes. Black rock expanses. Coffee berries growing on mountain foothills. Some of the best stargazing in the world. Rolling, green farmland. Waterfalls. Sandy beaches. Singing classic Hawaiian tunes to ukelele under the stars. These are but a few things I beheld and experienced on Hawaii, the Big Island. Flying around the entire island via helicopter (I’d recommend Paradise Helicopters’ circle island tour) is the best way to witness the vast range of Big Island landscape, more varied and vast than any of the islands – and thus it can take longer to drive than any other Hawaiian island. Paradise Helicopters landed dramatically on the lawn of my Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa at Keahou Bay (they can arrange personalized pick-ups), flying from misty, green Hilo to the farmland of Wailea. The island’s northern valleys, cliffs and canyons reminded me of the unforgettable Kauai helicopter ride I took in 2011.

Sunset atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii's tallest mountain

Tour guide extraordinaire Warren Costa cuts pineapple

Circling over bubbling volcanoes as they release vapors and red lava is an unforgettable moment. Exploring Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park with Warren Costa, owner of Native Guide Hawaii, brought an insider’s perspective of jungle growth, lava tubes, steam vents and volcanic rock shimmering in the sun, beholding craters and ocean views from lava-marked cliffs.

Stargazing atop Mauna Kea, a 13,000+ foot mountain, is another one of those only-on-Hawaii’s-Big-Island experiences. Easily 40-60 degrees cooler up the mountain than it is below, I disappeared in scarves, gloves, coats and a hat, spotting shooting stars, constellations and planets through state-of-the-art telescopes.

Blissful hammock mornings on the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel beach

My favorite hotel this visit was on the luxurious Kohala Coast: Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows. My peaceful room was small but well-appointed, with a soothing king size bed, wood-paneled doors separating the bathrooms, and Japanese aesthetic. I especially loved my top floor deck overlooking the ocean and divine sunsets. Blue reclining chairs line the beach, the best spot for morning coffee and a book – there’s even a hammock draped between tall palms. I was greeted with lei and tropical juice upon arrival. The nightly ritual of a figure moving around the expansive grounds at sunset with a torch, blowing the pū (conch shell) is a beautiful tradition I wish I could experience every night at home.

Helicopter lands on Sheraton Kona lawn

Being on a press trip, I wasn’t able to venture off on my own as much to uncover and dig for gems to the level I prefer.

Nonetheless, I discovered numerous edible treasures (listed below), enveloped by the wild yet relaxed spirit and arresting nature of Hawaii’s Big Island.

Sunset from my room at Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows

13 Edible Big Island Finds

KELLY BOY PEANUT BUTTER MILK BREAD

The best thing I ate on the Big Island

My single greatest local taste on the Big Island can be found at chain groceries, KTA Super Stores, on the rainy, lush Hilo side of the island: Kelly Boy Peanut Butter Milk Bread. This discovery is thanks to tour guide Warren Costa of Native Guide Hawaii who brought loaves of milk bread on our journeys through Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park (not to mention an array of local fruits and plate lunch treats). Versions of airy, malleable, comforting milk bread exist historically in Western and Eastern cultures. While I’d never complain about regular milk bread, it’s the peanut butter version, swirled with streaks of sugary, nutty peanut butter, that elicited sighs of delight… and insatiable cravings ever since.

Precious moment: chicks take cover under mama as it rains outside a coffee shop in Hilo

KONA COFFEE CULTURAL FESTIVAL

Mountainside coffee picking setting

Visiting Hawaii, the Big Island, during the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival in November is a coffee fanatic’s dream. Strolling the typically sleepy village of Hōlualoa, the one-street town is packed with attendees buzzing on coffee samples from numerous Kona growers, exploring art galleries in cottages alongside historic Hawaiian churches.

UCC's coffee picking competition

The Big Island’s laid back ease permeates the pace of the entire festival, even UCC Hawaii Kona Coffee Picking Contest, which I competed in myself (in the amateur portion, naturally), picking as many berries (without stems and leaves) as possible in a timed couple minutes. It’s much harder than you’d think.

The festival’s good-natured president, Mel Morimoto, who grew up on his parents’ coffee farm, exemplifies the lighthearted flow of the week. I also had the privilege of being a judge in a cooking competition utilizing Kona coffee, the Kona Coffee Recipe Contest & Big Island Showcase at Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa at Keahou Bay.

Fruit and Baked Goods at the KEAUHOU FARMERS MARKET

Rambutan at Keauhou Farmers Market

A tour with food writer Joan Namkoong included farmers market visits, as she’s been instrumental in the growth of Oahu and Hawaii Island farmers markets. At the Keauhou Farmers Market in a Kailua-Kona strip mall parking lot, I consumed juicy rambutan (a cousin to the lychee with rosy pink, “hairy” skin) and succulent passion fruit. I find these fruits at home in Chinatown, Richmond or Sunset markets, devouring them regularly during my three months in Southeast Asia. Alongside tree tomatoes (tamarillo) and giant avocados, these locally grown fruits are exceptionally flavorful – a prime example of the array of foods and cultures that collide in Hawaii.

Shaka pie

I love Kona’s Earthly Delights baked goods, including tart lilikoi (passion fruit) bars and tropical “Shaka Pie”, identical to whoopie pie: fluffy Hawaiian pumpkin gingerbread filled with lilikoi ginger cream cheese.

Another interesting purveyor is When Pigs Fly Island Charcuterie, where Southern BBQ meets Korean influence with house sausages thrown in for good measure. Cuisine mashup is apparent in their version of ubiquitous Korean pork tacos: Southern BBQ pulled pork on a corn tortilla, accented by kimchi, pickled daikon and carrots.

Steaming crater seen on foot in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park

Sushi at MONSTERA

Tuna tataki at Monstera

On my flight from Honolulu, I discovered Monstera by happenstance sitting next to a Big Island local who happened to be a notable person in the wine and spirits industry. Monstera’s rather corporate-looking, upstairs location in an outdoor shopping mall near my Kohala Coast hotel, Mauna Lani, would not have appealed if I hadn’t known Tokyo sushi master Norio Yamamoto had moved there not long before.

Li hing mui margaritas in the sand at Fairmont Orchid

Norio’s in the Fairmont Orchid was on my go-to list. Having heard Norio’s sushi was the best on the island, I was hoping to visit while lodging nearby.

Sipping li hing mui (salty dried plum) margaritas on the sand at the Orchid was a pleasure, but I never made it to Norio’s as my flight companion informed me that Norio was now at Monstera, which he co-owns and operates with the  gracious Wes Monty.

It was among the best meals of my trip on multiple islands. Pristine fish, fresh sushi, Korean sweet and spicy chicken, bright calamari salad… there’s not a bad dish in the lot. A solid sake selection helps it go down easily.

The at times apocalyptic Big Island views of lava rock & sea

Smothered Pork Chops at the MANAGO HOTEL

Neon Manago signage

An authentic slice of Big Island history and damn good, cheap food (entrees under $15) make the Manago Hotel a must for dedicated foodies.

A historic, little roadside inn since 1917 on the sleepy mountain slopes of the town of Captain Cook, the hotel’s restaurant features a dozen straightforward, unchanging dishes in a humble yet somehow heartwarming dining room.

This is down home cooking, from grilled butterfish squeezed with lemon to the justifiably famed fried pork chop smothered in gravy and grilled onions.

The pork chop is easily the best dish I had on the island.

