The Island Vegan: Eating Green on the North & East Shores of Kauai
Summer may be over where I am, but that just means mainlanders are flocking to the Hawaiian Islands in droves. Our off-season is their high season and it seems like every day I’m hearing about another friend packing up to get their fill of sand, surf and that peaceful Aloha spirit.
My little family of five was fortunate enough to spend time there this summer. We stayed on our favorite island of Kauai for two weeks, then hopped over to Oahu for another couple of days for my beautiful cousin’s wedding. My husband Daniel and I began our love affair with Kauai almost 9 years ago when I was pregnant with our first child. I’d traveled to Oahu numerous times growing up since I have family there. But for our “babymoon” (expectant parents’ last hurrah before baby arrives) we wanted to try a new island and the sweeping landscapes, laid back atmosphere and dialed down tourism of “The Garden Island” seemed the perfect fit.
I can sum up our love for Kauai with one simple illustration from that first trip there. Daniel and I are laying poolside at our hotel… I’m 6 1/2 months pregnant and looking like a beached whale on a lounge chair. Hawaiian music is playing softly. Young children are splashing and giggling, moms and dads are drinking cocktails and reading their summer novels. A few elderly couples are playing cards at a table nearby. Suddenly, in comes a group of young men — they look about 20 years old — striding in like entitled frat boys crashing an MTV beach party. They’re clearly on the prowl for bikini-clad young ladies and their obnoxious air has gotten everyone’s attention. But as they come up to the entrance of the pool area, they stop cold. One looks at me and the plate of food I have balanced on my monstrous belly. They take in the splashing kids, the moms and dads, the elderly folks playing cards. And I kid you not, someone actually yells out, “Wrong island, dudes!”
As the young men spun on their heels, looking dejected and desperate, I smiled at Daniel and said, “I love Kauai.”
We went back when our three kids were 5, 3 and 6 months. It was an unforgettable vacation but we couldn’t wait to return when all three kids could walk and eat solid foods. This past summer we made that happen. Our kids are now 8, 6 and 3 1/2. We were able to go hiking together, rent bikes, and dine in restaurants. It was wonderful! We always stay in Kapa’a as we love the kid-friendly beaches on the East and North Shores and feel like we’re at home there. We even get a temporary library pass every time we visit.
As for food, I had experienced difficulty eating a plant-based diet on Kauai the last two times I’d visited. I mostly shopped at Papaya Natural Foods and ate a lot of Asian food. But this time, I was astounded by how many options there were! Like many places around the world, Kauai is experiencing a steady increase in demand for plant-based alternatives and the island is responding with a culinary eruption of grocery stores, food trucks, roadside stands and veggie menu options. I couldn’t believe how many times I saw the word “vegan” on this last trip. This island that already feels like home to me, now has me considering permanent residence!
Thankfully, I could not eat in one trip all the vegan deliciousness Kauai has to offer. But here is a sampling of what I enjoyed. I hope it will inspire you to visit this beautiful island, knowing your belly will not have to suffer vegan withdrawal. Or if you are a frequent visitor to Kauai, hopefully I can share something with you that you may not have tried before. Most of all, I encourage you to patron these establishments if you do go… and tell them how much you appreciate what they’re doing to celebrate plant-based diets. They need to hear that affirmation and we need them to stay in business!
THE OLYMPIC CAFE // 1354 Kuhio Hwy, Kapa’a
This place is right on the main drag in downtown Kapa’a. It’s a fun, family-friendly place to dine because of it’s second-floor, open air location. You can sit atop stools at one of their high tables overlooking the street below. The Olympic Cafe is no-frills but the food is decent, the prices moderate, the service pleasant and the portions generous. Best of all, the menu is extensive so everyone can find something to eat and the atmosphere is kid-friendly.
ONO ONO SHAVE ICE // 4-1292 Kuhio Hway, Kapa’a
This is a daily stop for us while on the island. Hawaiian shave ice is the perfect refreshment after a long afternoon at the beach or while enjoying an evening stroll at sunset. There a tons of places to get shave ice on the island but Ono Ono (ono means “delicious” in Hawaiian) is by far our favorite. The flavor options are endless and the portions are so huge that all three of my kids share one when we go.
Ono Ono also serves a Vegan Organic Banana Soft Whip. It’s basically blended frozen banana. It’s rich, creamy and pretty sweet. That natural sweetness of the mashed banana got to be too much for me about halfway through, but my husband had no trouble finishing it. ; ) I got it with mochi topping which they don’t advertise as an option, so just ask.
