Kauai is Hawaii's smallest populated island, but it's home to some of its best food and restaurants. While there's superb fine dining to be relished in Kauai, the real pleasure lies in exploring down-home roadside food and sampling the wares of small artisanal producers which continue to thrive here.
Savor Sunrise Papaya and Other Fresh Produce
Kauai's lush climate allows agriculture to thrive. The island is home to beautiful sunrise papaya, pictured here, as well as a host of other exotic fruits, vegetables and produce. Although not everything grown here is organic, there's a big emphasis on sustainability -- just wander through one of the island's many farm markets to get a sense of all that's available here. If you want to experience a meal prepared with market finds, consider booking a condo with a kitchen. Another option is to seek out a restaurant that makes use of the island's markets. The Sheraton Kauai, for example, features a weekly Farmer's Market special. You can also visit farms yourself, A'akukui Ranch and Kauai Kunana Dairy are two good options.
Visit Hawaii's Largest Coffee Plantation
Kauai Coffee Company is the largest coffee plantation in Hawaii, which also makes it the largest in the United States. This is a terrific place to get to know Hawaiian coffee, as its visitor center has well-thought through exhibits, free coffee samples, and a self-guided walking tour through the estate grounds.
Devour Fresh, Fabulous Seafood
You'll find delicious options from the sea at nearly every restaurant in Kauai, from fine dining to food trucks. One of the best places to sample Kauai shrimp is at Shrimp Station in Waimea, which serves almost nothing but shrimp, whether it's peel and eat, fried, or in a burger. Sample a full range of Hawaiian seafood specialties at the cozy and casual Koloa Fish Market, which offers lunch platters that feature traditional dishes like ahi poke (pronounced poh-kay), which is raw tuna cut in small pieces in an Asian-flavored sauce. (For dessert, don't miss haupia, a coconut milk dessert with a consistency that's akin to a firm panna cotta.)
Acquire the Taste of Taro
Taro is a vegetable that's long been a staple in native Hawaiian cooking, and it's easy to understand why -- the plant is very useful. Its green leaves taste something like spinach or kale, and are similarly nutritious, although when most people think of taro, they think of foods made from its starchy root. Poi is the most well-known taro dish -- you'll often find it at luaus. It's made from the steamed roots, looks like purple paste, and has a distinctive taste -- slightly astringent or sour. (The flavor profile becomes more pronounced as the poi ages, since it's actually fermenting.) Taro is also used to make dinner rolls, which are a lovely lavender shade and taste slightly yeasty, and it's in a dessert called kulolo.
Get Addicted to Lilikoi
Lilikoi is Hawaiian for passion fruit, and its sweet fruit flavor is easy to get hooked on. Lilikoi pie is one of the most beautiful expressions of this fruit -- it's a chiffon pie that is as light as meringue, yet bursting with juicy flavor. Wong's in Hanapepe is widely considered the place on Kauai to get lilikoi pie. (13543 Kaumualii Highway) Don't be dissuaded by Wong's appearance as an unassuming Chinese restaurant -- as soon as you walk in the door and spot the bakery's many offerings you'll know you're in the right place. (The bakery's name is technically Omoide, but everyone knows it as Wong's.) Also check out Aunty Lilikoi in Waimea, where you can buy mustard, jelly, dressing and syrup made from this exotic fruit.
Dig into Kauai's Best Burgers and Hot Dogs
Kauai is also home to great Hawaiian twists on traditional American fare: the hot dog and the hamburger. Puka Dog was founded on Kauai in 2000 -- it's a soft bun-sized piece of bread, that's pierced and then toasted from the inside. (Puka means "hole" in Hawaiian). The void is filled with your choice of tropical relishes, made with everything from papaya to coconut to banana, and then with a Polish sausage, or, if you prefer, a veggie dog. For burgers, head to Duane's Ono-Char Burgerin Anahola, which makes a mean teriyaki burger. Another local fave? Bubba Burger.
Cool off with Jo-Jo's Shave Ice
Jo-Jo's Shave Ice is an institution in Kauai, with many passionate fans insisting that it's the best on the islands. The only thing is, there are two Jo-Jos Shave Ice locations -- one is called Jo-Jo's Shave Ice, right on Kaumualii Highway, on Waimea's main drag. A few blocks away on a side street is Original Jo Jo's Anueanue Shave Ice (5 Pokole Road, Waimea).
The first location was started by Jo-Jo who apparently sold it, and then returned to the shave ice business and started Original Jo-Jo's Anueanue. Either place will serve you a similar, refreshing treat: Shave ice consists of shaved ice, sweet flavored syrup, and then a variety of add-ons -- ranging from li hung mui powder to azuki beans.
Attend a Luau
Luaus are elaborate Hawaiian feasts, with a long history and deep cultural significance that exists to this day. They are also a regular feature at resorts and other places throughout the islands that cater to tourists. In other words, it's not a specific-to-Kauai type of an experience, but, if you've never been to a luau, it's worth fitting one in, since it's a great way to taste a number of traditional Hawaiian dishes at once. The food at a luau varies a bit, but will certainly include kalua pig, traditionally roasted underground, poi, lomi lomi salmon. Here's more on what to expect to eat at a luau, and a list of luaus on Kauai.
Like any proper tropical destination, fruity rum cocktails are a big part of the dining scene in Kauai. If you're looking for something different, though, ask your bartender for a margarita made with li hing mui, an Asian dried plum powder that's very popular in Hawaii.
Savor Hawaiian Fine Dining
Although casual food abounds on Kauai, there are also a number of high end restaurants, where you can experience a special evening sampling Hawaiian fine dining. BarAcuda in Hanalei, is the place to experience Mediterranean techniques applied to local produce. The very popular Beach House, in Koloa, offers reliably fresh seafood and stunning sunsets over the ocean. Roy Yamaguchi is one of Hawaii's best-known chefs worldwide -- he has more restaurants on the continental United States than he has in Hawaii -- but Roy's Poipu Beach is a reliable place to sample a fusion of Hawaiian flavors with Asian techniques. (2360 Kiahuna Plantation Drive, Koloa.)