Nightly pu & fire ritual at Mauna Lani Bay Hotel

Flowers grow in volcanic expanse of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Banana Bread at COFFEES ‘N EPICURES

Baked goods spread

A humble, little Honaunau coffee shop, Coffees ‘N Epicures, looks like a ’70′s rock hut with dated signage. Inside there’s robust local coffee, a charming back patio, sweet service and fresh baked goods, including soft banana bread and mango bread, scones, macadamia nut sticky buns. I couldn’t resist hilarious, locally made greeting cards of geckos (actually posed, not computer generated, the cards brag) sewing clothes, baking food, etc… It’s a fantastic local bakery with character.

Beer at KONA BREWING COMPANY

Sampling beers at Kona Brewing Co.

Among the best of Hawaiian beers are made by Kona Brewing Company, from father and son team Cameron Healy and Spoon Khalsa. A visit to the brewery is a must for beer lovers on the Big Island.

In an industrial part of Kailua-Kona away from the coast, the restaurant’s outdoor patio is smartly enclosed by palms and greenery, it feels like an island escape though surrounded by concrete. Pub food is serviceable but you come for the beers, particularly special brews you can only find on draft here in their home setting.

A sea turtle sunbathes in the sand along the Kohala Coast

Historic General Store and Market: KEAUHOU STORE

A gem: Keauhou Store

Perched on a cliff amidst the coffee plantations of Hōlualoa is Keauhou Store, built in 1919 by Japanese immigrant Yoshisuke Sasaki who ran the store for decades, as did his son Rikio after him. They sold musical instruments, bikes (in the 1950′s, Rikio sold the first Schwinn and Columbia bicycles in Kona), radios, shoes, Kona coffee. They even operated as a gas station for a time, while also farming and processing coffee and macadamia nuts.

Keauhou Store shelves

Rikio passed away in 2009. Thankfully, the store was lovingly restored by Kurt and Thea Brown in 2011, retaining that “old timey” general store feel, showcasing Big Island memorabilia: vintage bikes, instruments, radios, a rare record collection of Hawaiian and Japanese artists from the 1950′s and prior. Also, it’s a mini-grocery, selling wine, beer, Kona coffee, Thea’s homemade cookies, and more. A charming slice of island history worth a stop if anywhere near the area.

Honey & the Museum at BIG ISLAND BEES

Fresh orchids front wallpaper

What a surprise to head up the mountain in Captain Cook (near Kona) and find Big Island Bees tucked away, a honey farm and mini-museum designed by artists from New York (who showed at the Guggenheim Museum, no less), husband/wife Garnett and Whendi Puett.

Garnett is a fourth generation beekeeper and the couple’s artistic background is apparent in the design of their tasting room/museum: hand pressed wallpaper, poetry about honey, antique tools, even a couple of Garnett’s impressive beeswax sculptures which have shown internationally.

Big Island Bees honey

Their elegantly packaged honey comes in three varieties: ‘Ohi’a Lehua (floral, light, creamy), Wilelaiki (my favorite with subtle spice and savory notes), and Macadamia Nut Blossom (dark, rich, sweet, velvety).

For art and food lovers, this is a unique stop.

Crashing waves from the coastline in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park

Dining by UKELELE & MOONLIGHT at CANOEHOUSE

CanoeHouse tastes

A CanoeHouse dinner under the stars, wind sweeping the palms and inciting waves, is an unforgettable experience… especially when dining with Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows‘ cultural historian on all things Hawai‘i Island, Danny Akaka, and Hawaii Big Island Visitors Bureau Executive Director, George Applegate, who serenaded us by ukelele as Danny’s wife, Anna, danced under the palms. Time stopped and the image remains the single, most iconic image of the Big Island captured in mind.

Serenade by moonlight

Food is almost irrelevant in such a moment, but thankfully CanoeHouse’s Chef de Cuisine Allen Hess has a skilled hand with local ingredients. In keeping with the Kohala Coast and Hawaii in general, it’s an expensive meal ($16-24 for appetizers, $36-48 entrees), although there is a bar if you wish to go for a lighter meal/bill.

The menu is grouped by sections (farmer, rancher, fisherman) with listed purveyors, a common practice of farm-to-table restaurants. Fine dining plates are tempered by Chef Hess’ playful touches, particularly in dishes like Hawaiian hogs pasteles (a whopping $37 for a variation on the tamale) filled with chicken, pumpkin, coconut, or Korean-braised goat “tacos” ($18) on a bao bun, using local Waimea meat.

Local Ingredients at HOLUAKOA GARDENS CAFE

A beautiful Capri salad

Lunch on the peaceful outdoor patio of Holuakoa Gardens Cafe in the foothills village of Hōlualoa, yielded a few dishes ($7.50-$32) that unfortunately sounded (and looked) better than they tasted. Though “local, sustainable, organic” have long been norms, not exceptions, where I’m from, they are not many places, surprisingly including Hawaii. Thankfully, it continues to become more commonplace here as around the US. The strength of this cafe is that it adheres to all these principals, utilizing produce from farms within five miles and fish from local wild-caught purveyors, uncommon in Hawaii in general. “Local” works best in a lovely Capri salad ($12) with green Heirloom tomatoes, sweet onion, fresh mozzarella, house pesto and grilled wedges of ciabatta bread.

Mornings with coffee & a journal at the Sheraton Kona

Poke at Sam Choy’s KAI LANAI

Raw shoyu poke

Hawaiian celebrity chef Sam Choy was easily the friendliest chef I met at Pebble Beach Food & Wine Classic last year. His good cheer doesn’t exactly translate to the chain-like look of his casual newer restaurant in Kailua-Kona, Sam Choy’s Kai Lanai, aided by ocean views from its cliff perch.

Superior edamame hummus

A Big Island native often credited as the “Godfather of poke”, his classic poke ($12) is the thing to order. I equally like raw, silky shoyu (soy) marinated poke and seared, lightly fried poke. Having tried many an edamame hummus, Sam’s version, mixed with spinach, garlic, and olive oil, scooped up by grilled pita wedges, is an exceptional one. Entrees were uneven and cocktails of the dated/’80′s kind, but appetizers and an ocean view make it a pleasurable respite for those wanting to sample the influence of the most famous chef to hail from the Big Island.

Steam rises from the ground near volcanoes

Watching Manta Rays at RAYS ON THE BAY

View from my comfy room at the Sheraton Kona

Though dinner was lackluster at Rays on the Bay, the open air restaurant with large patio and bar area overlooking a lit ocean cove where manta rays congregate is a rare and magical setting. Live Hawaiian music or pop tunes sung to soothing ukelele make it a transporting, romantic, setting for a drink or dessert. Watching manta rays feed is mesmerizing.

Manta ray wall photo in Rays on the Bay magical open air bar

Ending the day here is a must if staying at Rays’ hotel base, the recently renovated Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa at Keahou Bay. The hotel’s strengths including striking ocean views and pools (though overrun with children screaming down the slide during the day – not exactly restful if your room happens to face the pool), warmly modern, comfortable rooms, dramatic coastal lava rock, and coffee downstairs at Keauhou Coffee Company, featuring Mama’s Kona Coffee, a favorite of the many coffees I sampled during the Kona Coffee Festival. Mama and her daughters were there pouring coffee themselves on a Saturday morning.

The northern Big Island coast via helicopter

Written by in: Wandering Traveler | Tags:
Jun
01
2011

Wandering Traveler

Hotels, Coffee and Rum in KAUAI, HAWAII

Kauai coast from Kauai Coffee Plantation

Kauai… dreamy island respite, painfully beautiful, truly relaxing (other than East side traffic!) Last issue, I covered restaurants and cheap eats on the island. This time it’s best places to stay and drink (read the 5/15 issue for best cocktails on Kauai).

