Waikulu Distillery in Makawao on Maui | Credit: Matt Kettmann

This edition of Full Belly Files was originally emailed to subscribers on August 18, 2023. To receive Matt Kettmann’s food newsletter in your inbox each Friday, sign up at independent.com/newsletters.

Our Hawaiian family vacation that started high on kalbi ribs, fresh poke, and lava flows ended on a more melancholy note of all-too-familiar wildfire tragedy, as we ventured from the sunshine of Kauai to the mess of Maui over the past two weeks. Our four nights on the latter island at the tail end of our trip were spent far away from the disaster scenes of Lahaina, which is why we kept our plans intact. But there was plenty of angst in making that decision, even with all of our Maui contacts urging us to come.

Rather than dwell on the bad (more on that down the page), let’s hit the highlights first, as the state of Hawai‘i — and Maui specifically — is going to need all the continued tourism it can get to recover. Hopefully our happy times will encourage you to book a trip of your own in the near future.

For the sake of this newsletter, I’ll keep the highlights to the food and drink variety, though I could go on and on about the glories of super-challenging golf at Hōkūala, the bouncy riding of inner tubes down old irrigation ditches with Kauai Backcountry, or the waterfalls and cliff jumps on the Road to Hana.

Cajun-spiced ono at Paia Fish Market and chili pepper chicken at Wailua Drive-In | Credit: Matt Kettmann

Local Eats: Hawaiian cuisine could be considered one of the first modern fusion foods, blending so many influences and ingredients, both native (or nearly native) and introduced, from Japan and Portugal to the Philippines and California.

My first meal on Kauai was a plate lunch of kalbi ribs from the Noka Grill in Lihue, but that was just the start. I also enjoyed crunchy, sweet, and slightly spicy chili-pepper chicken from Wailua Drive-In (their loco moco wasn’t so hot), blackened ono at the Paia Fish Market, and possibly the best spam musubi I’ve ever had at the snack shack of the Hōkūala golf course.
Burgers are also a mainstay, and my favorite was at the Makai Grill at the Princeville Makai Golf Club, though I am still remiss for once again missing Duane’s Ono Char-Burger by our house in Anahola.

Spam Musubi at Hōkūala Golf Club and the burger at Makai Grill | Credit: Matt Kettmann

Seaside Tourist Fare: We hit up the Lava Lava Beach Club in Kapa’a a couple of times, first for my inaugural Lava Flow of the trip — served on the rocks, which actually worked — and then again for dinner with our extended crew a few nights later. The poke nachos ordered by my mom and pineapple fried rice ordered by my daughter were the stars. Another tourist-serving spot is Tahiti Nui in Hanalei, where I fell in love with their strong drinks more than a decade ago. I’d suggest sticking with those drinks rather than the eats, as our lunch there was lackluster (my poke, though fresh, was downright depressing in presentation), though my brother thought his burger was good and my nephew’s cheese pizza was solid.

Matt’s mom enjoyed her poke nachos and his daughter liked the pineapple fried rice at Lava Lava Beach Club. | Credit: Matt Kettmann

Kilauea KIlls It: This tiny town between Hanalei and Kapa’a is probably my favorite commercial cluster on Kauai. We did SushiGirl’s sushi burritos again, while ordering pizza from Kilauea Bakery & Pizzeria at the same time. I later picked up poke at the Kilauea Fish Market as well — super pricey at nearly $40 a pound, but quite fresh and delicious. Sitting down to eat there next time tops my list. There are a handful of other places to eat within a one-block radius, and even a wine bar. Maybe I’ll move there one day.

Mason eats a pork arepa from Ally’s Cocina. The donuts are fresh-fried at Sunrise Coffee. | Credit: Matt Kettmann

Surprising Treats: After scoring a hole in one on the 18th at the Kauai Mini Golf Course at Anaina Hou Community Park, I got to check out a place I first heard about during our trip last year: Ally’s Cocina, where a Venezuelan woman named Alejandra Gamero makes astounding arepas. We weren’t super hungry, so just ordered four to share, and were blown away at how tasty they were. The chicken/avocado and black bean/feta were particularly mouth-watering.

Down past Hanamaulu, near Wailua Falls, we stumbled upon fresh-fried donuts and magical pineapple whip on the side of the highway at Sunrise Coffee. It was a welcome salve for learning upon arrival at Wailua Falls that the supposedly amazing banana bread woman was not there that day, due to an injured wrist.

Coconut Glen’s serves refreshing vegan ice cream on the Road to Hana. | Credit: Matt Kettmann

Hana Heroes: The Road to Hana, which we enhanced with a highly recommended $20 audio tour app from Shaka Guide, is not exactly a culinary journey, but we were happily surprised multiple times. The coconut-based vegan ice cream at Coconut Glen’s was so refreshing that we stopped there both ways (lemongrass-ginger was my favorite); the fruit plate at Laulima Farm introduced us to calamansi and egg fruit (or canistel) over double espressos; the dishes at Thai Food by Pranee were some of the better ones we’ve ever had (and she’s a gem, crediting nightly spoonfuls of coconut oil for her smooth skin at age 71); and then we were shocked by the quality of the pizza at The Bamboo Hale at Hana Farms, where Lahela Park performed a mix of traditional Hawaiian tunes and rock-reggae classics on her ukulele as a young woman danced the hula.

