Big Island Restaurants in Waimea
Small Town, Big Flavors: In Big Island’s little Waimea, it’s a short distance from farm (or ranch) to table.
The most interesting town in Hawaii? Honolulu, of course. But in second place? Waimea on the Big Island. Waimea is a town so interesting it needs two names. In the 19th century, King David Kalākaua suggested renaming it Kamuela, after his friend and the kingdom’s one-time foreign minister, Samuel Parker, of the Parker Ranch Parkers.
King or no king, the name never stuck. Sure, the sign on the Post Office reads Kamuela, but all 8,500 people who live there call it Waimea, as it was for centuries before the monarchy.
What does Waimea have going for it? The home of the first paniolo in the Islands, the birthplace of slack key guitar. And that’s just for starters.
In addition to the largest ranch in the state and a half-dozen others, the town now has two major observatories, tied by fiber optics to the telescopes atop Mauna Kea. A private boarding school. Three theaters and a significant art gallery, which recently relocated the entire historic Madge Tennant Gallery from Honolulu.
It’s surrounded by scores of small farms, growing everything from Cymbidium orchids to organic strawberries.
It’s a short distance from farm (or ranch) to table here, which has turned Waimea into something of a culinary mecca, especially for a town that’s barely a quarter of the size of Oahu’s Kailua.
It’s always worth driving to Waimea from the resorts of the Kona and Kohala coasts, just to wind through the green hills, breathe the cool air and take in the soaring vista of Mauna Kea.
While you’re being uplifted by the scenery, you might as well have something to eat.
Red Water Café
65-1299 Kawaihae Road, Waimea, (808) 885-9299, Lunch Monday to Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner nightly 5 to 9 p.m. Free parking, major credit cards.
For a place that’s only been open for a couple of months, Red Water Café has a lot of history.
Waimea literally means “red water,” and the red water in question used to bubble up from a stream just behind the café.
In the ’70s, a group of counterculture entrepreneurs took a roadside blockhouse, cut down trees up on nearby Opelu hillside and dragged the logs down to the site. They spent a year giving the building a handcrafted wood interior.
This original Red Water Café had a reputation as a rowdy cowboy bar, but it was more than that. Its house band was Taj Mahal. Carole King and Cat Stevens played there.
In the ’80s, with Merriman’s opening more or less across the street, the Red Water ran dry. Its head chef, David Palmer, went on to create Café Pesto, successful in both Kawaihae and Hilo.
The building was home to Hans-Peter Hager’s popular Edelweiss restaurant until Hager retired in 2007. Then, for a fleeting moment, it was a restaurant called Fujimama’s.
Last year, chef David Abrahamson bought Fujimama’s and re-renamed it Red Water Café.
“I had to,” says Abrahamson. “My girlfriend, Heidi, practically grew up in the old Red Water. Her father was one of the partners.”
Heidi had induced Abrahamson, who was cooking at the Beverley Hills Hotel, to move to Waimea in the first place. He then put in eight years in the kitchen at Merriman’s.
Abrahamson debuted Red Water last December, changing Fujimama’s Chinese-Japanese fusion cuisine into something a little less definable.
He kept the sushi bar, and he does some mainstream Japanese dishes. For instance, vegetable tempura, which included a whole bok choy leaf, long and wide but thin and fragile. Somehow it came out intact as tempura.
“It’s not as hard as it looks,” explains Abrahamson. “I used to fry bok choy leaves as garnish, the same way chefs fry basil leaves. This was just the next step.”
Then there’s some fusion—local beef grilled on Asian vegetables, bok choy, shiitake mushrooms, kabocha. But the vegetables are in a classic European beurre blanc.
Then there’s some stuff that’s sort of semi-fused.
For instance, Abrahamson serves vichyssoise with uni (sea urchin). You’d expect he’d blend the uni into the vichyssoise.
Instead, the uni floats on top, isolated from the potato-leek soup by a bright-green shiso leaf.