HOTELS

View from my Grand Hyatt room

GRAND HYATT KAUAI, Poipu Beach – Do yourself a favor and stay at Grand Hyatt Kauai. A resort in the full sense of the word, it is its own escape and world unto itself. From lava rock waterways and multiple levels of pools (including a salt water/sand pool) to its world class spa, Anara (go for the open air couples cabanas), you leave here feeling as if you’ve truly had vacation.

Spacious Grand Hyatt room

Dinner at Tidepools, pina coladas sipped poolside, taking in the sunset from the deck of your room with a bottle of wine, conversing with the parrots in the massive open-air atrium, taking in live bands and a scotch in Stevenson’s Library… its all unforgettable.

Yes, it will cost you, but service is impeccable and the experience ranks up there (or better) with the best I’ve had anywhere – that includes Ritz Carlton or Four Seasons. The unreal setting, balmy by day, lit by tiki torches at night, is unbeatable.

View from Outrigger patio

OUTRIGGER WAIPOLI, Kapaa – My initial take on Outrigger Waipouli Beach Resort wasn’t strong. On a busy, strip mall-lined stretch of East Kauai in the town of Kapaa, its appears fairly generic from the outside, while kids swarm the lovely pool area (modeled loosely after Grand Hyatt’s incredible pools and waterways – the one spa for adults was overtaken by 8 children).

Walking down a non-descript hallway to our ‘room’, the door opened into what felt like our own private beach house. Two bedrooms, three bathrooms, spacious living room and kitchen, each room had sliding doors opening up onto the lawn running to right to the beach.

Beach coastline on Grand Hyatt property

Breezes flowed through the space, which felt private and removed from a hotel structure. Dishware, wine glasses, coffeemaker, everything we could need was in the kitchen, making it feel like a home away from home. It was the one part of the trip where we could cook and watch movies (“Blue Hawaii”, thank you very much) on flat screens in each room.

Though the location is not near as idyllic or removed as Grand Hyatt on Poipu Beach (certainly more affordable), inside our room we felt secluded, rested and as if we could settle in for weeks.

Kauai Coffee Plantation along the coast

DRINK

Roasted beans at Kauai Coffee

KAUAI COFFEE PLANTATION, Eleele - Originally McBryde Sugar Plantation back in the 1880′s, Kauai Coffee is Kauai’s one and only coffee plantation, encompassing over 3000 acres right up to the ocean. A more striking setting I could not envision. A half day personal tour with their amazing sales manager, Marty Amaro, was a highlight in Kauai. We off-roaded in his truck over red dirt roads, through coffee fields, next to ocean rocks where we watched sea turtles lolling.

They do everything locally themselves. I toured the factory, climbed atop a coffee harvesting tractor, witnessed bean roasting and bagging (on a vertical form, fill & seal machine), and, of course, sipped Kauai Coffee. Amaro makes a mean iced mocha, let me tell you what. I was envisioning a sweet, chocolate-ly drink but it’s a bracing, coffee lovers delight, refreshing and cool on a hot, island day.

Coffee bean plants

Kauai Coffee grows farm varietals of Arabic coffee: yellow catuai, red catuai (both high acidity for medium-bodied coffee), typica (medium acidity for medium-bodied coffee), Kauai Blue Mountain (medium acidity and full-bodied), and Mundo Novo (low acidity but full-bodied).

They run the largest drip-irrigated coffee estate in the world, sourcing waters from a nearby dam in the foothills, roasting over 600,000 lbs. of coffee a year: an amazing feat when you see the size of the room it all happens in. Similar to wine seasons, harvesting happens annually (around September through November) when staff double in size to get it all processed.

The coffee club is monthly cost of the beans, a reasonable $15.25 for one 10 oz. bag or $29 for two. Besides some of the elegant estate coffees, I find the newer Big Braddah a real representation of Kauai spirit: casual, familial, playful. Definitely NOT a flavored coffee type, I am pleasantly embarrassed to admit I was taken with their Hawaiian Coconut Caramel Crunch coffee. They painstakingly hand-flavor each batch and this one was not at all sweet, particularly integrated and nutty.

Kauai Coffee should be a stop on any visit to Kauai.

Koloa Rum Co. Tasting Room

KOLOA RUM, LihueKoloa Rum is a bit of a ‘mixed bag’. The setting is memorably Hawaiian: a traditional sugar plantation-style tasting room on the grounds of the delightful Kilohana Plantation (a former sugar plantation preserved as it was in its 1930′s heyday). Their elegant packaging reflects the setting, making for a strong first impression.

Staff are gracious and aim to please. But complex Hawaii liquor laws are such that tastes remain exceptionally tiny, cannot be shared, and though they have created a mai tai mix, they cannot mix alcohol or make a cocktail of any kind.

Setting of Koloa Rum on Kilohana Plantation

Using a 1210 gallon copper pot still originally used for Kentucky bourbons post World War II, their white, gold and dark rums work best as entry points to rum. I know some who find it flat or not as nuanced as other rums, yet each one has won bronze or silver medals at esteemed rum tasting competitions like the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival.

I expected to find the Gold ($30.95) and Dark ($32.95) rums too sweet given their somewhat unnatural coloring, though they tell me this comes from crystallized sugar and molasses. They were more balanced than I expected. The one I’d be most inclined to drink is the White ($29.95): clean and light, appropriate for cocktails. They recently launched their Spiced Rum.

Java Kai

If in the area, it is a worthy stop as a local venture, using the last of the little sugarcane even left from the island and pure mountain rainwater of nearby Mt. Wai’ale’ale.

JAVA KAI, Kapaa – The best coffee I had in Kauai, the bracing coffee at Java Kai is a local favorite for a strong cappuccino or espresso. Java Kai doesn’t have the friendliest staff (unusual for Hawaii in general), but it’s no matter when coffee is prepared right. It was my regular morning stop on this side of the island (PS – it’s ideal iced, too; next door to Mermaids Cafe).

KALAHEO CAFE, Kalaheo - On the South shore of Kauai, this casual cafe would be at home in any hip small town. Kalaheo Cafe has a healthy, locals vibe and is packed for breakfast. Eat in or take out, stand-outs include straight-from-the-oven baked goods (apple coffee cake, for one).

Using local coffees like Kauai Coffee, they serve robust espressos and cappuccinos. There may be no third wave, artful foam atop that capp, but rest assured it will wake you up. For one picky about coffee and how it is prepared, I didn’t feel like I had to suffer for good coffee on the sleepy island of Kauai.

Lovely mix of gin, lime, coconut milk at Stevenson's Library

Tiki torches illuminate Grand Hyatt at night

Written by in: Wandering Traveler | Tags: , ,
May
15
2011

Wandering Traveler

Unforgettable and breathtaking: the Napali Coast via helicopter

KAUAI, HAWAII

Feeding pigs at Kilohana Plantation

After brilliant days exploring Honolulu and Oahu, I knew it was going to get better with Kauai, based on what everyone who had ever been told me. As a non-athletic type, I wasn’t going to Kauai for aggressive hikes and surfing. I prefer soaking in nature, reading poetry and taking walks on beaches, and, of course, searching for great local food.

Certainly traffic jams are a jarring shock on the East side of the island near Lihue and particularly in Kapaa. One lane roads at a dead stop along a few stretches of mini-strip malls are downright irritating. I almost missed my flight home as it took one hour to go the 10 miles from Kapaa to Lihue Airport (the day before the same route took 10 minutes).

Sunset on Kauai

But on the South and North shores there was little to no traffic. Even in Lihue, where the main airport is based, mountains and fields surround the tiny town. Kauai is imminently more laid back than the already relaxed Oahu, though Honolulu is clearly the leader in food and dining.