RAINBOW LIVING FOODS // 4-1384 Kuhio Hwy, Kapa’a
This place is a bit tricky to find as it’s in the back of a building by the parking lot. If you can find the lot behind Olympic Cafe, just walk to the adjacent parking lot and you’ll find this little gem of raw vegan delight. I’m not usually a fan of raw foods. I absolutely believe in the nutritional benefits of this kind of eating but I just enjoy hot food too much to ever go fully raw. My son also has a nut allergy that can make eating raw vegan difficult as much of it depends on cashews and other nuts. But my 8-year-old vegan daughter and I dined here together one afternoon and what a treat it was! Rainbow Living Foods is definitely worth a visit.
The place is tiny but the soft-spoken owner and his gregarious right-hand man are super hospitable. I took a long time figuring out what I wanted, asked a lot of questions and took a lot of pictures and they were cool with all of it.
We settled on the Sprouted Buckwheat Pizza and the Rainbow Smoothie. The pizza was amazing… I loved the subtle crunch of the chia crust and the cashew cheese was divine!
The smoothie was super yummy and the blue green algae was gorgeously green without being too strong in flavor. I often try to use spirulina in my smoothies at home but I can never add too much without it tasting like I’m sipping off the ocean floor. This spirulina was so mild in flavor without losing its integrity; I just had to ask the talkative server what it was. He brought out the bottle to show me. I need to get my hands on this stuff!
THE GARDEN CAFE AT COMMON GROUND // 4900 Kuawa Road, Kilauea
After spending a fun morning at the Na Aina Kai Botanical Gardens (we go on their Children’s Tour each time we visit the island), we asked our tour guide for a vegan-friendly lunch recommendation. She sent us just up the main road to The Garden Cafe at Common Ground. I’m so glad she did.
This place is located among beautiful fields and gardens and the open air restaurant is peaceful and serene. It’s a casual dining experience in that you order at the front then pick up your food at the window when your buzzer goes off. But the top notch ingredients, gorgeous atmosphere and indie music piping through the sound system make for an unforgettable meal. Our kids even ran around the gardens while we waited for our food as well as after we were finished eating. We loved those extra moments of letting our food digest while our kids played happily within our sight.
I decided to try another Curry Wrap and substituted tempeh for the chicken. Although that wasn’t listed as an option on the menu, they claim to always have tempeh or tofu in the kitchen. Just ask and get creative. Take advantage of their willingness to be flexible!
My husband ordered their vegan soup du jour. That day it was a Vegetable Medley soup featuring broccoli and other greens. It was perfectly seasoned and delicious!
We ate here twice during our stay on the island. I highly recommend it!
HANALEI TARO & JUICE CO. // 5-5070 Kuhio Hwy, Hanalei
You’ll spot this food truck soon after entering the town of Hanalei on Kauai’s beautiful North Shore. It features all kinds of taro specialties and the food is delicious and the prices reasonable. There’s covered outdoor seating next to the truck as well as plenty of other places to lay down a blanket or dine at a picnic table in the fields nearby. There are also well-kept public restrooms just down the gravel driveway which is always a plus!
My girls and I each ordered an “Original” Taro Veggie Burger. I washed it down with a cucumber berry juice and their shared a Hanalei Sunrise Smoothie. There was nary a crumb nor drop left when we were finished. We loved it all!
Hanalei’s vegan choices are few. My husband and son ordered from a nearby taco shop then joined us outside to eat. It appeared there were some vegan options to be had there. And of course you can pick and choose from other menus but if you are okay with eating from a food truck, I’d highly recommend this burger. It was unlike anything I’d tasted before.
KAPA’A CREAMERY // location TBD (formerly 4-1638 Kuhio Hwy, Kapa’a
Needless to say, I was stoked. We went the next day and met Matthew, the owner of Kapa’a Creamery. He handcrafts a variety of coconut-based vegan ice cream flavors each day and let me tell you, I’ve never had a better vegan ice cream in my life. This stuff is to die for. He makes them in small batches and keeps his truck open til the last of it runs out. At the time, his location was the address I’ve mentioned above. He was stationed next to a Greek food truck and a Mexican food truck. It was a great location, right off the beach and pedestrian/bike path. We visited Matthew there daily until a week before we were to depart, he informed us that the management at that location wasn’t treating him right and it was time to move on.