It turned out to be very good uni, mild, creamy, rich. It would have perhaps been brilliant, had it been integrated into the soup.
What gives? I asked Abrahamson. “I used to mix them together, but for every five I sent out, I got back four, with complaints about the uni flavor.”
Abrahamson, who loves uni, keeps the soup on the menu in hopes of making converts. He’s got a long road ahead of him. My dining companion, a not unsophisticated lady, took one microbite of the uni and shuddered: “Why do you always have to order the most radical thing on the menu?”
Radical me, I also ordered a Thai calamari Caesar salad. That, too, was barely fused. It was OK calamari, an OK salad, but one sat atop the other, and they were barely speaking to one another.
All was forgiven, however, at dessert. The cheesecake, topped with caramelized pineapple, was light as a feather. “How do you do that?” I asked Abrahamson.
“Carefully,” he said. “Most people over-whip the cheese. You have to massage it into the egg mixture.”
Our dinner for two was $160 with tip, including a bottle of prosecco and a glass of pinot noir to set off the steak.
A quiet fellow played guitar in the corner of the restaurant. Every once in a while it would intrude upon our consciousness that he was playing well indeed. We got up—and realized it was master guitarist Charles Brotman.
You’re likely to see Brotman at the Four Seasons. But in a neighborhood eatery? Even if it is his neighborhood, with his Grammy-winning Lava Tracks studio just down the road.
“Charley, good to see you,” I said. “What are you doing here?”
“The sushi, it’s really good,” he said.
We hadn’t even sampled. Next time.
65-1227 Opelo Road, Waimea, (808) 885-6325, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
I asked Red Water’s Abrahamson where he ate in town. “I eat at Pau Pizza,” he said. “You can cook complicated food all day, but sometimes you just feel like a pizza.”
Pau Pizza is a stylish little order-at-the-counter place in a strip mall. It’s hardly a conventional pizzeria, or maybe it’s just the kind of pizzeria that Waimea would have.
“We’re Slow Food,” says its owner, Ted Fulmer, “except we’re pretty quick.”
Fulmer sold a pair of Chico, Calif., restaurants and decided to try out Waimea. His concept is simple: “We wanted to do fresh food, at an affordable price, so people could eat it more than once a month.”
For $9 here, you can get a slice of four-cheese pizza with artichoke hearts and arugula. Or one with Hamakua mushrooms, bacon, roast garlic and white sauce. Or the wonderfully named Whole Hog special (Italian sausage, pepperoni, salami, prosciutto & bacon).
By a “slice,” Pau Pizza means three slices, a quarter of a pizza, served with a mound of organic greens from Robb Farm—which is a mile and a quarter from the restaurant.
“What’s cool about Waimea is that we can get everything within five miles,” says Fulmer. “Eggs, butter, broccoli, tomatoes, sugar snap peas, 150 pounds of lettuce a week.”
One reason Pau goes through so much lettuce is that its five different salads come in two sizes, large and larger. The “Vinter’s Special” supplements the mound of greens with apples, Gorgonzola and spiced pecans, with a champagne vinaigrette. “Some times of year, we even get local pecans,” says Fulmer. “It’s wild what will grow in Waimea."
If you crave noodles, there’s a salad of chopped Robb Farm organic vegetables with soba, in perhaps too much of a gingery dressing.
Or pasta with local tomatoes and broccoli, topped with a nicely seared wild-caught ono fresh from Kawaihae Harbor. The pasta’s tossed in vibrantly green pesto full of local basil—although, like the salad dressing, less would be more.
Still, almost everything here is $9 and the pastas are $15 or less. Pau Pizza is an appealing stop, especially if you’re staying at one of the glittering resorts along the Kohala Coast, and looking for a place that doesn’t ask you to dress “resort casual” or make inordinate demands on your pocketbook.
Hawaiian Style Café
65-1290 Kawaihae Road, Waimea, (808) 885-4295, Daily 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., Sundays until noon. Free parking, major credit cards.