Chickens roam Kauai

A helicopter ride over the famed Napali Coast and around the entirety of Kauai is nothing short of magical. Though you will spend roughly $350 per person, it is worth it. It was $250 paying in cash (?) at Inter-island Helicopters. Their friendly, fun staff and pilot gave us a wonderful, hour-long tour, but take note: those shiny, red ‘copters on the website are not the ones we rode. It was more like old army helicopters, open air with no doors, which is terrifying as you take off. You quickly become accustomed to it and it gives you a far more interactive experience.

Waimea Canyon from the air

I can honestly say this was one of the best travel adventures of my life… and I’ve traveled to five continents. Views are breathtaking, yes, but getting up close and personal is the real thrill.

On a less windy day, our pilot flew close into craters and mountain niches, through the gorgeous Waimea Canyon, over blowholes and coffee plantations, along the coastline. We covered the entire island, smelled incessant rains from the highest peaks, took in the pristine blue of the ocean.

Lush waterfalls cover the island

Whatever you do on Kauai, do this. Next time I will try an ocean boat ride, the only other way to actually see the Napali Coast without hiking it (an arduous journey for the hardcore and even then you cannot hike its entirety). I am certain, full of thrills though a boat ride may be, it will not give the all-encompassing view over all of the island seen via air.

No matter how you see it, see Kauai at least once in your life. It’s incredible how this tiny island enchants, wrapping you up in its mellow spell.

Next time, it’s part two on Kauai, featuring hotels and drink.

Kilohana Plantation grounds from the train ride

MID-RANGE

Daily menu of what's fresh from the garden

22 NORTH, Lihue – Maybe the best meal I had in Kauai, and certainly the most creative, 22 North is on the grounds of Kilohana Plantation. Kilohana, minus touristy jewelry shops and such, is among the last remaining glimpses of the sugar glory days of Hawaii. Retaining its 1930′s spirit, lazy breezes blow through the original house (a few rooms still intact with ’30′s decor), while whiffs of whole pig roasting underground for their luau intoxicate.

Plantation garden view from patio

Touristy family factor aside, I enjoyed an hour and a half ride on a 1939 Whitcomb diesel engine train, taking in 50 varieties of fruits and vegetables growing alongside the tracks on their working farm. The best part is stopping to feed bread to a herd of pigs.

I then sat in the courtyard of the plantation house for a meal at 22 North. ‘Farm fresh’ is no exaggeration here with many ingredients straight from their grounds. The playful, contemporary hand given to many a dish is reason enough to dine here.

Ambitious, garden-fresh cocktails

Cocktails were the best I had on Kauai. Intriguingly, one was unlike any other I’ve had before – a rare occurrence for me anywhere, much less in a region not known for cocktails. Blue Rhum ($8) duly impressed with light rum, their own Kilohana pineapple, lime, and a stunning frond of African blue basil. Aromatic and sophisticated. Though their Paloma Fresca ($8) was a bit unbalanced between the tequila and grapefruit, it benefited from local citrus and Kiawe honey. 

Fried Green Tomatoes ($11) give a nod to the South with tomatoes from their farm encrusted in cornmeal, plus romaine salad in a Maui onion buttermilk chive dressing.

Fried Green Tomatoes

Their burger ($11) is satisfyingly juicy made with local meat (rotates between beef, lamb or veal), and Cubano Sandwich ($9) is pulled pork and house-cured ham laden with homemade pickles and mustard.

They serve gougeres ($5) with fennel honey butter, baccala fritters ($7) with macadamia nut romesco, and sesame-crusted tuna ($28) poached in carrot/ginger/white wine with a forbidden rice cake.

Coconut Porter Float

Dessert (all $8) is another highlight here. Local fruit pie utilizes fruits from their grounds, warm, topped with a scoop of Kauai’s own Lappert’s vanilla ice cream, and a surprisingly French-quality pie crust: flaky, buttery.

They have four different “Adult” Floats ($12) all with ice cream, beer or spirits… oddly delightful. Though I’ve had beer floats before, not one with the refreshing tang of a Coconut Porter Float with Maui Brewing Co. Coconut Porter and toasted coconut.

All around, this meal was the most uniquely satisfying of my Kauai visit, best representing local bounty.

Feeding the pigs on our Kilohana Plantation train ride

Lychee Sangria prepared tableside

JOSSELIN’S, Koloa – The one disappointing meal of the week was by no means bad. Josselin’s Tapas Bar & Grill fell short of how well it read on the menu. Ambitious and hip, the space is bustling, full even at 10pm, which is quite late in sleepy Kauai. Josselin’s had an urban vibe and youthful crowd.

Poached dumplings

Cocktails veer towards the sweet, vodka end, not my cup of tea, though they exert effort preparing some of them tableside with fresh fruits and herbs. A nice touch.

Tapas, like Coffee Smoked Pork Tonkatsu with banana crispy bao in buttermilk BBQ dressing, or Scallop Pillows in cardamom coconut broth with galangal and ‘Drunken Grapes’, sound so intriguing. It was a letdown when flavors and presentation did not quite meld or were even discordant.

Most dishes were solid but slightly off. I appreciate the ambition and think with greater precision and proper assessing of flavors, Josselin’s could be a shining example of culinary island creativity.

CHEAP EATS

Mark's beef musubi

MARK’S PLACE, Lihue – My top plate lunch meal of the trip, Mark’s Place is a true locals gem. It’s a clean hole-in-the-wall with creative daily specials on top of traditional Loco Moco, beef stew and chicken katsu, alongside salads and dessert.

Mark's blackened mahi

Specials are not only ultra-fresh but gourmet. I loved a dish of Blackened Mahi Mahi ($8.95), gently drizzled in a lilikoi (passion fruit) mustard sauce, over quinoa and sauteed spinach. A green salad in papaya seed dressing accompanied.

It’s a steal at that price, of restaurant quality. Instead, it’s take-out in an industrial zone frequented by blue collar workers sharing one outdoor picnic table. Their simple, fresh musubi ($2.25), particularly teriyaki beef, makes a fine snack.

Chef Mark Oyama also runs the most popular catering company on the island, Contemporary Flavors. Their wedding and party menus incorporate the best in regional foods. Locals were quick to tell me this one is a personal favorite.

Kountry Kitchen

KOUNTRY KITCHEN, KapaaKountry Kitchen was my top breakfast on Kauai. Packed with locals, my eyes widened at the site of maybe the most massive pancakes I’ve seen (and I’ve had some gigantic ones). Good thing I saw them before ordering two. It’s a mere $6-8 for two pancakes, which could feed a few.

Macadamia nut pancakes are popular but I couldn’t resist the day’s special: Elvis Pancakes. Yes, this means peanut butter and bananas, the King’s beloved combo. Accompanied with awesome house coconut syrup, it was perfection.

Shrimp Station

SHRIMP STATION, Waimea – If you’re going to Waimea, don’t miss this classic shrimp window with outdoor picnic tables, reminiscent of shrimp trucks and window fronts on Oahu’s North Shore. Shrimp Station serves killer coconut shrimp, plus beer-battered, garlic or sweet chili garlic.

A basket of coconut shrimp is juicy, not sweet but savory with ginger papaya tartar sauce. The pace is slow lingering at picnic tables in this sleepy little town. Quintessential southern Kauai.

Island Taco

ISLAND TACOS, WaimeaIsland Taco wasn’t stand-out so much as an example of what seems to be a common ahi preparation in these parts: seared ahi drenched in wasabi aioli. At Island Taco, get a taco or burrito – expensive $8 tacos. At least they’re loaded with ahi in a slightly charred tortilla. Though the ahi is fresh, you have to not mind excess mayo. There’s the likes of Kalua pork and seasoned tofu tacos, too.

