Just returned from another glorious hele to Kaua'i after a 3 year hiatus. For the common good, here's an (incomplete yet endless) report on places old and new.
First, the new:
(1) Josselin's: The new space is still in a shopping mall, but head and shoulders better than the stripmall space that Jean Marie's A Pacific Cafe was in previously in Waipouli. Layout, furniture and decor is well thought out and strikes a good balance between class and casual. The visible part of the kitchen (used mostly for finishing) is located so that Jean Marie can see pretty much everyone and everything while cooking--I like that. The staff is exceptionally well-trained, friendly and knowledgeable without being intrusive. The "tapa" theme (unfortunate genre name in Polynesia) is great, and actually makes Josselin's surprisingly inexpensive. The food? Good, but not quite up to the hype lavished here on CH. We had 3 dishes: (a) the oxtail pillow ravioli; (b) the grilled asparagus; and (c) the 36-hour pork belly. The oxtail itself was more of a forcemeat, discernible as oxtail, flavorful, but I expected more savor. The wrapper was wonton, but it was thick, flour-y, and cracked under the fork, as if old, chewed as if completely uncooked. The asparagus was blanched and then grilled, and served with a cheese sauce and apple-smoked bacon, topped with a lightly poached egg. When tumbled together, this dish was elegant in its simplicity, and warranted more bread to sop up the sauce. The pork belly was cooked sous vide and then grilled, and served with apple kimchee and stewed figs. Also quite good (the piece we had was the leanest pork belly I've ever seen), although the kimchee and figs didn't seem to fit well IMHO.
(2) Killah Steaks: This place is a surf food trailer nowhere near any break; it's actually parked in another restaurant's parking lot, across the often gridlocked Kuhio Highway from Safeway in Waipouli.. It basically offers two choices: (a) salt-n-peppa steak plate; and (b) onion gravy steak plate (w/ salad). This was also good, but also not up to the recent hype on CH and in the local paper. The steak is a cheap cut, but seasoned and grilled to juicy perfection before being sliced and served with rice (and "salad"--chopped iceberg lettuce). Great deal for $6.50. I tried both dishes, and it was good enough to go back. Be aware that the gravy is a mix, the salad dressing came outta da bottle from Safeway, and the rice outta a home steamer that was delivered by car while I waited.
Now for the old...
(1) Hanalei Dolphin: For the last 17 years, I've enjoyed this place both for its food and vibe. I buy fish from their market out back whenever I can. My wife loves their salads. I have fond memories there. So we went expecting something like a visit with a dear old friend. What we got was extremely disappointing. Patrons are handed those strobe-flashing pager thingies for the wait, which when they go off in bright blue, are like being pulled over by the Kaua'i Police. The ambience is just like always, but the food was something less than mediocre. I had the ono fish and chips (ono being my absolute favorite fish for this dish), but the dish served was completely bereft of texture, almost oozy inside the English-style batter. The fries (actually potato wedges) were even more toothpaste-like. My wife had the scallops, already rich, and made into a perfect Hanalei Heartburn Special from the grease that drained from the cheese completely rendered out under the unwatched (except by me) salamander. I ate only about 1/4 of my "fish and chips", and the waiter did not even ASK if everything was to our liking. Tables around us were over-bussed, diners hurried, and the atmosphere was not relaxing. Even the bread basket and croutons, historically good here, were terrible. It is obvious that this storied place has sadly focused on separating tourist from money. Afterward, I noticed all the cars were rentals--the monied locals are going elsewhare, like Postcards.
(2) Tahiti Nui: Lest you think I'm hard tro please, I really like this place. No hype, no real ambience except local flavor. We had lunch here, and the spicy Hawai'ian pizza was very, very good, the cheese and ham being exceptional. Other menu items we saw going by looked great as well. Service was good and friendly, and the beer cold and plentiful. Short on pretense and long on local flavor and good, honest food, I highly recommend it.
(3) Tropical Taco: This is what happens when surf trucks succeed--they move to storefronts, get fat and lazy. TT should a stayed in the truck. My Big Fattie Burrito was bland and crunchy as wet cardboard, but my wife's Tropical Taco was described as being OK, but nothing like in the days when the hand-formed, fried corn tortillas had folks standing in lines. TT has learned the Bubba's lesson, and Hanalei is all the poorer for it.
(4) Duane's Ono Char: Still the same pretty much the same--an order window and counter where the floor is so greasy black you wonder if you're going to be the fly to their paper. This Anahola institution still presents the most appetizing LOOKING burgers just about anywhere (and their shakes and onion rings are world-class), but the burger meat this time was more like cheap, thin, processed, overdone gyro meat than real hamburger.
(5) Kountry Kitchen and Ono Family Restaurant: These 2 places are the dueling princes of breakfasts on Kaua'i, both in Kapa'a. Both are excellent and great values. Both serve up plates sized for people who work for a living. KK is a bit more expensive and features specials (their tamales are exquisite). Both are always full of locals--good news.
(6) Olympic Cafe: Also in old Kapa'a town. Only had breakfast here, and the kalua pig plate was good even by local standards. Service is spotty and passive/aggressive. Their high tables and chairs are significantly uncomfortable.
