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Monday’s Neighborhood: Kukui’ula, Poipu, Kauai

Today is the “day after” leaving a week on Kauai, the day where you realize not every day features guava jam on your toast, the dinner choice is fresh ahi or onaga, and the 6 pm hour doesn’t meant prepping mai tais for the sunset. If only every day could be Kauai…

We’ll cover the ups and downs of dining on the Garden Island, which certainly these days are far more positive and certainly exceed ho-hum luau buffets and poi.

I have been very lucky to visit Kauai now 18 times in my young life, though had not been in three years, which means I had not been to the new, impressive Shops at Kukui’ula. This is not a typical neighborhood I usually feature, where the shops, restaurants, parks, and such cover a specific identity with the locals living there. Personality is certainly not an adjective I would use to describe a development like Kukui’ula nor is it meant for locals. It is a shopping, dining, golf course and wealthy condo development made by mainland developers for mainland tourists. The architecture is classic faux 1800’s plantation style, with two story buildings surrounding a central plaza.

Yet, what a rich food neighborhood Kukui’ula is, even if it isn’t really a neighborhood.

The central neighborhood plaza has an excellent farmers market every Wednesday from 4-6 pm, perfect for picking up fresh produce ranging from the exotic (apple bananas, papayas…) to excellent asparagus and tomatoes from Kilauea (why are greens and tomatoes so much better from Kilauea?). I couldn’t stop sampling the coffee jelly or banana foster jam from Monkeypod Jams, made on the island. The Kauai Kunana Dairy, also in Kilauea, features all sorts of excellent chevres, even flavored with sundried tomatoes, and my family used their lemongrass vinaigrette for every salad we made on Kauai.

The centerpiece of Kukui’ula and the force behind the market is the Living Foods Market, the creation of Jim Moffat. Moffat was one of the leading chefs in San Francisco at Slow Club in the 1990’s, but Kauai’s surfing called him to the Islands. A few years ago Moffat opened Bar Acuda, a contemporary tapas spot in Hanalei and last year created Living Foods. As one of the employees of Living Foods, a native of Portland, Ore.,  told me, a native of San Francisco, Living Foods is a small outpost of Portland’s outrageous local food culture. It could be San Francisco too. It’s the Ferry Building on a very small scale. Yet for Kauai, it is a seismic change, and with slightly lower prices could be a place that turns Kauai into the next Copenhagen possibly.

Restaurants abound in Kukui’ula, from Bubba’s Burgers to a contemporary Mexican bar and restaurant, Tortilla Republic, that seems more at home in Scottsdale than Poipu, but earns rave reviews. We’ll cover the two main restaurants, Merriman’s and Josselin’s, from two of the fathers (with Roy Yamaguchi, Alan Wong, and co…) of Hawaiian regional cuisine, Peter Merriman and Jean-Marie Josselin, later this week, but both reside upstairs, across the plaza from one another in the center of the neighborhood. They seem like the Big Brothers, watching the rest of the neighborhood from high up. Ice cream thrives here courtesy of Lappert’s, home to the second to none Kauai Pie flavor. Spruced up hot dogs with tropical toppings followed by shaved ice? Got that with Uncle’s Shave Ice and Dude Dogs (a clear copy of the nearby institution Puka Dogs). Savage Shrimp used to be a food truck parked nearby, but has made that enormous move in the opposite direction of most chefs these days, serving fresh shrimp in garlic scampi in an actual shop now.

With shops like Hawaiian Salt, Red Koi Collection, and Ocean Opulent Jewelry, this isn’t exactly a food neighborhood in Portland or Brooklyn. With this array of culinary choices from some of Kauai’s leading chefs and food advocates, Kukui’ula counts as an excellent food destination neighborhood. The tourists love it, now hopefully the kama’ainas can benefit from the markets and restaurants of Kukui’ula too.

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