We each ordered two scoops from him that night and then the next day, sadly witnessed the vacant lot where his truck used to sit. But not to worry… Matthew promised he wasn’t leaving the island and it was only a matter of time before he finds a new spot to plug in and get selling his phenomenal vegan ice cream again. He joked that he can’t get very far on the island so the next time we visit, we’ll be sure to find him.
My favorite flavors were his Vanilla Lavender and Chocolate Peanut Buddha. Melt in your mouth deliciousness, folks.
If you make it to Kauai, make it a point to find Matthew and his vegan ice cream truck. It’ll be worth the hunt, I promise!
HARVEST MARKET // 5-5161 Kuhio Hwy, Hanalei
There are a couple of great natural foods stores on Kauai’s North and East Shores. This one, Harvest Market in Hanalei, is on the North Shore. It’s compact but has everything you need to cook at home or grab a quick picnic meal or snack. We visited this store on our second to last full day on the island so I wasn’t in need of a large haul. But my middle daughter and I went in to find some vegan marshmallows to make hot cocoa that night. The convergence of two tropical storms (Julio and Iselle) were slated to hit the Hawaiian Islands that night and so we were anticipating a cozy, rainy evening at home. My girl was super excited to score our familiar Dandies Vegan Marshmallows as well as a bag of yummy plums.
If you’re ever staying in Hanalei, you need not worry about where to shop for groceries. Though small in size, Harvest Market has everything you need.
PAPAYA’S NATURAL FOODS & CAFE // 4-831 Kuhio Hwy, Kapa’a
This is the natural foods store I frequented during our stay. Funny how I have no personal photos of it! But I was too busy shopping to take pictures. Papaya’s is located in the same shopping center as Safeway and Longs Drugs so all my shopping could be done in on place. Very convenient!
Papaya’s offers prepared foods, an incredible bulk section, an expansive health and natural remedies section, lots of fresh produce and all the usual vegan staples you’re used to finding. The guy in the produce section was so awesome and let me taste a bunch of different fruits I’d never had before. Mountain apples anyone?
I shopped there so frequently during our two-week stay that I signed up for their frequent customer card and took advantage of daily specials. One important note is that they offer minimal shopping bags when you check out. Most often, they will pack all your items in a box. So be prepared to do some heavy lifting or bring your own bags.
- We ate a couple times at Pho Kapa’a (4-831 Kuhio Hwy, Kapa’a). Their Vietnamese cuisine is basic and not extremely flavorful. But if you’re craving Asian, it’s a passable option. The owners are super friendly and very accommodating towards a vegan diet.
- Kauai Pasta (4-939 Kuhio Hwy, Kapa’a) is a chain on the island. I took my middle daughter on a date here one night. It was manageable but not easy as a vegan. I was able to order a capellini marinara but had to repeatedly explain that I wanted it to be dairy-free. They serve bread with butter but brought me some olive oil for dipping after I asked a few times. My daughter’s Italian Soda came out with a huge spray of whipped cream on top even though it wasn’t listed on the menu that way. She’s vegetarian — not vegan– so she was fine with it. But be prepared if you order one as a vegan. ; )
- Sukhothai Restaurant (4-1105, Ste 4, Kuhio Hwy, Kapa’a) is as vegan-friendly as any other Thai restaurant out there. Look out for the usual fish sauces and eggs in stir-fry noodle dishes. But you can totally dine vegan here and they don’t flinch when you ask them to omit animal-based products.
- Bouchons Hanalei Grill (5-5190 Kuhio Hwy, Hanalei) offers veggie options and a flexible kitchen staff. My kids ordered off-menu sushi rolls (avocado and cucumber maki) and I ordered the Teriyaki Chicken Plate but asked for tofu instead. The waiter was friendly and accommodating and my dish featured seared tofu steaks in a teriyaki sauce, grilled pineapple, jasmine rice and steamed vegetables.
- House of Noodles (4-1330 Kuhio Hwy, Kapa’a) is a basic, no-frills eatery that’s generally vacant on an otherwise busy thoroughfare. Their basic, not-too-flavorful dishes that feature cheap filler veggies (think: lots of cabbage and onion) are the reason why. But if you’re looking for something hot that’s vegan-friendly, you can order a variety of fried rice and noodle dishes from here. I did this on an evening when my hubby wanted to eat Mexican but I just needed me some Asian fare. We were on foot and this was the closest thing. It satisfied the craving!
Here’s to happy eating on the islands,