Native Intelligence: Kaua‘i

Kaua‘i Al Fresco

Story by Marta Lane. Photos by Mallory Roe.

From the gluten-free crepes at Gopāl’s Crêperie in Kapa‘a to the Neapolitan pizza at Scorpacciata’s in Lāwa‘i to the smoked meat and garlic shrimp at Trucking Delicious in Hanalei, many types of cuisine can be had at the food trucks of Kaua‘i. But while the fare varies widely, the format is almost always the same: a plate of food, for roughly $10 to $15, served over the counter. One truck, however, has taken a different route.

Parked on a broad lawn in Princeville, Kauai Ono serves five-course meals to guests seated at communal picnic tables beneath an enormous white canopy. The twice-weekly dinners cost about $60, reservations are required, and the set menu is revealed only after the guests have arrived. One evening the menu featured local greens tossed in a citrus-ginger vinaigrette; steamed taro root topped with a rich sauce of taro leaves and coconut milk; breadfruit croquettes with shredded beef and a zesty sauce of capers, lime and lemongrass; brined and smoked walu (a fish also known as escolar) with kale; and a flour-free chocolate torte with cardamom-infused mango. Black-clad servers waited on the candlelit tables.

Strictly speaking Kauai Ono isn’t really a food truck; it’s a gleaming, stainless-steel kitchen built into a trailer hauled by a truck. Chef Justin Smith calls it his “mobile culinary assault vehicle,” designed to cook “almost anything, anywhere.” He also uses it for catering and for his gigs as a personal chef who does not dirty his clients’ kitchens.

Smith, who trained at a celebrated Basque cooking school in Spain, gets most of his ingredients from local farmers, ranchers and fishermen. Others he forages for, including limu (seaweed) he gathers from the ocean and guavas, pohā berries and wild avocados he picks in the mountains. He enjoys working with ingredients that are readily available but often overlooked, such as breadfruit and taro leaves. “Since we don’t offer a menu, it forces diners out of their comfort zone,” he says, “and we’ve exposed people to things they would have never tried.”