I heard it so many times before we left. Then even from locals when we arrived.
“Kauai really doesn’t have the best food,” they would say. It was quickly followed up with a listing of all the things that Kauai does have the best of – beaches, vegetation, hiking, wildlife.
It’s probably my fault. When you work in food, people know you travel for food. I think they were just looking out for me; trying to save me from disappointment.
Truth be told, though, I really didn’t think it was that bad. In fact, we managed to scope out some really good food. Enough that I felt like I should share a bit about what to eat in Kauai.
Of course, we did have a few mediocre things. But I have plenty of mediocre food on the mainland, too. Maybe I’ve lowered my expectations over the years. Maybe you can no longer trust me. But for what it’s worth, I thought a lot of the food we ate and things we drank to be good.
So if you are headed to Kauai soon, or just want to dream about being there. These are my top picks for food among what we experienced. We visited for one week, stayed on the north side of the island in Princeville and covered just about every area.
We certainly didn’t try everything out there, but we managed to stay full and on a relatively modest budget. No fine dining this trip. But that’s really become the case for most of our travel these days. We save the high end stuff for places like NYC, and dive into the local casual spots on most other trips, especially those that involve a beach.
I also might add that nothing is off limits when we travel. Even foods I would never eat at home are fair game when traveling. It’s all about the experience. So if you are an all salads and raw juice person when you travel, there’s a few things in here for you, and a few you’ll want to skip right over.
When I was doing my food research, I got a little frustrated trying to track down the location of all the restaurants. Most information and blog posts were divided into different days or different types of food. I’d follow up on one place I wanted to try and then another, only to find they were on two completely different sides of the island, as much as a 2 hour drive. So I decided to structure this by the area on the island – North Shore, East Shore, Airport (Lihue), South Shore, and West Shore. This is also what you find in most guide books.
So here is my attempt to make you hungry for Hawaii!
Lihue and Near the Airport
Kauai Beer Company – Lihue
This was our first and last stop on the trip, and I think it should be yours, too. We headed there shortly after our flight landed, along with about three or four other families on our flight from San Jose in a varying combination of before or after we all went to Costco.
First, the beer is great. Go for the beer. But what I really want to focus on here is the food. On the first stop we only had a snack. The Taro Fries. I’d take starchy fried taro over French fries any day. Filling, but considering these are no where to be found around us back home, we felt like we’d started the trip on a tiny bit of authentic note.
On our last day, with a flight leaving around 2:00pm we went back for lunch. It was this visit that we had a nice conversation with the waitress and I made the comment about how nice it was to see a local ingredients on the menu. She let me know that the chef shops at the local farmers market and puts as many local twists on classics as he can. Case in point below.
The Brewer’s Crunch Salad (on the standard menu) with butter lettuce, pickled onions, candied macadamia nuts, fried avocado slices, and coconut dressing. Then we tried the two specials for the day Mac n Cheese made with ulu (breadfruit) and the Jackfruit Quesadilla served with a kale slaw. Loved every bite.
Kauai Community Market – Lihue
I had big plans to visit a lot of farmers markets on the island, but it didn’t end up happening. There are plenty of markets around, but our timing of things tended to be off for visiting them. There would be one on the north side, but we’d be on the south side that day. I’m not disappointed about that. We saw plenty. And we did make it to one market. It was our very first stop after landing. A perfect introduction to the island.
The Kauai Community Market is located on the campus of Kauai Community College and takes place on Saturdays from 9:30 am to 1:00 pm. If you go, plan to eat the following.
Kimchi Fried Rice. This was some of the best I’ve had.
Paulie’s Pineapple Phrosty. So far everyone I have described this to says something along the lines of – oh, it’s like a Dole whip, or oh, it’s like banana soft serve you make at home.
No. No it’s not.
This made from frozen slices of the Sugar Loaf Pineapple. A large version of the fruit was priced around $20. Not wanting to cut up a pineapple in our rental nor spend $20 (even though I knew it would be amazing), we were thrilled to find the Phrosty. The frozen slices are sent through the machine you see here and out comes the creamiest frozen treat with the most wonderful pineapple flavor I’ve experienced.
