June 5, 2012

Magnolia Travels, Part I: Kauai, Hawaii

Friends, I must step out of the South for a moment. My heart for the past week has been in the middle of the North Pacific, on the balmy and graceful islands of Hawaii. Now, I'm not sure what kind of food destination Hawaii is, but Andrew and I got along just fine with the help of yelp and urbanspoon. From the fancy sunset dinner in Princeville to charcoal-grilled burgers at roadside stands, we tried it all. We had fresh Pacific fish and huge coconut shrimp, Maui Brewing Company lagers and poolside mai tais, macadamia nuts by the multi-handful and daily cups of hot local coffee. So what I miss about Hawaii is not just the lush mountains, the beach, the turquoise waters, the rainbows, the lunchtime cocktails. What I miss is being in that slice of paradise and turning every mealtime into an adventure of local cuisine hunting. We did not settle for the tourist spots or the obligatory fish-for-every-meal island fare. Rather, we went for pizza, burgers, fish and chips, and anything with grilled pineapple.

Here is what we found: the more expensive the meal, the more forgettable it was. In fact, one of our top meals was found almost by accident, in the pouring rain on the north shore of Kauai. Another top meal was eaten at a roadside stand with chickens puttering around and a saucer-eyed feral cat scrounging for dropped salty fries and sticky teriyaki sauce. One meal was centered on a mile high wedge of ice cream pie and one breakfast was spent at the crunchiest-of-all-crunchy, hemp-milk-selling bicycle coffee bar.
Traveling for foodies can be a challenge but it can also be a wonderful adventure, one that is not necessarily centered on "fine dining." And Hawaii is a supreme place for foodies, mainly because it offers such a melting pot of international cuisine - Asian, Pacific, Tahitian, American, European, Mexican. For us, Hawaii was a celebration - not only of the start of a beloved new life together, but also of our similar food and travel personalities. When one of the best meals shared is at sunset with live music, a basket of warm homemade chips, and eco-friendly cups of fresh fruit sangria, you know that this is a celebration that will last a lifetime.
One of our top meals came by recommendation from a very Aloha-y cab driver who took us to the Honolulu airport on our way out to Lihue. We asked this former Kauai resident what kinds of recommendations had for the small, two-lane highway up the coast to Princeville. "Duane's Ono Char-Burger," he said, without a doubt. "Great handmade burgers with teriyaki." He gave another two or three suggestions but our minds were stuck on the burgers. As soon as we were in Lihue, we started our search for Char-Burger. Lush volcanic peaks rose above the road and crowds of feral chickens clucked their ways around ditches and fields. We were so overcome by Kauai's picturesque rusticity that we almost missed our burger stop. It was in a rusty red shack on the side of the road and obscured enough that we drove past it once and had to turn around in the gravel lot of a banana stand. The menu was homemade and fresh and featured obligatory burger joint milkshakes and fries. We ordered burgers with teriyaki, fresh pineapple, and cheese and ate on an old plank table in a tiny courtyard speckled with chickens and roosters. We watched the mountains and the flowers and the paradise and savored these char-licious burgers for as long as we could stand it, then headed on our way up to the resort.

Several poolside drinks, a fancy meal of fish and a day later, we were back on the road looking for our next local dinner. My heart set on a little pizza joint called the Kilauea Bakery, which had come to us on recommendation from the hotel staff. I was immediately taken in by the Bakery's Wordpress site, which seemed to be crafted with such love and care by its owner. The Bakery had a rotating menu, used local ingredients, and was actively involved in the lush East Kauai community. But as often happens in travel, our plans were thwarted when we discovered that the Bakery was closed for remodeling. Not to be deterred by our pizza plans, we headed back north of Princeville to the tiny town of Hanalei. Rain poured intermittently and made the mountains and distant waterfalls sparkle even more soundly in the distance. We crossed a one-way bridge and paused for pictures. Finally we turned into the pock-marked lot of Ching Young Village in Hanalei and ducked out of the rain into the cozy warm space of Hanalei Pizza.

Let me tell you something about Hanalei Pizza. From the moment we stepped inside we were in the right place. There was one big table that a few families shared and several smaller tables where some patrons sat waiting for their fresh wood-fired pizzas. Local art graced the wall and a refrigerator with drinks and bags of pizza dough lined one of the sides. On the counter was a pizza-by-the-slice warmer with an unobtrusive Ron Paul bumper sticker. Because Hanalei Pizza is BYOB (and charges no cork fee), Andrew headed over to the grocery across the courtyard to pick up a six pack of Kaua'i Golden Ale from Hawaii Nui. Our Royal Hawaiian Pizza was exquisite and piping hot. A beautiful coconut water and hemp crust formed the crunchy base for homemade sauce, Canadian bacon, fresh pineapple, roasted garlic, and toasty mozzarella. Flakes of charred cornmeal seemed to pick up on the flavors of smoky pizzas baked early in the day. As we savored our hot pizza and golden ale, we watched customers come in and out of the shop and listened to the pizza baker talk excitedly about his crust and combinations of ingredients he liked.

This experience was not just about the pizza. While Andrew and I both agreed that it was one of the best we had ever had and any meal we had in Hawaii from then on would have to be awfully good to beat it, what really made this place was its atmosphere - the loyal customers, the shop owner, the eclectic menu and customizable ingredients, the cool rain outside and the pro surfers that happened to share our dinner table. Hanalei Pizza is a must-stop for travelers to the north shore of Kauai. We for one were thankful to have foregone the 5-star resort restaurant to adventure to this little gem of a pizza shop.

Stay tuned for more culinary adventures!

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