We know you love to eat like a local when you travel, and we also know you like to save money because … who likes to waste money?
When you can join the two, it’s pure bliss.
Nearly a decade ago, the Travel section created lists that did just that. We canvassed the islands to bring you a series of articles we called 20 for $20, tasting our way across Kauai, Oahu, Maui and Hawaii Island in search of great meal deals at restaurants locals like best.
You loved it. In fact, a million of you have clicked just on the Kauai version, and you’re still reading these articles nearly 10 years on.
Things change in a decade, and we knew it was time to update. With the help of local experts, we identified some new — and some old — faves and tried them, concentrating on restaurants where locals dine that feature inexpensive and sometimes traditional Hawaiian fare.
And we included a few places to splurge where the ambience is pure tropical paradise.
For the most part, the restaurants are clustered in Kauai’s main tourist areas, from the sunny South Shore towns of Poipu and Koloa to the East Side city of Lihue (home of the airport and many businesses) to the upscale North Shore town of Hanalei, gateway to the Napali Coast.
Something new this time around: four of our picks are food trucks, which weren’t a thing a decade ago in Kauai.
Another change is a new emphasis on local ingredients.
Hilldorfer provided us with invaluable guidance in preparing this list, and we thank her for her assistance.
This list starts with some of my favorites, then fans out.
Note: Some of the restaurants are hidden gems, and we mean that literally and figuratively. Always check hours and directions.
1. Verde Restaurant
Verde means “green” in Spanish, and that’s what this places specializes in: clean and green dishes.
Verde’s fare is delicious, from ultra-thin tortilla chips to giant burritos and other entrees.
It has two locations, a hole-in-the-wall cafe in the Kapaa Shopping Center, about eight miles northeast of the airport, and a shiny, new mall version at Hokulei Village in Lihue, about three miles southwest of the airport.
The spicy cuisine served here is referred to as New Mexico-Hawaiian fusion; it offers plenty of vegan and vegetarian options.
Insider tips: Verde makes 15 types of burritos but notes that they’re not your grandfather’s burritos. These contain such ingredients as broccoli and green beans.
Prices: Most items $13-$15; the stacked enchilada, a favorite, is $17.
2. Mark’s Place
If you want to taste real Hawaiian fare at good prices, visit Mark’s Place in Lihue. It consistently wins awards as one of the island’s favorite spots for plate lunch (a combination of steamed rice, creamy macaroni salad and a choice of meat or seafood).
Chefs Mark Oyama and Alan Okuhara expanded their catering business 20 years ago “just to keep our employees busy during the off-season,” Okuhara said.
The result is Mark’s Place, which serves heaping plates of high-quality Hawaiian faves such as chicken katsu, teriyaki beef, and chicken and beef stew.
Insider tips: The outlet is in an industrial area, but it has picnic tables in front where you can eat. Burgers cost $4.99, and the big mixed plate lunches ($11.99-$12.59) are enough for two people unless you’re really hungry.
Info: Mark’s Place, 1610 Haleukana St., Lihue; (808) 245-2722, marksplacekauai.com
It’s a familiar story: Mainland U.S. couple comes to Hawaii on vacation and decides they don’t want to go home. Instead, Fred and Yuko Perrett opened a food truck on the edge of Lihue.
The Perretts describe their imaginative sandwiches, salads and plate lunches as “Asian fusion meets Midwestern barbecue.”
It’s so popular that the line of customers sometimes winds around the truck. It’s a must stop for many travelers bound for the airport, who order a meal for the flight home.
Insider tips: Everything is delicious, but the most popular dishes are ginger-fried chicken ($9.75), pulled pork sandwiches on steamed buns ($9.50) and ahi tuna wrap ($12.50). All are served with fries or salad.
Info: Kikuchi’s, 3501 Rice St., Lihue; (808) 855-5789.
4. Nom Kauai
Meat lovers adore Nom, where wall-sized murals of cows and pigs decorate the storefront cafe. This onetime food truck, now a small restaurant in Kapaa, about 11 miles north of Lihue, offers Southern-style Hawaiian fusion. The buttermilk fried chicken ($13) is a big seller.
Chef Thomas Fuquay, who owns the business with his wife, Alicia, won $10,000 on the Food Network show “Cooks vs. Cons,” giving them the seed money to move from the truck to the cafe, Alicia Fuquay said.
Insider tips: Nom’s food won a top award from Hawaii Magazine. Try the burgers ($12-$16), Notorious P.I.G., a jalapeño cornbread waffle with a maple-braised pork belly on top ($16), or biscuits and gravy with spicy sausage and two eggs ($13).
5. The Dolphin
This popular restaurant has been making waves in Hanalei for more than 30 years and now has a sister restaurant near Poipu.
Fresh fish is one of the keys to Dolphin’s success; another is a diverse menu that has enough inexpensive items to make thrifty travelers happy.
Insider tips: During the day, the Hanalei Dolphin offers outdoor seating overlooking Hanalei River, where you can while away a pleasant hour or so watching kayakers and paddlers. The restaurant’s bar is such a happening place at night that it often draws an overflow crowd. Try the hearty seafood chowder ($6 or $9) or the tempura ($13-$17).