Koloa's octopus poke

KOLOA FISH MARKET , KoloaKoloa Fish Market is authentic, plate lunch Hawaiian cuisine in a take-out only shop. It’s beloved on Southern Kauai, serving heaps of Kalua pork, lau lau (shredded pork wrapped in a taro leaf), and all kinds of poke from raw ahi to octopus. Ordering food and taking it back to our Grand Hyatt porch with a bottle of wine was a pleasure.

Koloa's Fish Market

Though cheap and plentiful, I found flavors not particularly impressive. I’m crazy about fish (raw, cooked, any which way), but this is no pristine poke experience. Fresh as it is, I find eating at similar hole-in-the-walls around Hawaii, authenticity seems to mean hunks of seafood, drowning in oil, well-prepared but lacking an ultra-fresh, of-the-sea taste.

Their salty, fall-apart pork (in lau lau or Kalua styles) was better than the seafood but not as satisfying for me as pulled pork barbecue from the South. I find plenty to love in local Hawaiian cooking, but personally find more flavor and finesse with raw fish in other culinary styles.

PAPALANI GELATO, Koloa – It’s no Italian gelato or San Francisco ice cream (a la Humphry or Bi-Rite), but Papalani Gelato is organic with straightforward island flavors like lilikoi, mango, papaya or macadamia nut. It’s the go-to local ice cream shop (as opposed to sugary, lower quality ice cream at the shop a couple doors down – I tried both).

Mermaids Cafe

MERMAIDS CAFE, KapaaMermaids Cafe is about one thing: Ahi Nori Wraps ($9.45). Basically a giant burrito in a green tortilla with a layer of nori/seawood, it’s stuffed with seared ahi tuna tossed in wasabi cream, pickled ginger and rice.

This hippie-spirited walk-up counter isn’t quite what I’d call gourmet – there is something slightly amateur about the food (I can’t place it but almost tastes like food is cooked in burnt oil?) But Mermaids Cafe bring something unique to the island. Its fresh, vegetarian thrust and hippie clientele do not mask its Hawaiian spirit. And you can fill up for $10.

Hamura Saimin

HAMURA SAIMIN, LihueHamura Saimin isn’t exactly fine food, even for a hole-in-the-wall. But it’s legendary in these parts for Japanese ramen done Hawaiian style. Saimin takes inspiration from ramen, even udon, as a broth loaded with noodles, veggies, whole egg, and often slices of spam or other processed pork.

Lilikoi Chiffon Pie

It is more about filling up for little cash then unforgettable flavors. For some reason, I can’t get behind this. If it doesn’t taste great, why fill up on it? There’s enough fine local food that is cheap. All the same, Hamura Saimin is a local classic and heaping bowls of saimin have their own salty charm. I was more into fatty, mini-skewers of beef and chicken, redolent of teriyaki.

Their Lilikoi Chiffon Pie is famously fluffy with tart passionfruit. But, as with Henry’s on Oahu’s North Shore, I find the raves overdone for a pie with grocery-store-quality crust and Cool Whip-like cream.

EXPENSIVE

Tidepools' lagoon and surfer statue

Tidepools, KoloaTidepools, at the otherworldly Grand Hyatt, captures the magic of its setting in a Disneyland-esque way. It almost feels fake: tiki torches over a lagoon as you dine under open air, thatched roof huts listening to frogs croak. Idyllic.

Macadamia Nut Mahi Mahi

Certainly the menu reads old school and there’s a dated air about the place, but there are culinary surprises that hold the spell of the setting. It’s $32-55 for entrees and a more reasonable $9-15 for appetizers.

You’re right: in the scheme of fine restaurants, it’s not worth that high price tag. But you’re in Kauai and this is one of the best meals you’ll have there in an environment that helps the cost go down more easily.

Waterfall view

Salads (like $9 Manoa Lettuce in creamy Maui onion & garlic dressing with shaved Manchego cheese) and sashimi starters (like $15 Ahi with Hawaiian hearts of palm and shiso leaf) are fresh and pleasing.

Brandt Farms organic prime NY Strip Steak ($48) is shockingly juicy cooked medium-rare, packed with flavor.

The other surprise is the crowd-pleasing Macadamia Nut Mahi Mahi ($32), lightly encrusted in nuts over coconut Jasmine rice in a tropical rum buerre blanc. It tastes of Hawaii: redolent of the sea, gently sweet, with a nutty goodness.

White horse on the expansive acreage of Kilohana Plantation

Written by in: Wandering Traveler | Tags:
May
01
2011

Wandering Traveler

Eating in HONOLULU, HAWAII

The blue of the ocean off Honolulu's coast

After a dreamy week in Hawaii, I have a slew of recommendations to share with you in a multi-part series.

Oahu's beauty

I’ve covered farmers market street food in Honolulu and on the North Shore of Oahu, and Honolulu’s cocktail scene. Now we dine in Honolulu, on the hunt for the best. Next time, Kauai.

Though I arrived with romantic Blue Hawaii dreams, resplendent with leis, Elvis serenading, and me in a vintage bathing suit with a mai tai, I must say the reality is no letdown.

Traditional Hawaiian music in Waikiki

There is the expected tourist scourge of chain shops and restaurants plus crowds in Waikiki, but contrary to what some told me, it’s clean and relaxed for Hawaii’s largest city.

Though you truly find island time on Kauai and quieter locales, Honolulu is by no means hectic (other than the traffic). It is that island city you can while away beach hours in, explore hole-in-the-wall eats, or listen to live music as the sun sets.

EXPENSIVE

Torching lobster & oysters

SUSHI SASABUNE, 1417 South King Street, 808-947-3800 – It IS related to Sushi Sasabune in LA, but this locale was a superior experience for me, mainly due, I am guessing, to the fact that I went ‘whole hog’ here and ordered the 13 course omakase menu. It’s around $120 per person at lunch, over $200 for the same menu at dinner.

Lunch is peaceful with only the hardcore as your dining companions. The restaurant’s decor is humble but pleasant with classic jazz playing.

Starting off w/ a bang: 1st course is Canadian Albacore Sashimi in miso

13 courses really means over 20 varied bites as many courses include two different pieces of nigiri. The way to spend less is to stop before you’ve had 13 courses. Give the sushi chefs a few minutes warning as they prep a course or two ahead. Though I was stuffed around course 9, I could not stop out of sheer desire to see what they would serve me next.

All was impeccably fresh, expertly prepared. One of the best sushi meals of my life, better expressed in photos…

Japanese Red Snapper & North Carolina Flounder w/ ponzu

Delectable squid stuffed w/ blue crab in eel sauce

Baked South African Rock Lobster topped w/ scallions

Boston Scallop in eel sauce; New Zealand Salmon w/ sweet kelp

Japanese Skipjack w/ ponzu, toasted garlic, ginger; Canadian Spot Prawn

Vancouver & Seattle Oysters: 2 torched, 2 raw

 

 

 

AZURE, in the Royal Hawaiian Hotel – Island spirit with urban sophistication reigns at Azure, one of the newer, hotter restaurants in Waikiki.  It’s also a dinner companion to the magical Mai Tai Bar just outside its front door.

Kona Lobster Tail

I sat at a cabana-covered area on the sand, taking in ocean breezes as I sipped from the well-chosen wine list. The a la carte menu reads high ($12-29 for appetizers, $35-60 for entrees), but the ‘steal’ here is a five-course, $69 tasting menu, only an additional $20 for wine pairings.

