Kauai Chow: On This Hawaiian Island, Food is No Paradise

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Jo-Jo's Shave Ice
9734 Kaumualii Highway, Waimea, HI
Phone: 808.338.9727
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Writing about bad meals is, at least for us, a joyless affair. Some critics revel in splashing red ink all over the fur coats of sub-standard restaurants, but we hesitate to recall sad dining experiences, doing so only out of a sense of obligation. That brings us to Kauai. Contrary to a recent Los Angeles Times list of great places to eat there, we had too many bad meals on this Hawaiian island to waste multiple articles discussing all of them, so instead, we've created a single entry with two halves: the good, and the bad. Our recommendation to discerning diners considering a Hawaiian vacation is simple: pick another island, preferably Oahu. Unless you're willing to invest some cash in a recent guidebook, you have a better chance of finding good food in the Honolulu airport than in Kauai.

What's good in Kauai? In short, items that you can get anywhere else in Hawaii, and in some cases, on the mainland (say, Los Angeles) as well. Let's start with shaved ice, also known as "shave ice." The idea of this dessert, once served as commonly at mainland carnivals and skating rinks as in dedicated Hawaiian shops, is to finely shave a block of ice into small pellets, then drench the white pile with a flavored, colored syrup or three for consumption with a spoon. In many places, shaved ice went no further than this, and possibly fell behind, becoming the sloppier "sno cone" at worst, or a plain, if consistently fun summertime treat at others.

Blessed with the weather to serve it year-round, Hawaiians have elevated shaved ice to something only a little short of an art form. At Jo-Jo's Shave Ice in Waimea, 60 syrup flavors are touted, giving patrons the opportunity to sample everything from tropical fruits to old standbys, as well as mint, vanilla, butterscotch, and other dessert-friendly flavors. They can be drizzled onto the generously-stacked ice individually or in combinations, and augmented with sweet beans, fruits, and other treats explored by the Hawaiians years ago. But - and we say this as shaved ice purists - the cups take on new vitality, and potential for satiety, when filled at the bottom with macadamia nut ice cream. Even with fruit flavors on top, the combination of ice, syrup, and cream is shockingly potent, the rare new twist on an old snack that we actually preferred to the original. Small ice-only cups start at $2, super-sized large ones at $4, with macadamia ice cream adding $1.50 to each price. We tried to visit another shaved ice stand, but, in a common Kauai scenario, it was closed without explanation despite the rest of its adjoining restaurant being open.

Macadamia nuts are unquestionably not healthy. They may be touted as cholesterol fighters. They may be delicious. But all it takes is a single look at a small can to realize that they are calorically composed of more fat than anything else, and that any health benefits they may have will be fully offset by the damage they will cause. That hasn't stopped us from purchasing them, in questionable quantities, every time we've visited Hawaii. We first fell in love with Mauna Loa's Kona Coffee-glazed macadamia nuts (shown, photo 2) 20 years ago, noting with some distress that they've apparently been supplanted in popularity with spiced, teriyaki, and wasabi versions. Another innovation, a version coated in toffee and then powdered chocolate, almost rivals the coffee one. Almost. You can order these online; we picked up cans at local ABC Stores for around $4 each; three-packs are sold for $11. The same-sized cans sold for $8 at the airports.

We did, for sure, have a couple of good meals in Kauai restaurants. The Kilauea Fish Market came recommended and delivered robust Ahi tuna tacos (shown, photo 3) and wraps that were on par with the best fish tacos we've had in Southern California, albeit here at about twice the price, attributable to a better grade of meat that you can actually select from a display case and watch as it cooks. Burned on exploration, the family came back here twice as a "safe" option. An Italian meal at Cafe Portofino, located in Lihue, started with the amusing discovery of a placard that showed the place's 1999 Zagat rating as "excellent," but nothing more recent from that guidebook. Though we suspect that it wouldn't fare quite as well in this decade, particularly on service but also on taste, our $35-per-person meal was filling and competently prepared.

