Cuisine options for dining in Kauai run the gamut from fast-food stalls found in side streets and on beaches to fine gourmet restaurants in resorts and Kauai luxury hotels. Don’t turn your nose up at fast food in Kauai as the island's street food is some of the finest authentic local fare to be found anywhere in the world. And don’t think you need deluxe restaurants in Kauai for gourmet cuisine or a romantic dinner for two. Traveling to the island for Kauai weddings or a honeymoon is popular, and some of the most romantic dinners can be catered just for two, right on the beach. If you’re taking advantage of the many Kauai vacation rentals, ask locals where the best markets are. When you’re at the market, ask the vendors for their favorite recipes. Sometimes, the best Kauai dining will be at your own table, as you prepare your own version of local specialties.
You can get a burger or other typical American fare on the island, but you’ve come so far to experience a lifestyle unlike anything found on the mainland, and you must try traditional food in Kauai for an authentic experience. Just what traditional Kauai dining is can be open to interpretation. All of the islands consist of a vast melting pot of cultures and ethnicities, including mainland American. But Asian and Polynesian themes dominate from Maui and Oahu to the Big Island of Hawaii. These islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean also rely on local seafood—look for varieties of tuna, mahi mahi, octopus, butterfish, opah, swordfish, and snapper. Fresh local fruits are also important, and you'll want to try tropical fruits such as guava, coconuts, bananas, pineapple, and mango, as well as vegetables, such as corn, sweet potatoes, and leafy vegetables. You will find beef at restaurants in Kauai—especially at Asian venues—but the traditional meats are pork and chicken.
Centuries before Europeans arrived, taro, called the Hawaiian staff of life, was cultivated on the islands, and the root plays an important part in the ancient cultural history of Kauai and the other islands. Hawaiians believed that the taro, or kalo, plant was the original ancestor of the Hawaiian people. Thus the spirit of the ancestors was present whenever poi was served, and the appearance of poi at the table means that all conflict between family members must cease immediately. Perhaps this is why the people of the Pacific islands are known for being such a peaceful and tolerant group. Taro is used to create the ubiquitous dish, poi, which you will find everywhere. Whether you end up liking it or not, this staple of Kauai dining must be at least sampled.
Most Kauai restaurants will have their own trademark poi. All parts of the taro can be used in food, including the leaves, which are integral to imu, actually an underground pit oven—the roasted pork dish that you will find at a traditional luau. Pig meat is wrapped tightly in taro leaves and roasted in a pit with hot lava rocks. If you participate in a luau, you become ohana, meaning family.
Whether you know it or not, you will undoubtedly enjoy pamea’ai at some point during your tours of the island. This is universally called a plate lunch, and you will find that virtually all Kauai restaurants, except the more upscale ones, will feature their own signature version. This is inexpensive and satisfying fast food, often of the build-your-own variety, that is made for take out. Generally it consists of a starch base (rice is common), a serving of macaroni salad (most restaurants in Kauai have their trademark recipe) or potato salad, and then an almost limitless choice of another course, such as Chinese or Korean barbecued pork ribs, several styles of chicken, or a fish specialty. These traditional plate lunches are perfect to take to the beach or on driving tours to the many attractions on the island. Look to the concierges at Kauai hotels for recommendations on the best Kauai restaurants—or ask the local people.