Pono Market – Kapa’a
We knew we had to have at least one plate lunch during the trip. Meaning, I wanted double carbs in the form of mac salad and rice. I never crave mac salad unless I’m in Hawaii. There is just something about it.
I discovered Pono Market during my research and I put it on our list right away. Like many of the best spots to eat in Kauai, it’s basically a lunch counter where you make your selection and take it to go or eat at one of the few small tables on the sidewalk. Their main offering rotates and you have a few options. We got the daily plate lunch with mac salad and rice. There is another version that allows you to add poke and other sides. Pork Lau Lau was on special that day, pork wrapped in a taro leaf and slow cooked. My husband got the kalua pork with cabbage. Two of our favorites for traditional Hawaiian eats. We biked to the market and took our food out to some rocks at the beach just behind the market. Oh, and I’ve read that they often run out of some things before lunch on Saturdays so go early. We went on a weekday right around 11.
Kilauea Fish Market – Kilauea
If you are looking for grilled fish tacos, this is a great stop. We had an excellent lunch here on our first visit. I did hesitate to list it because our second visit wasn’t consistent when we ordered the wraps. The other reviews you read are true if they are busy. It can take an extremely long time for food. Beyond island time slow. I got the impression that this is because they fill a lot of take out orders while they are trying to serve customers there waiting and those other orders feel like they are taking priority. That’s just my impression, though. Nonetheless, the tacos were excellent that first day and I heard others say the salads were great, too.
Kauai Juice Co – Kilauea
Located in the same complex as the fish market, you’ll find my favorite non-alcoholic beverage of the trip. There are two other locations – Kapa’a and Poipu. There is also a good chance you’ll see Kauai Juice Co pop up on menus around the island. For example, their juices were used in the Mai Tai mix for one of our drink breaks that I’ll share below. I had the Omega This with soursop, orange, dragonfruit, pineapple, and chia seeds. Best juice I’ve ever had. Promise.
Tiki Iniki – Princeville
I read about this place before our visit and put it on the list mainly because I wanted to have breakfast here. They seemed to have a lot of interesting twists on local foods. As it turns out, we went here 3 times. It’s tucked in the back of a shopping center, but what it lacks in views, it makes up for in a great staff and fun food. We actually discovered by accident right before checking into our condo, and it was happy hour. We thought we might as well christen the trip with some tropical drinks.
Next we went for breakfast. Our best meal of the trip. And yes, before you gasp in horror. I eat Spam when we are in Hawaii. Also, if anyone offers you a breakfast sandwich on Hawaiian sweet bread, go for it. I got the egg and kalua pork sandwich and my husband got the egg and Spam sandwich. So good!
We wanted something casual on our last night (and close to our condo) so we headed back to Tiki Iniki one more time. We hadn’t had a burger during our trip and the one on their menu caught our attention. Spam is blended into the burger and it’s topped with pickled vegetables. Another winner and the fries were excellent by my standards, too.
Foodland – Princeville
Yep, a grocery store. It’s in the same complex as Tiki Iniki. Here you can find Kauai Cookie Company cookies and Kauai Coffee Company coffee to bring back home. The real draw though? If you are on a budget (or not), go here for the poke. We’d learned from our host that it was a great place for it. First, tasty. Second, super friendly. They don’t rush you, you can try anything you want (which was our experience at every poke location we tried). Third, affordable. They’ll also add rice and turn it into a poke bowl if you ask. We brought it back to our condo for dinner one night and to the beach another day. Just a tip, the selection can get pretty wiped out towards the late afternoon hours.
Happy Talk Lounge – Princeville
I had this place on our list both from our host’s recommendation and my own research. When the bartender at Tiki Iniki gave us the tip, too, I knew we’d love it. It was walkable from our condo and we went twice. Once for drinks, and once for dinner and drinks. Both at sunset. The resort property it sits on is gorgeous and when we went on a Thursday there was more traditional Hawaiian music being performed.