Tom kha soup and green papaya with pork belly at Thai Food by Pranee in Hana, where Pranee herself extolled the virtues of coconut oil. | Credit: Matt Kettmann

Home-Cooked Home Runs: One of my favorite parts of visiting Hawai‘i — or really anywhere — is buying local ingredients, spices, sauces, and so forth to cook dishes with flavors that we don’t easily find at home. On this trip, I cooked chicken and Big Island–raised strip steaks in a sweet kalbi barbecue sauce by the Parks Brand (I can’t find it online, but here’s their chili water) as well as Kauai-raised shrimp from Kapa’a’s Fish Bar Deli in a beer boil that I spiked with a spice mix called Madame Pele’s Heat.

Most dishes began with macadamia nut oil by Maiden Hawai‘i Naturals, including a successful if last-minute-ish pineapple fried rice, and then I slipped this super-tart, super-spicy, super-awesome Slow Island Sour Orange Chili Garlic sauce into almost everything. Alongside the meals also came kimchi and cucumber pickles made by Kauai Kim Chee.

Kauai shrimp in spiced beer boil and a dragonfruit | Credit: Matt Kettmann

One morning, as my son tired of making pancakes, I hopped in, mixing red dragonfruit from Papaya’s Natural Foods that I pureed into the batter. The resulting hot-pink pancakes were slightly sweeter thanks to the wacky fruit, which I tend to think is more visual than flavorful anyway.  I had no luck finding mangosteen this year, but was able to chomp down some longan thanks to Gloria, a longtime Princeville resident who we golfed with on our first dull day.

The agave at Waikulu and a bottle of Waikulu’s Ohana Reserve | Credit: Matt Kettmann

Fun with Agave: Seeing my cousin Ashley; her inventor-genius husband, Pablo; and their new baby was a key reason for choosing to go back to Maui again this summer. (I wrote about their Crested Butte wedding here.) They own an agave farm and distillery near Makawao called Waikulu, and are producing some seriously high-quality agave spirit, a bit smoother and slightly sweeter than much of the tequila on the market.

Madeline tries roasted agave heart at Waikulu. | Credit: Matt Kettmann

They aren’t allowed to do tastings for the public yet, but you can take the tour, which explains the process from planting to bottling, and includes tasting a roasted agave heart. They don’t make a ton, but copycats are already popping up on Maui, so expect to see a mini-industry begin because the soils and climate are ideal for the plant. I’ll probably do a more detailed story one of these days since the operation is so unique.

Want More? If all that wasn’t enough to satisfy your Hawaiian thirst, you can check out the photos from my Instagram stories here (Kauai & first part of Maui) and here (rest of Maui).

More Thoughts on Maui: Given the circumstances, I know that many of you would have opted not to go to Maui. With plans to arrive there from Kauai on Friday, we had a few days to consider our options and communicate with our contacts in Makawao, where the Upcountry fire was quickly put under control, and in Hana, where there were no impacts at all, aside from fewer visitors.

People in both locations, including my cousin who owns the agave farm Makawao, said that while what happened in Lahaina was tragic, there were no major ongoing impacts to their immediate communities. We should still come, they all said, and the place in Hana wasn’t prepared to offer any refund at all, though that potential loss of around $600 was only a minor factor in our decision.

While initial and widespread media reports told tourists to leave and avoid the island, that messaging was quickly honed to focus on avoiding West Maui specifically. The governor further sharpened the point to indicate that Maui businesses elsewhere were open as usual, that tourists who stayed away from the disaster area were indeed welcome, and that the island would be relying on tourism now and into the future to recover. Inter-island flights were still running on time, Uber functioned fine, and the roads where we went were wide open, with frontline tourism workers proving as hospitable as usual. (There’s sometimes the sense in Hawai‘i, like many over-touristed places, that visitors are tolerated more than welcomed, but that’s a different story altogether.)

There was certainly a pall cast over a few interactions, but the conversations I had with business owners and employees felt genuine. It probably helped our own understanding and our standing with Maui residents that we came from Santa Barbara, which has endured more than our fair share of wildfires and related disasters.

Anyone who’s lived in this region for more than a half a decade knows that the impacts of natural disasters come in waves, especially for places like Maui and Santa Barbara that rely on tourism. The first part is the scary one, where people die, property is lost, panic is prevalent, and the national media pays attention. The second one, though not as frightening or headline-grabbing, can be almost as damaging for many more people, as the lack of visitors cripples the economy, forcing businesses to shut down and people to lose their jobs.

So heed the requests to avoid West Maui until they can recover and rebuild. That will take a long time. But I’d encourage you, as soon as it feels right, to return to the many different areas of Maui and the other islands of Hawai‘i. They need your support now more than ever.

In the meantime, donate directly to the Hawai‘i Community Foundation’s Maui Strong Fund. Or, better yet, attend the “Raise the Roof for Maui” event on August 27, 5-7 p.m., at the Kimpton Canary, where your $50 will go straight to that same fund but you’ll also enjoy three tacos and a cocktail.

Full Slate of Food & Drink To-Dos

The scene-to-be at Cuyama Buckhorn’s Long Light Dinner | Credit: Courtesy

My inbox is inundated with announcements about so many upcoming food and drink events that I could fill this newsletter 10 times over by relaying the deliciousness on display. Instead, I’ll keep it very short, and encourage you to do the clicking to see which of these feasts suits your palate best.

From Our Table

Taqueria La Unica’s Alambres La Unica | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

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