It’s a tough career, but one of the perks of being a freelance writer is getting to travel.
And even if I’m just going on a quick jaunt to a Neighbor Island, it’s still one of the best parts of my job.
The other day I flew to Kauai for the day, working on a story for a local travel magazine. I’m on Kauai at least twice a year, and every time I learn something new about this laid-back island.
Like how Hanapepe has two food items worth driving from Lihue Airport for: taro chips and lilikoi chiffon pie.
So let’s start from the beginning.
First things first, I needed food.
So I stopped at Menehune Food Mart in Lawai to pick up some manju (a Japanese pastry) and these UFOs (above). Only on Kauai will you find these Goteborg musubis, made with a slice of Goteborg sausage topped with a scoop of white rice and furikake.
You just pick it up and eat it — which is exactly what I did.
Next stop was the Taro Ko Chips Factory right at the beginning of historic Hanapepe Town.
This little town — affectionately referred to as Kauai’s biggest little town — is located on the south shore west of Koloa and once flourished as one of the island’s largest communities. While it’s known for its farmlands and plantation-stye buildings now filled with coffee shops and art galleries, Hanapepe has been the backdrop for such movies as “The Thornbirds,” “Flight of the Intruder,” and “Lilo & Stitch.”
Today, there are fewer than 2,200 people living in Hanapepe. But it’s still a bustling little town, especially with visitors looking for an authentic Kauai experience outside the resorts of Poipu and Princeville.
And the lucky few stumble upon Taro Ko Chips Factory, a very small operation located at the bend in the road leading into Hanapepe Town. The marker? Look for the green plantation house next to an auto repair shop that may or may not be open. It’s hard to tell.
The company started by the Nagamine family, which ran a fairly sizable taro farm not too far from the factory. The couple retired from farming and started selling the chips they would make for family and friends. They rented this space in Hanapepe — it was an old saimin stand — where they would cook and bake their chips. (Outside the building is a shelf, above, where farmers leave their vegetables and fruits and people buy them on an honor system. Gotta love Kauai.)
The Nagamines’ taro chips were so popular, it quickly became a viable business now run by their son, Dale.
Dale Nagamine (above) churns out dozens of bags of chips — potato, sweet potato, taro — every day, seven days a week. He’s always here, frying up chips in the wok or baking them in the convention ovens next door.
When Dale took over more than a decade ago, he added potato and sweet potato chips to the menu. A bag of taro chips is $5, the others are $4.50 each, and he often sells out by the end of the day.
Dale works in what used to be Saimin Corner, a popular saimin stand decades ago. He makes his chips in its former kitchen, but the production takes place here, right in the main dining area. The menu is still up.
And so are the seats, bolted to the floor.
Next, I headed to Wong’s Restaurant and Omoide Bakery, just a few minutes from Taro Ko Chips Factory.
At the counter there’s manapua, Portuguese sweet bread and the best butter mochi I’ve had, maybe ever.
While you can sit in the restaurant and feast on stuffed eggplant, kau yuk or roast pork with mustard cabbage, you don’t want to leave without a pie — or, in my case, the entire — lilikoi chiffon pie.
The pies are located in the refrigerators against the wall — and they’re easy to miss. The pies, all in white boxes and labeled very plainly, are on the bottom shelf.
I’ve had the lilikoi (passion fruit) chiffon pie at Hamura’s Saimin Stand in Lihue. While that was good, this was way better. Light, airy, with the perfect combination of tart and sweet. And you can buy the entire pie frozen ($14) to take home on the plane.
Which is what I did. Because I never know when I’ll be back on Kauai. But after eating this, I might be back sooner than planned.