(7) Sukkhotai: By my count, there are 14 Thai restaurants on Kaua'i, but this one is SO good, I'm not likely to even try the other 13. It's in the Big Save stripmall between Waipouli and Kapa'a, so there's not much ambience. We had lunch there, ordered the panang beef and phad thai, and both were excellent. They tape color photos of their food to the outside windows, but it's so good they can be forgiven. Detached service, but efficient.
(8) KCL Barbecue: This place is a dirty little hole. HOWEVER, like many places in Hawai'i, the food is good. But for a disastrously bad experience at Wahoo (see below), I would never have tried this place, which is open late. There ARE tables, but no one with sense eats there. For $20, I got about 5 POUNDS of really good mixed Hawai'ian BBQ takeout. Their mac salad is REALLY good. Eat here quick before the health board people shut it down!
(9) Wahoo: Indescribably , ineffably bad in every way that matters. Yet overpriced and with terrible service. I've already spent more time writing these 3 sentences than Wahoo spent trying and failing. Do not be fooled by the enormous makau (fishhook) outside--there is no aloha here.
(10) Monico's Taqueria: We threw out the anchor when driving through Wailua when we saw this place was PACKED with locals. Small, few tables, but we were made to feel very welcome while waiting at the bar. Service was excellent. My wife had the fish (ahi) tacos, which she loved. I had the same fish in burrito, but fried Chimi-style. Very good, very cheap, and a good selection of tequilas and Mex beers.
(11) Brick Oven Pizza: We ate dinner at their new location in Wailua. BOP in Kalaheo is one place I MUST eat at when on island, and the new place was carefully made to look like the one on the West Side. Great family atmosphere and friendly efficient service. Their crusts are somewhat unique--very yeasty flavor, and one is a buttered garlic crust--both of which I like. But the overall food quality was just mediocre. I was bummed, and it took me awhile to ID the problem: the meat ingredients on our combo were a LOT lower quality than in previous years; the sausage and ham in particular were soft, pale and fatty. The pie ended up tasting undercooked, although the crust was done. Hopefully just a bad night (they were also cranking out pies for a buffet).
(12) Garden Island BBQ and Chinese: This unassuming place in downtown Lihu'e is OUTSTANDINGLY good. Locals come here for one of two two purposes: (a) to graze and linger the afternoon away; or (b) to INHALE their food and get back to work or family. Either way works. My wife had a chicken katsu/teri chicken plate that was excellent, and I had a char siu beef and garlic shrimp plate that was delectable. It would take a year of living here to go through their extensive menu and specials (written in felt pen, taped to the window). My only criticism is that you have to be careful or else you will miss what they do best: vegetables. I am not kidding, when the veggie dishes are carried past your table, you WILL rise and follow, and ask for some. It's that good.
(13) Brenneke's: I've always tried to DISlike this Po'ipu institution. It's very touristy, relatively expensive, and the pitchers they serve beer in are insultingly tiny. They play 70s-80s classic rock a little too loud. And they have a strange sports bar approach. But my wife loves the place, so I go along every time. But I have to say: the food is REALLY good here. This visit I had the fish and chips--ono--and it made Hanalei Dolphin's attempt at the same dish seem pathetic. The only downer was they had discontinued the Shrimp Louie, which was my wife's reason for dining there. Now I'll drag HER there!
(14) Bubbas: Not much has changed here, except they have more locations. Exceedingly crappy quality of ground beef, skinless franks and canned chili go into their "food". This chain is more about selling t-shirts than putting out decent food. We knew this all before, of course, but went there anyway. Why I'm not sure.
(15) Waimea Brewing/Plantation Cottages: This is an odd place--the captive restaurant of a luxe hotel chain that uses separate, refurbished plantation camp houses (shacks) as its rooms. Devoid now of serf-workers and dusty locals, it's the place for pale rich people dressed in Tommy Bahama to go if they're too tired or lazy to drive off the West Side. Their beers supposedly win awards, and they're good by Hawai'ian beer standards. We lunched outside on the lana'i, which oddly faces thew highway, NOT the beach. The kalua pig nachos were hugely portioned, but the pua'a kalua was the only nod to Hawai'i about the dish--the rest was the same canned olives, black beans, jalapenos, and salsa you get in Ketchikan, Alaska and Kabul Afghanistan.
I want to add a postscript about food on Kaua'i, of a kind we CH'ers should bear in mind wherever in the world we go. As good as SOME restaurants there are, RESTAURANTS are not even a fair reason to come to this beautiful and sacred place. The FOOD may be, but the very best of it can be found in the farmers' and fish markets. If one can cook, and has the time and inclination to find and follow recipes that "fit" Hawai'i, and prepare local foods with aloha for your ipo, 'ohana and new friends, now THAT is what CHing should be about.
Brick Oven Pizza
2 2555 Kaumualii Hwy, Kalaheo, HI
Ono Family Restaurant
4-1292 Kuhio Hwy, Kapaa, HI 96746
Kountry Kitchen Restaurant
1485 Kuhio Hwy, Kapaa, HI 96746
5-5088 Kuhio Hwy Shop A, Hanalei, HI 96714
4-356D Kuhio Hwy, Kapaa, HI 96746
Tahiti Nui Restaurant
PO Box 15, Hanalei, HI 96714