Butter-poached Wagyu Filet

My tasting menu entailed a sashimi starter of Hawaiian yellowtail ahi and Japanese hamachi over avocado and watermelon radish salad. Ginger syrup and a hint of lemongrass enhance the dish’s Asian spirit. A 2009 Crios de Susana Balbo Malbec Rose made a refreshing pairing.

Second course was the strongest: “Ocean Cappuccino” is a creamy bouillabaisse with chunks of Dungeness crab, Black Tiger shrimp and potato accented by Thai basil.

The other highlight was an intermezzo between 3rd and 4th courses: lemon basil sorbet infused with pop rocks.

Kula Strawberries & Fior di Latte

Third course was Kona Lobster Tail Risotto. Though I adore lobster tail, the risotto was not on par with the silky texture of a textbook Italian risotto.

Fourth course was Butter-poached Filet of Wagyu Beef. Madeira and brandy sweetness play off the earthiness of taro and black truffle in the sauces. Crowned with a fried duck egg, presentation was striking as it came out under glass cover, smoke swirling round inside.

Dessert was local Kula strawberries and fior di latte cheese ice cream drizzled in balsamic and cinnamon syrup. A clean, straightforward finish.

Foie Gras Sushi

HIROSHI Eurasion Tapas, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., 808-533-4476, dinner onlyHiroshi was off to a rocky start: despite the sweetest hosts at the door, our waiter was lackluster and disinterested. No explanation of dishes brought out unless we asked. It felt as if he wanted to be anywhere but there. The other downside is corporate-looking, bland decor that lacks warmth or even casual sophistication.

But what keeps it on my recommends list is the inventive care behind Chef Hiroshi Fukui’s creative food. A fish fanatic, he catches much of the menu’s fish himself.

Luxurious Miso Butterfish

Foie Gras Sushi ($10.50) is as decadent as it sounds. Two nigiri pieces are topped with lush foie gras, drizzled with a teriyaki shiso glaze.

Portuguese Sausage Potstickers ($9) are surrounded by sweet corn and tatsoi (rosette bok choy) with a kimchee foam I wish tasted more like kimchee.

Crispy Snapper

A stand-out is Miso Yaki Butterfish ($14.50). The small serving of butterfish melts and lingers like a luxurious dream, brightened with lemon ume gelee.

Chef Hiroshi shows off his deft hand with a Crispy Skin New Zealand Snapper ($24.95). The fish flakes beautifully in a tomato-hijiki (brown sea vegetable) broth. Tofu, fennel, edamame and local Kahuku corn round out the platter.

Try to ignore the service as you savor some of the more imaginative dishes and impeccable fish preparation in Honolulu.

MID-RANGE

Catch of the day: Opakapaka

SIDE STREET INN, two locations, weekday lunch/nightly dinner – Prepare ye for gigantic plates of family-style Hawaiian food. Side Street Inn has two locations and both are packed with locals gorging on mountains of meat.

Given the size of the plates ($11-15 for your average dish, $17-26 for steak/beef and pork entrees) is a steal. Beware of over-ordering.

You’ll be happy with traditional dishes like fresh Ahi Poke tossed with Maui onions, signature pan-fried Island Pork Chops ($22), or Lilikoi-glazed (passion fruit) Baby Back Ribs ($17).

Kimchee Fried Rice

The two most satisfying dishes out of the eight I tried? Straightforward, utterly comforting Kimchee Fried Rice ($13), a mountain of rice laced with all kinds of goodness from Portuguese sausage to peas. Secondly, the catch of the day, Opakapaka (Hawaiian Pink Snapper), a giant whole fish grilled in citrus and oil. Flaky and delicious, this was the more elegant of the otherwise hearty platters, and a fine example of local fish specialties.

It’s easy to see why this is a local classic. But come starving, whatever you do.

Kimchee Rueben

ALAN WONG’s PINEAPPLE ROOM, Inside Macy’s at the Ala Moana Center – As my schedule sadly did not afford time for dinner at Alan Wong’s signature restaurant, I made do with what I would knew would be a distant second, lunch at his more casual Pineapple Room.

Casual is great as long as the food works, although the Pineapple Room threw me off with its mall setting and crappy, Denny’s-style diner place settings. That would have been fine if it fit the decor, but it was a discordant mix of vintage Hawaiian plantation with dated, 70′s tableware. But food is playful and generously-portioned, one dish often enough for two.

Wong's superb Loco Moco

Though a $15.75 Rueben isn’t exactly a cheap sandwich, it’s a big one. Too bad the Reuben didn’t hold up to exemplary versions elsewhere, although the addition of kimchee is conceptually brilliant. The sandwich was dry and the pastrami decent but lackluster – a side of wasabi potato salad fared much better.

Popular Stir-fried Soybeans ($8.50) were likewise disappointing, a pile of beans soaked in sesame oil, garlic and chilies. Sounded better than it tasted, missing the crisp snap and heat that could have made it addictive.

Mojito & Yuzu Soda

The dish that got me, however, was Wong’s updated version of classic Loco Moco ($18.50). Using quality Kuahiwi Ranch natural beef for the hamburger patty, it rested over fried rice in veal jus, topped with two Peterson Farm fried eggs. This blue collar dish was elevated to new heights.

Skip cocktails as the likes of a Passionfruit “Mojito” ($12) sound good made with cachaca, basil, tarragon, mint, but I could not taste any cachaca. Better to go with Wong’s house-made fountain sodas.

At $6 a pop, they hold a lot more flavor. I loved the intense tart of the Yuzu soda.

CHEAP EATS

Char Hung Sut's dingy exterior

CHAR HUNG SUT, Chinatown (64 N. Pauahi Street, Honolulu, 808-538-3335) – Dingy Char Hung Sut was among the best food of my entire Hawaiian trip. For less than $5, I walked out with a bag full of dim sum from this humble, take-out only storefront.

Chinese women and men rolled dough for pork buns and formed dumplings as friendly staff chatted me up while I ordered just about everything on the menu.

Making manapua

A sticky sweet half moon dumpling contrasts a savory manapua (local term for pork bun)…. among THE best pork buns I’ve ever tasted.

Completely unique to traditional Chinese versions, this is Hawaiian-style pork buns. The filling’s dark pink color comes from marinating the pork with just a bit of saltpeter (stone salt) prior to slow roasting. Their dumplings are equally exemplary.

Order everything. You’ll leave happy.

Liliha Bakery

LILIHA BAKERY, 515 N. Kuakini Street, Honolulu, 808-531-1651 - Liliha’s Bakery is a dated bakeshop serving what is now legendary in Honolulu: Liliha Bakery’s Coco Puffs.

I can’t say I get the craze exactly. Chocolate pudding filled mini-cream puffs aren’t exactly melt-in-your-mouth. The pastry is a little dry and thick pudding filling is decidedly old school. But more power to ‘em.

Where they got me was with lilikoi (passion fruit) or haupia-filled malasadas. These sugar-crusted, Portuguese donut-like pastries are perfection filled with either. I have been craving them since I left the islands.

Note: check out a fun article recently in SF Gate about local food legends showing up in the new Hawaii Five-O show: #4 is Liliha’s coco puffs, and #5 is malasadas.

Written by in: Wandering Traveler | Tags:
Apr
15
2011

Wandering Traveler

HONOLULU, HAWAII – Exploring Honolulu’s Cocktail Scene

View of Waikiki/Honolulu from atop Diamond Head

Iconic Duke Kahanamoku Statue on Waikiki Beach

After a dreamy week in Hawaii, I have a slew of recommendations to share in a multi-part series. Last issue, I covered farmers market street food in Honolulu and on the North Shore of Oahu. This time, we sleep and drink in Honolulu, on the hunt for the best. Next issue, we’ll talk Honolulu restaurants.