Where’s the ultimate local-style eatery? Kapahulu? Kalihi? Iwilei? My vote goes to the Hawaiian Style Café in Waimea.
Sometimes when you tell people on the Big Island that you’ve eaten at Hawaiian Style, a look of concern crosses their faces, as if to say, “Are you all right? Did you survive the portions?”
Hawaiian Style doesn’t have plates. It has plastic platters.
“That’s what we do,” says owner Guy Kaoo. “Good portions, good price.”
For $7.95, you get Hawaiian Style’s loco moco—two beef patties, a platter of white rice, grilled onions and plenty of gravy. Plus, of course, a fried egg.
That’s the regular, you can order larger, or even get some Spam and Portuguese sausage added.
I remembered Hawaiian Style’s loco moco as the best I’d ever had. This time, I was disappointed. The burger patties were premade, tough, obviously not local beef.
Here’s the deal.
With the increase in business, the café uses premade patties for its loco mocos and hamburgers on a bun. If you want local beef, you have to order the stew or, better yet, the teri burger plate. The difference is amazing; the local hamburger is plumper, tenderer, better tasting.
You might as well have a two-item mixed plate, combining the teri burger with, say, Hawaiian Style’s spicy and moist chicken cutlet.
The $9.95 mixed plate comes with a double scoop of white rice, a softball-size portion of mac salad with tuna and, again, gravy. It makes the loco moco look like the dieter’s special.
You could order it with brown rice and a green salad, but that would somehow defy the spirit of the place.
There were two of us at the counter, neither of us light eaters, but we couldn’t finish our plates—possibly because I’d gotten carried away and ordered a short stack of pancakes topped with fresh berries and whipped cream. The stack may have been short, but it was certainly wide. We didn’t finish that, either.
I regretted not having an infinite appetite. Kaoo bought Hawaiian Style four years ago, and has, with the exception of the premade beef patties, improved the food. For instance, the kitchen turns out housemade Portuguese sausage, chunky like the traditional Portuguese linguiça, and kalua pork hash.
I would have ordered the hash on top of everything else except (perhaps fortunately) it was sold out when I arrived. “We can’t make enough of that hash,” says Kaoo. “No matter how much we make, we sell every bit.”
A week or two after my Waimea trip, Cat Toth, who blogs as The Daily Dish and on HawaiiMagazine.com, traveled the Big Island. She got lost on the way to Hawaiian Style; admittedly, the place is smaller than its reputation. I had to text her directions while sitting at my desk in Honolulu.
Then, a twisting of the knife, she sent me a picture of the kalua pork hash. “Mouthwatering good,” she said.
Opelo Plaza, 65-1227 Opelo Road, Waimea, (808) 885-6822, Lunch Monday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., dinner nightly 5:30 to 9 p.m.
It’d be wrong to visit Waimea and skip Hawaii’s original farm-to-table restaurant, Merriman’s.
Besides, the kitchen had changed hands. For five years Merriman’s had been captained by a remarkably talented former New Yorker, Neil Murphy. Murphy has gone on to become corporate chef for the five Merriman’s restaurants in Hawaii, and executive chef of Merriman’s Kapalua (where he’d better get on his game, because I’m expecting deliciousness).
At Waimea, he’s been replaced by Allen Hess, who worked with him for a year and half. Hess has an exceptional track record. He apprenticed under celebrated Louisiana chef John Besh in New Orleans, did a few San Francisco hotels, then cooked under Jackie Lau at Roy’s Waikoloa and Alan Wong at Wong’s Hualalai Grill.
“Alan was great to me, in terms of exposing me to a lot of Hawaii food culture,” says Hess.
Hess is legendary in little Waimea town for his wild-boar bacon. People stand in line for his BLTs at the Saturday Farmers’ Market.
Wild boar? Semiwild, anyway. “We get them from Lloyd Case, who traps them, crossbreeds with his own Berkshires and Durocs,” says Hess. Case then turns them back loose in macadamia-nut orchards and traps them again full grown. “They fatten on macadamia nuts, what could be better?” says Hess.
