Perhaps the best way to experience a locale and its culture is through its food. As a cultural melting pot, Hawaii is known for its broad spectrum of cuisines, and Kauai is home to many great restaurants offering true local food. If you're up for a culinary adventure around Kauai, look no further than this guide to the best local food on the island.
A gourmet loco moco, one of many authentic Hawaiin dishes you can try while on Kauai — Photo courtesy of Omid Tavallai
Local Hawaiian dishes
Often found in supermarket delis or on restaurant menus, poke (pronounced po-kay) is a local favorite. Poke is usually served as an appetizer (although poke and rice bowls are often available at delis) and the dish is composed of cubed raw fish with seasonings.
The fish of choice is usually ahi (yellowfin tuna), but it's not uncommon to find poke made with tako (octopus), other types of tuna or other fish. Seasonings are usually a combination of chopped onion, soy sauce, oil, sea salt, seaweed and garlic. With poke, the fresher the fish, the better the dish.
Different kinds of poke — Photo courtesy of Emily Leung
Huli huli chicken
The often roadside-roasted huli huli chicken is simply barbecued chicken, but Hawaiian style. Huli means "to turn," a reference to the rotisseried whole chicken continuously turned during cooking.
The locally loved loco moco is basically a bowl of rice topped with a meat patty, egg and gravy. In Pacific Rim cuisine, the modernization of the loco moco with unique ingredients in becoming a trend.
Another Hawaiian staple is poi, a form of taro that has been cooked, pounded, mixed with water and then fermented. The consistency can be from runny to thick. There are "two finger" or "three finger" poi, referring to how many fingers it takes to eat it, which depends on how thick it is.
Poi, plain and simple — Photo courtesy of Arnold Gatilao
Lomilomi salmon is a popular side dish in Hawaii, consisting of raw salmon and tomatoes. It's called "massaged" (lomilomi) salmon because the fish is massaged with the ingredients by hand, including salt, onions and sometimes chili peppers. The dish is commonly found at luaus, on menus and in delis.
Cooked in an imu (an earthern oven), kalua pig is a flavorful dish usually found at celebratory gatherings. Birthday parties, luaus and other holiday feasts are usually reason to go through the long process, which entails hours of slow cooking.
The plate lunch is a local favorite composed of two scoops of rice, one scoop of macaroni salad and a main meat course. The lunch is often served on a disposable plate. Lunch wagons usually serve plate lunches.
Plate lunch with kalua pig — Photo courtesy of Arnold Gatilao
Where to find them in Kauai
To try the best local food on Kauai, visit these restaurants:
These dishes can be found at the Koloa Fish Market, a local-style spot that serves up fresh fish and seafood to take home and cook as well as to eat there, and take-out dishes. This market offers very local and Hawaiian food like lau lau, kalua pig and other local favorites that can be pretty darn good. There's a good chance you'll be the only visitors in line here, but there's nothing wrong with that. You know that if the quality of the seafood is good for locals, then it must be good.
The flavor of old Hawaii runs strong at Gaylord's, nestled in a circa 1930 Tudor estate, which was once the home of a sugar plantation executive. These days, the mansion and its surrounding 35 acres have been opened to the public as a series of quaint shops and this delightful restaurant. The dining room affords wonderful views and also allows diners to indulge in such fare as fresh seafood, steaks, lamb and kalua pork.
Very local style, Hanalei Taro & Juice Co. is a lunch wagon resting roadside in Hanalei. Serving traditional Hawaiian food, but with a modern twist, this is your best bet to fill up on taro, the root crop that sustained Hawaiians for generations. Here you can find taro and many other healthy ingredients prepared with a modern twist, such as a taro smoothie, Hawaiian plate lunches, taro hummus, taro veggie burgers and even taro acai bowls. The list goes on.