6. Keoki’s Paradise
Prices: $8.50-$16.50, Bamboo Bar only.
You probably won’t find locals here, but Keoki’s Paradise in Koloa, about three miles northwest of Poipu, knows how to say South Pacific.
Yes, it’s a tourist joint. But take a look: waterfalls, lush gardens, tiki torches, a lagoon in the middle of the restaurant. And a 31-year history of making mainland visitors feel as though they just arrived in Bora-Bora.
Insider tips: Ask for a seat in the Bamboo Bar, where menu prices are lower. The cheddar burger ($15) gets raves, as does the pork and slaw sandwich ($14) and fish and chips ($18.50).
7. & 8. Scorpacciata Neopolitan Pizza food truck and Wailua Shave Ice food truck
Prices: $10-$16 for Scorpacciata, $6.50-$7.50 for Wailua Shave Ice
Scorpacciata may be hard to pronounce (score-POTCH-chee-yatta) but the meaning is appropriate. It’s an Italian word that translates as “big feed,” which this little food truck considers its specialty.
Prize-winning Scorpacciata, set on a dirt lot in Kapaa, doesn’t make much more than pizza, but many locals say it’s the best they’ve ever tasted.
Its neighbor, another food truck, holds the famed Wailua Shave Ice (all fresh fruit, no syrups or preservatives), so you can grab a pizza and a delish dessert in one place.
Insider tips: The local favorite at Scorpacciata is the mushroom pizza ($16), a heavenly combination of sautéed Baby Bella mushrooms and caramelized onions with a drizzle of truffle oil on a chewy flavorful crust.
At Wailua Shave Ice, don’t miss the colorful Lava Flow: pineapple juice, strawberry purée and haupia coconut milk foam. ($6.50)
9. Opakapaka Grill & Bar
Visit the beach of your dreams and dine on Instagram-worthy Pacific Rim cuisine at this Hanalei restaurant, named for opakapaka, Hawaiian red snapper.
You’ll want to visit at lunch, when prices are more reasonable and you can watch those great white rollers coursing across the horizon. Actress/comedian Charo once owned a restaurant on this spot, but the decor and menu have since been updated.
Insider tips: Try the fish tacos ($14) or the poke bowl salad ($18), a wonderful mixture of greens, fresh ahi tuna poke, avocado and spicy aioli drizzle. After lunch, take a walk on secluded Haena Beach.
10. Kauai Culinary Market
This Wednesday market (3:30-6 p.m.) is one of 23 farmers markets open each in week in Kauai. They’re great places to mingle with locals and taste extraordinary produce and homemade food.
Kauai Culinary Market is in a small shopping center (Shops at Kukuiula) in Poipu, so you can taste kimchi or kale-mushroom lasagna in the courtyard, then pop into a Tommy Bahama or Blue Ginger to shop.
Insider tips: Arrive early for a parking place and plan to stay awhile to see hula and hear live music. Don’t miss the beef sliders ($5) which garnered the kudo “Best burger I’ve had in my life” from a customer when we visited. Also try the Island Soup Lady’s various broths, including African peanut and cowboy chili.
11. Seaview Terrace
Here’s where we diverge slightly from our cheap-and-local mission for a splurge. We think every tropical vacation should include a taste of the good life.
Visit Seaview Terrace at the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa in the late afternoon and you’ll see a phenomenal South Shore sunset and get to watch first-class Hawaiian dancing and hear live music. You can appreciate the ambience of one of the island’s premier hotels without breaking the bank.
Insider tip: Arrive a little early, say 4 to 5 p.m., to score a good seat on the terrace. Share appetizers such as chili-glazed wings ($18) or our fave, a platter of sweet potato and taro chips with guacamole ($16).
Info: Seaview Terrace at the Grand Hyatt Kauai, 1571 Poipu Road, Koloa; (808) 742-1234.
12. Japanese Grandma’s Cafe
Prices: $11-$17 (for lunch)
You won’t find Grandma behind the counter at this chic cafe in Old Hanapepe Town, a charming village full of galleries, boutiques and rehabbed plantation-era stores about 13 miles west of Poipu.
Instead you’ll find a young sushi chef whipping up rolls and sashimi while other tempting dishes such as bowls, tempura, salads and entrees appear from the kitchen.
Insider tips: Schedule time to walk around scenic Hanapepe Town before lunch, then try one of the cafe’s bowls, a good deal at $11 for veggies, $14 for chicken and $17 for ahi poke.
13. Kauai Community College
You can meet local students and have a low-cost lunch made by budding chefs in the Culinary Arts Program at Kauai Community College’s cafeteria in Lihue. One drawback: You need to visit at certain times during the school year. Call ahead.
Lunch is served 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. daily and features island favorites such as kalbi (Korean barbecue) ribs, teriyaki chicken, kalua pork and curry dishes. Everything costs less than $10, and some things, such as a loco moco (a local favorite that consists of a hamburger patty, fried egg, rice and gravy) or bento box costs only $4.