Kilauea Fish Market on Urbanspoon
Cafe Portofino on Urbanspoon

What turned us off to more vigorous exploration were the first few meals we had on the island. Long-time readers of Buffalo Chow may note that we only post eight or fewer pictures per review, which is far fewer than we take, and thus we're picky about the images we include. Thus, our fourth photograph - a sign on the door of Genki Sushi, thanking patrons for voting it the state's "best sushi 6 years in a row!" - should be understood as important to understanding our Kauai dining experiences. Again and again, places touted as "best" by locals proved at least seriously disappointing and at worst truly terrible. Genki Sushi was much closer to the extreme end of that scale. We know from experience that conveyor belt sushi needn't be bad, but Genki has taken its awfulness to new lows, churning out what looks to be blue crab sushi but turns out to be - seriously - Tuna Salad sushi (photo 5), quite possibly the worst type we've ever had. We'll spare you further details; it suffices to say there are some, including copious quantities of mayonnaise, and we left mid-way through the meal, hungry, rather than continuing to order. It's entirely possible that the "Best of" voting wasn't rigged; perhaps this location is just especially bad.

Genki Sushi on Urbanspoon

It didn't help that Genki was followed by a fairly miserable Chinese dinner at the Hong Kong Cafe in Kapaa. Handed a spot on the Los Angeles Times' "Great" list, and supposedly from local voters as well, we should have known from certain indicia on the menu that problems were about to ensue. There was the reference to a $1 surcharge if patrons preferred their meals to be cooked in extra virgin olive oil, which isn't exactly a staple of Chinese cooking. The fact that it was almost empty despite having received the honor only days earlier. And the fact that the lone waiter - the proprietor? - seemed to be as surprised as pleased by the newspaper's findings. Our meal started with a stale-tasting bowl of Wor Won Ton Soup, complete with long-frozen, lifeless dumplings, and continued through several courses of sub-standard entrees: a fish-shaped dish of fried red snapper, a Mongolian-esque beef, and a plate of crispy chicken covered in peanuts (photo 6), each sounding more appetizing than they tasted. The guidebook's verdict? You get what you pay for. Our verdict? We've paid a lot less for much better Chinese food. Another place, a Chinese barbecue joint recommended by the book, subsequently and quickly churned out a better if in no way memorable meal for three.

Hong Kong Cafe on Urbanspoon

There were other misadventures. With the exception of resort-caliber locales, a certain apparent malaise seemed to dominate the staffs of chain and smaller businesses, the people seemingly indifferent to quality, and in some cases, even to opening for business. Blame the economy or just a lack of interest in delighting patrons, but even big brands - the poor Starbucks, the moron-staffed K-Mart, and the almost pitch black Costco - seemed unable or unwilling to put on a decent face. Thus, you might understand why when the island's supposedly "best" Thai restaurant was closed after a long drive, we reluctantly found ourselves at the execrable McDonalds eating a "McTeri" - a teriyaki burger (photo 7) - plus fries, Filet o' Fish, and McNuggets, which demonstrated once again why we patronize it as seldom as possible unless McRib is in... season. The familiar mainland items were surprisingly below normal sub-standards, with the typically acceptable french fries tasting of freezer burn, for example, and the McTeri managed to prove even the restaurant's minimally attractive photography overambitious. The nearly flavorless, overpriced meat patty was drizzled with a sweet teriyaki sauce and onion shavings that provided its only flavor.

McDonald's on Urbanspoon

Ultimately, the best meals in Kauai were hotel food - make of that what you will - and those we prepared ourselves. Armed with the resort's four propane grills, our family twice prepared steak kabobs complete with the standards: onions, peppers, and pineapple, cooked to near perfection in 10 minutes after 20-30 minutes of prep time. Even including the silverware, plates, cutlery and tongs, these $30 meals for six or seven cost less than a typical meal for two elsewhere on the island. These self-made feasts united us, even more than the shared disaster lunches and dinners that preceded them; ultimately, we'll remember the feeling of being together more than anything we ate in Kauai.

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