Though I arrived with romantic Blue Hawaii dreams, resplendent with leis, Elvis serenading, and me in a vintage bathing suit with a mai tai, I must say the reality is no letdown.

There is the expected tourist scourge of chain shops, restaurants and throngs in Waikiki, but contrary to what some told me, for Hawaii’s largest city, it’s clean and relaxed. Though you truly find island time on Kauai and quieter locales, Honolulu is by no means hectic (other than the traffic). It is that island city you can while away beach hours in, explore hole-in-the-wall eats, or listen to live music as the sun sets.

DRINKS

Rum Manhattan

LOBBY BAR at THE WAIKIKI EDITION – The cocktail renaissance is finally hitting Hawaii and there’s a handful of places and bartenders forging the way.

One is in this brand new hotel right off the front lobby through a cracked bookshelf. It’s no speakeasy, rather a white, urban bar, muted lighting and long couches exuding a semi-exclusive yet unpretentious air.

The Edition is a hot hotel with the coolest settings possible for poolside lounging in Honolulu.

Enter through the lobby

But where the hotel’s bar menus are somewhat typical for the area, the Lobby Bar is special.

Bar Manager Sam Treadway hails direct from Boston and none other than Drink, its most well-known cocktail bar. He’s loving warm island breezes, letting them influence local classics like the Mai Tai, but deconstructing it, literally. Deconstructed Mai Tai ($11) tones down the sweet factor, amps up the rum (Pyrat XO) and orgeat (almond syrup), then is topped with Mai Tai foam and a shiso leaf.

Agony & Ecstasy (L), Deconstructed Mai Tai (R)

Treadway served me a lovely Rum Manhattan made with Montecristo 12 year rum. Mezcal is another spirit he’s handy with. The Agony & the Ecstasy ($11 – nice literary reference) is a winning mix of Del Maguey’s Mezcal Vida, St. Germain, fresh grapefruit juice, topped with house ginger beer. Spiced, smoky, gently sweet.

Even better? He whipped up another treat with Mezcal Vida, Campari and Soda. Yes, a Mezcal Negroni. I could hardly believe I was saying I wish I could get one of these in my own Negroni-obsessed city.

Town's Tequila Negroni & White Manhattan (background)

TOWN , Kaimuki - Another of the city’s great bartenders is Dave Power at Town. Just a few minutes drive from Waikiki, Town feels like I’m back home in San Francisco. Local, organic foods done with rustic, Italian technique but all-American heart, animal parts and classic cocktails (all $10).

Power executes cocktails simply but beautifully, even with a literary bent. His Tequila Negroni is a revelation. He explains that his inspiration is M.F.K. Fisher‘s love of equal parts in her Negroni. He likewise does equal parts gin, vermouth, Don Julio Reposado and Campari infused with local Hawaiian Kiawe wood chips for gentle smoke.

He makes a Very Very Good Martini (yes, that’s its name) with my beloved Death’s Door (something you don’t see in these parts much) and a White Manhattan with “moonshine” (white whiskey) and Dolin Blanc vermouth.

Mai Tais at Mai Tai Bar

I’d recommend eating and drinking here. It’s a special place that evokes other big cities but with Hawaiian ingredients and laid back charm.

MAI TAI BAR, Waikiki – I am in love with the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Jumping out like a pink, playful beacon on Waikiki’s beach of highrises, it is the one hotel evoking the history of old Waikiki. Built in 1927 and dubbed the “Pink Palace of the Pacific”, this is the classic Hawaii I dreamed of. I hope to stay here one day.

Torching pineapple

In the meantime, head through a grove of trees laden with hanging lights, past torches, through the lobby to the lawn out back where the Mai Tai Bar sits right on the beach. Live music at sunset and my own private cabana made for one of the most magical moments in Honolulu.

This is not the place for refined cocktails but (again) it has a decades-long history of tropical, oceanside drinks. Manager Mike Swerdloff is a wine aficionado himself but keeps up on the national cocktail scene and is passionate about great service, food and drink (next time I’ll review neighboring restaurant at the hotel, Azure).

Sunset at Mai Tai Bar

On the cocktail tip, there are various versions of the Mai Tai here, all a little too sweet for me, but certainly crowd-pleasers and enhanced by the surroundings. If I’m going sweet, I prefer the Chi ($13): coconut and Maui’s organic Ocean Vodka perked up with fresh pineapple and basil, or Pina Rocks ($10): Bacardi 8 yr, coconut cream, pineapple and a lemon/thyme float.

Smoking Gun in action

Where we particularly had fun was with a Smoking Gun Mai Tai, a winner in the last Mai Tai Festival on Kona. A smoking gun was used in a glass filled with Whaler’s dark rum, Bacardi white and a housemade Velvet Falernum. Torched and smokey, it was topped with a brown sugar-torched pineapple wedge. The presentation is dramatic as smoke spills out from the glass. There was a bit too much of a propane taste as I continued sipping the drink, but initial tastes yielded a delightfully sweet, smoky island imbibement that evoked roasting marshmallows over a campfire.

Cocktails at Lewer's

The Mai Tai Bar is a Waikiki must for magic and history… and the best sunset beach setting around.

LEWERS LOUNGE , WaikikiLewer’s Lounge inside the gorgeous Halekulani Hotel feels like a New York hotel bar in a stately, classic hotel, rich with history and jazz. And jazz is the reason to come here. Live jazz nightly sets the classy, upscale tone. Don’t you dare wear shorts or flip flops. They maintain elegance with a dress code. You’ll also need a reservation on many nights.

Coconut Cake

Despite legendary Dale DeGroff’s stamp on the menu (he created it), drinks are of the sweet, fruity kind, like a refreshing Ginger Lychee Caipirissima ($12). More ambitious efforts like Amante Picante ($12), tequila with cucumber, cilantro, green tabasco, have the right idea but lack balance. All in the execution?

Frozen Treats

What fared better was dessert. Their ever popular Halekulani Coconut Cake ($9) is one ordered for weddings all over the islands, and the mainland. Frozen Treats are adult, gourmet versions of popsicles and ice cream sandwiches on ice.

One can always order from spirits and wine lists, enjoying a sip of brandy and a slice of cake while taking in Tennyson Stephens and Rocky Holmes’ delightful jazz duo.

La Mariana

LA MARIANA , Honolulu – I am not recommending La Mariana Sailing Club for the drinks, but for the history and charm of a rundown but well-loved space. One of the last remaining kitschy, tiki bars from the 1950′s, it’s an adventure just getting here.

Tiki kitsch at Mariana

Way out on a harbor, you aren’t even sure you’ve found it once arrived. Park on the street where you see the Sailing Club sign, then walk around to the right side of the building, entering the back along the water. Tiki decor and thatched roofs abound in a multi-room layout with open air patio.

Lantern-strung trees outside the Royal Hawaiian

The day after the Japan tsunami hit Hawaii’s shores, I sat here with a Pina Colada watching boat owners pull their damaged sailboats out of the water. It was a bit eerie yet heartwarming as crusty, sun-scorched sailors sipped Mai Tais or a beer alongside me comparing boat damage.

Read the menu story of owner Annette Nahinu. She’s just the sort of local character that makes you fall in love with Honolulu and its colorful, international history.

**NOTE: I tried to make it to another new Honolulu hotspot that local bartenders recommended to me, Apartment 3, but was unable to get there when Kyle was bartending (Friday nights at the moment). I hear he’s a whiskey lover, like myself, and that he’s another boundary-pushing bartender in the current Honolulu scene.