Insider tip: Elaborate three-course meals are also served ($15-$20) on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Call ahead for reservations to participate in the school’s Fine Dining program: (808) 245-8365.
14. Nalu Kai Grill & Bar
Prices: $14-$32 (for lunch)
Spend a couple of hours rubbing shoulders with celebs and their ilk at the St. Regis Princeville Hotel, which overlooks Hanalei Bay on Kauai’s North Shore.
Your goal is to have lunch poolside at Nalu Kai Grill & Bar. On your way to the pool, be sure to check out the outside terraces, where you’ll view panoramic scenes of Kauai’s verdant mountains and blue bays.
Insider tips: There are lots of choices for less than $20 on this menu, including chicken tenderloin with fries, crispy coconut prawns, and the chipotle black bean sandwich with guacamole and sweet potato fries (our favorite), all $18.
Info: Nalu Kai Grill & Bar, St. Regis Princeville Hotel, 520 Ka Haku Road, Princeville; (808) 826-9644.
15. Thai Street Food truck
When Anatta Komers was growing up in Phatthalung, Thailand, she had one wish: to open a restaurant in America.
Now she’s living that dream in Lihue. Her welder husband helped by building a food truck for her that has become a well-liked stop that’s also easy to find. (It’s in the Ace Hardware parking lot in Lihue.) Komers uses original recipes and makes everything from scratch.
Insider tip: Thai Street Food will satisfy your cravings for pad Thai ($10.25), spring rolls ($6.20) and tangy curry plates ($10.25).
16. Tahiti Nui Restaurant/Bar
Think South Pacific, circa 1960s. Tahiti Nui, a well-known Hanalei old-timer, looks more like a French Polynesian dive bar than some of the places you’ll find today on the seafront in Papeete, Tahiti.
Tatamis (mats) are stapled to the walls, carved-tiki stools line the bar, and there’s a faint smell of humid air when you enter.
Tahiti native Louise Marston, known as Auntie Louise, opened the restaurant/bar decades ago; since her death in 2003, family members have run the place.
Insider tips: Listen to live Hawaiian music, soak up local color and try the ono roll with rice ($17) or rib eye poke bowl ($19).
17. Beach House
Prices: $12-$20 (bar menu)
If you won the lottery, you might want to try the filet mignon ($49) at the Beach House, one of Kauai’s premier restaurants. But even if you haven’t been so lucky, you can get a million-dollar view here at sunset in this South Shore icon.
The dining-room entrees don’t make the cut for this grouping, but the bar menu has 13 appetizers and salads, some hearty, that suit our budget.
Insider tips: Arrive about 45 minutes before sunset to get an up-front seat in the bar facing the windows. Try the coconut clam chowder ($11), crispy panko-crusted calamari ($15) or strawberry pie ($10). If you’re feeling extravagant, order a monkeypod mai-tai, a lovely concoction of light rum, orange curaçao and lilikoi (yellow passionfruit) foam ($16).
Info: Beach House, 5022 Lawai Road, Koloa; (808) 742-1424, the-beach-house.com
18. Da Crack Mexican Grinds
There’s not much to this fast-food joint but it gets great word of mouth with locals, who love the gigantic burritos.
Da Crack is wedged between a market and an outfitter in Koloa. Order at a window, choosing from fillings, sauces and meats, veggies or seafood, then take your food to go because there’s no place to sit and eat.
Besides the spicy burritos, patrons can choose bowls, tacos or loaded nachos.
Insider tips: The line gets long here, so try to visit during off-hours. The loaded nachos ($12.50) plate is truly loaded, with carne asada, pico de gallo, beans and rice. You’ll need a lot of napkins.
Info: Da Crack, 2827 Poipu Road, Koloa; (808) 742-9505, dacrackkauai.com
19. Wake Up Cafe
Prices: $6-$13, cash only
Wake Up Cafe is an old-style original in the trendy North Shore town of Hanalei. It opens at 7 a.m., which makes it a good stop for travelers bound for the Napali Coast or Kee Beach. It closes at 11 a.m. It’s a cash-only place, and the menu is basic.
But there’s a spectacular view of rugged Namolokama mountain from the lanai, and the interior of the cafe — a throwback full of decades-old surf photos — is fun.
Insider tip: The mac-nut cinnamon roll, dripping with icing ($5.25) is a decadent must for sweetaholics. Also try the Over the Falls custard-style French toast topped with pineapple, coconut and whipped cream ($11).
Info: Wake Up Cafe, 5-5144 Kuhio Highway, Hanalei; (808) 826-5551. No website.
20. Kilauea Bakery & Pau Hana Pizza
If your Kauai vacay includes a trip to the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, a must-see on the North Shore of Kauai, plan to stop at Kilauea Bakery. This place has coffee, indulgent pastries and lunch items such as sandwiches and pizza.
Insider tips: Arrive early on weekends because breads and pastries sell out quickly. The best buy is a slice of pizza with a side salad ($8.94). Dessert lovers might enjoy macadamia nut pie ($5.20) or a lilikoi cream puff ($3.45).