Hess, because he thought it was fun, started making bacon from them.
Fun, indeed. Cured with salt, honey, brown sugar, fennel seed and chili pepper, smoked over kiawe wood, Hess’s bacon is like no other, sweet and spicy and not too smoky. Best of all, it’s thick, not fatty, more like a slice of meat than breakfast bacon.
Demand was so great at the Farmers’ Market that he finally stopped going. “Sometimes people come up to the back door of the restaurant, asking, ‘Could we buy some bacon?’ Like it was a drug deal or something,” he says.
A more direct way to get some is in his loco moco, which has just become my favorite.
No hamburger in Hess’s, just wild-boar bacon with a poached egg. The rice is jasmine, sautéed in a garlic-infused butter with onions and mac nuts. Add a sprig of watercress and, instead of gravy, a much lighter, tomato-pineapple-jalapeño vinaigrette.
“The vinaigrette’s what I usually do,” says Hess. “But this lady came to the back door last week with some awesome eggplants, so for three or four months while she’s still got them, I’m doing an eggplant-chili pepper butter. It’s beautiful.”
I regret not being on the Big Island to eat all the time.
Of course, there’s plenty of other classic Merriman food on the menu.
The spinach salad from Waimea’s Honopua Farms was so vibrant and green it seemed to be growing off the plate.
Among the entrées, you can get leg of lamb raised just 10 minutes up the mountain, a lamb shoulder braised in red wine and tomatoes, and roasted broccoli with a cannellini bean purée.
Foodie Joan Namkoong, who created the KCC Farmers’ Market and now lives in Waimea, joined us for dinner. “I’m now a COW,” she said. “A Carnivore on Weekends.”
It not being a weekend, she insisted on ordering Hess’s taro cakes. Sounded terrible to me, yet they were soft and substantial, amped up with ginger-curry sour cream, and served on an array of haricot verte, mushrooms and so forth.
“The key is steaming the taro, not boiling it,” says Hess. “If you leave off the sour cream, it’s vegan.” Don’t leave it off unless you have to, it’s delicious.
A carnivore most days, I wanted more wild boar. Hess orders a whole pig every week, so I was helping use it up.
At Merriman’s you usually get the meat two ways. For instance, pork shoulder braised in boar stock, with kabocha and vibrant, just-picked corn. But that’s not all. There were housemade ravioli filled with goat cheese and pork confit, with a generous sprinkling of pork confit and spinach on top.
This was the richest, most satisfying entrée plate I remember in a long time, the ravioli given a fresh bite by a reduction of vine-ripened tomatoes.
“We do the braised meats to be able to afford the roasts,” says Hess. “We’re committed to using the whole animal.” Hess is grateful to Merriman for insisting on it. “Peter lets us get into the cooking and stay in the cooking.”
We were finishing up when I felt a hand on my shoulder. “What are you doing here?” said Peter Merriman.
“What are you?” I said, having seen him far more frequently on Kauai and Maui than in little Waimea.
“Thought I’d drop by,” he said. We had a glass of wine or two. Merriman likes drinkable, alternative wines—and the way to go here is the $28 red wine sampler, a 2-ounce pour of four unusual, but powerful reds, like Grant Burge “Holy Trinity,” a grenache-shiraz-mourvèdre blend from the Barossa Valley, and, even rarer, a Spanish Finca Sandoval, which the menu accurately describes as “an inky purple gorilla.”
“How are we doing on the food?” Merriman finally asked. “It’s good?”
Yes. Merriman’s remains the quintessential Big Island eatery. Even though almost every other restaurant now insists it is farm-to-table, Merriman’s is still the place that gets the best local ingredients and simply lets them shine.
This is high-end dining on the Big Island, figure $80-plus a person, but it’s good to know that much of that money gets directed into the slim pocketbooks of Big Island farmers and ranchers.