HOTEL

A short drive from Honolulu, Oahu's relaxed beaches

Hotel Renew, Waikiki BeachNo pool or beachfront property exists here, though upper rooms on the South side have views of the beach.

But the winning points of Hotel Renew on the Eastern end of Waikiki, is affordability and peace. And you can always take their complimentary boogie boards and towels a block away to the beach.

Happy times spent on rocking chairs at Moana Surfrider Hotel's porch

With Asian-modern, Zen-like decor, clean lines and big city chic, Hotel Renew‘s rooms are a welcome respite from the all-day party that is Waikiki surfers and sunbathers.

After long walks and lots of sun, I was ever-grateful to enter the heavy front doors of Renew to the tinkle of the lobby’s water fountain, grab a glass of water laced with fresh oranges, and up to my ocean-view room with ultra-comfy bed.

The best part? For overpriced Waikiki hotels, here you can get a room even on a weekend for $180-225 a night.

Written by in: Wandering Traveler | Tags: ,
Apr
01
2011

Wandering Traveler

HAWAII: From Farmers Market to North Shore Food Trucks

Gorgeous East coast of Oahu

After a dreamy week in Hawaii, I have  a slew of recommendations to share with you, which will be a multi-part series. This time around, I focus on street food and the KCC farmers market in Honolulu, then food on Oahu’s fabulous North Shore, surfing capitol of the world.

HONOLULU Street Carts & Farmers Market

KCC Farmers Market

Farmers Mkt pineapples

KCC Farmers Market – The KCC farmers market is held near Diamond Head, the touristy but absolutely breathtaking hike overlooking Honolulu. I’d call the farmers market a must for any foodie: passionate purveyors, memorable, local eats and a bustling crowd.

Ono Pops

Start with taro dips from Tom Purdy of Taro Delight (I like red chili & coconut milk and Thai green curry taro dips; I found taronaise, a taro root substitute for mayo, an interesting alternative). Move on to Korean-influenced sausages on a stick from Kukui Sausage Co. (love kimchee and pineapple sausages). Savor an excellent, ultra-salty salmon fried rice from Ohana Seafoods, being cooked on woks in front of you. Order 2-6 pieces of Kona Coast Abalone. Wash it all down with refreshing kalamansi lime, ginger, seltzer drink using PacifiKool’s award-winning ginger syrup.

ONO POPS (at Saturday’s KCC farmers market, Whole Foods Kahala and these locations) was one of my favorite tastes the entire trip. Ono Pops would be a massive hit in San Francisco. Ultra-fresh ingredients in unique flavor combos (like Ume Thai Basil or Kalamansi Coriander) and the sweetest staff make this cart a must stop. Lilikoi 50-50 combines passion fruit with cream, while a tart Kumquat pop is loaded with candied kumquat rinds. You cannot lose.

SOUL

SOUL – With a restaurant, Soul, and a food truck, Soul Patrol, Chef Sean Priester is overtaking Honolulu with authentic Southern soul food, something you don’t find much of on the islands. Though it felt wrong ordering chicken and waffles($12) in Hawaii when surrounded by foods unique to the region, I was pleased to taste Priester’s authentic soul food, which felt right at home on the islands.

NORTH SHORE/HALEIWA, HAWAII

Driving along Oahu's Eastern shore

Driving from Honolulu along Oahu’s Eastern side to the North Shore was one of the most delightful experiences in my time on Oahu. Unforgettable vistas and quiet beach towns unfolded before us, waving their gentle, aloha welcome as we passed through or stopped for multiple beach strolls along the way.

Pink pineapple plant at Dole Pineapple Plantation

The famed North Shore, also known as surfing capitol of the world, is certainly crowded. It’s a bit of a kill joy to suddenly be in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a two-laned road through such a relaxed setting. But the beach town vibe of Haleiwa permeates nonetheless. Shrimp trucks and shave ice make it all better.

We trekked to a nearly private beach further West of Haleiwa, tromping through fields of flowers and horses to get to the beach, swim in solitude and lay on the sand watching sky divers jump out of a plane above.

Oahu spirit is exemplified in the East Shore’s wild radiance, the North Shore’s magnificent swells and Honolulu’s vibrant buzz. Some have called it touristy, but I found myself taken with this friendly, laid-back island.

Shrimp Scampi platter & fresh coconut juice at Giovanni's

GIOVANNI’S ORIGINAL WHITE SHRIMP TRUCK, Kahuku – Look for the ghetto, white truck covered in scribbles that would be lucky to even be deemed graffiti and you’ll be rewarded with kick-ass shrimp.

The oldest and first shrimp truck on the North Shore, Giovanni’s launched the shrimp truck craze that took over the North Shore.

Giovanni's truck

With similar offerings as other shrimp trucks from spicy to lemon shrimp, their signature is Shrimp Scampi, loaded in butter and delightfully generous amount of garlic. Two scoops of rice and a squeeze of lemon complete the dish.

As you sit under a large, covered patio drinking juice from a coconut purchased at a juice truck, surrounded by local families, you catch the spirit of this part of Oahu: laid back, funky… and delicious.

Romy's shrimp pond

ROMY’S, Kahuku – The joy of Romy’s, besides more winning shrimp (sweet and spicy!) is that they farm all their own shrimp in a pond behind the bright red storefront.

Shrimp trucks abound in these parts but few actually farm all their shrimp locally as Romy’s does. Red picnic tables dot the grounds, both near the pond and under awnings next to their shrimp shack.

Waits for a mere plate of shrimp can be agonizing at mealtimes so plan accordingly: come early or late.

Matsumoto's ice machine

MATSUMOTO’S SHAVE ICE, Haleiwa - No matter the correct English, don’t call it “shaved” ice. Shave ice is a North Shore invention, Matsumoto’s being the originator of this snow cone-like treat back in 1951. The humble little shop has a perpetual line out the door, movie star clientele, and tons of touristy merchandise surrounding their shop.

More finely shaved than a snow cone, and reminiscent of (but not quite as beloved for me) sno balls in New Orleans, shave ice is ideal on balmy, island days.

Matsumoto's

Shave ice colors are unnaturally neon bright, which gave me cause for concern. But I chose flavors carefully: a mix of lilikoi (passion fruit),  coconut, and Chinese sour plum, with azuki (red) beans on the bottom. You can also get condensed milk poured on top, though I choose vanilla ice cream instead, which melted creamy over the beans and ice. It’s oddly addictive. A quintessential North Shore experience I highly recommend.

(Note: Aoki’s Shave Ice is a popular alternative a few doors down).

Kua 'Aina's Avocado Burger

KUA ‘AINA Sandwich, Haleiwa (also in Honolulu and Tokyo)Kua ‘Aina actually disappointed. I had heard from countless locals both on North Shore and in Honolulu that these burgers and fries were about the best anywhere in Hawaii.

An Avocado Burger ($8 for 1/3 lb., $8.40 for 1/2 lb.) was piled high with buttery avocado grown on the North Shore. But from over-cooked beef to dry, bland bun, even merely decent fries, it was a letdown.

Ted's Bakery

In my experience, there’s many a better burger in the world. Stick to shrimp on the North Shore.

TED’S BAKERY, Haleiwa – Another North Shore classic, there’s one reason to go to Ted’s: chocolate haupia pie.

Haupia, a traditional Hawaiian coconut pudding-like dessert, Ted’s makes a cream pie with one layer of chocolate, one of haupia.

I’m not a cream pie fan and this old school pie has grocery store-like crust and thick pudding texture. But for a couple dollars, it’s worth trying a slice, the haupia exuding a coconut-rich essence, contrasting nicely with chocolate.

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