The food was pretty good, but I didn’t get many photos. I did manage to get one of our Mai Tai before the sun went down. They use a Mai Tai mix from Kauai Juice Co. Both the view and the drinks were excellent.
Chicken in a Barrel – Hanalei
We found ourselves in Hanalei quite a bit. Not for the beach there, but more for the little shopping center. We always seemed to be hungry which led to some snacks and many shave ices. We hadn’t planned to go the Chicken in a Barrel, but one day BBQ sounded good so we stopped. I was pleasantly surprised. Everything, especially the beans, was really good. We come from a bit of a BBQ region and quickly realized there is no good BBQ in California (unless the person making it is from another part of the US), so we don’t get it often. I wasn’t expecting to have this type of BBQ in Hawaii, but I’m glad we did. There is also a location in Kapa’a.
Tahiti Nui – Hanalei
I love the the movie The Descendants so when I realized this was where one of the scenes was filmed, I wanted to swing by. I’m typically not a big movie or movie star fan, but this place looked super cool. We went for a mid-afternoon lunch to find that they don’t serve the main menu between lunch and dinner hours. Instead they have happy hour drink prices and slices of pizza. We stopped her after a 7 hour hike so everything was pretty well inhaled, but I remember it was good.
JoJo’s Shave Ice – Hanalei
How did I not know that what makes a shave ice good is having ice cream in the middle?! I’ve never been one for snow cones or shave ice on the mainland, but throw some macadamia nut ice cream in the middle and I will eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. JoJo’s was our first shave ice stop and once we went there and tried another store, we just kept going back to JoJo’s because it was so much better. We always got the large and split it. What you’ll find on Kauai is that many stores make their own syrups without HFCS and artificial ingredients. There were a few fresh fruit shave ice spots that I wanted to try around the island, but our timing was always off. We were either there too early or two late to find them open. I’ll try those next time, too, but you can’t go wrong with JoJo’s. My only tip would be to be sure and get one with the Haupia Cream drizzle. It’s the best part besides the mac nut ice cream!
Puka Dog – Koloa
We didn’t spend a whole lot of time on the South Shore. When you compare it to the north side of the island, you quickly learn that it’s the spot for family hotels and feels super busy. No problem, of course, if this is your thing. But it isn’t ours. We liked the slightly quieter, rustic, rocky shorelines of the north. We did go to Poipu to see sea turtles and managed to find a quite spot under a tree at that beach to spend a few hours one afternoon. And when we got hungry? We went to Puka Dog.
I know I said that I’m not star crazy at all, but if there is a spot that Anthony Bourdain went to, I usually want to go, too. My recommendation? Get the coconut relish, spicy sauce, and lilikoi mustard. Classic quick vacation food with a tropical twist, if you ask me.
Ishihara Market – Waimea
I am so happy that our bartender the first day on the island mentioned this place. I had remembered reading about it, but for some reason it didn’t make my list. This little market in Waimea is on the left just before you turn to head up into Waimea Canyon. In fact, her suggestion was to grab poke from here and take it with us to eat up there. That timing didn’t work for us because we wanted to see the canyon as early as possible. So we came back down and grabbed poke to take out to the water for lunch.
So many varieties and so good! It’s regarded as some of the best on the island. Be sure you get the Menehune special poke. That was our favorite of the trip. The tsunami was good, too. They’ll sell you a cup of warm rice to eat with it for less than $1. Perfect lunch on the beach.
JoJo’s – Waimea
I told you we went to JoJo’s a lot. This was the other location and the original. To be honest, I preferred both the shave ice we got and the atmosphere of the Hanalei location more. It may have just been because we went right when they opened and it was still very quiet. Either way, it was still good. And it still had that mac nut ice cream inside. An excellent way to close out a trip!
If you are wondering how we ate everything above and didn’t end up feeling like this the whole trip,
be sure to check out my post over at The 3 Star Traveler about my favorite ways to stay active in Kauai.