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The foodie haven in Hawaii you need to know about now

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The Big Island attracts vacationers to its Kona coast with snorkeling and sunshine, and the rainy windward side tantalizes with the lush Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, waterfalls, and the famed Hilo farmers’ market. But in the high hills between the coasts, the island’s best food town quietly grows, produces, cooks, and sells the best food on Hawaii Island.

As the scenery along the half-hour drive up from the Kohala coast to Waimea winds away from black lava rocks into lush green hillsides, the sky often goes from cloudless blue to damp grayness. While the weather isn’t as idyllic, the chill and rain bring great food. This is cowboy country, where paniolos (Hawaiian ranchers) tend sheep and cattle. Small farms stretch out from the town, growing the fruits and vegetables that feed the island. It isn’t just the altitude that changes up here, but the attitude.

Cows grazing on the lower slopes of Mauna Kea on the Big Island, Hawaii.
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Even as the early closing time nears on a Friday night, Fish and the Hog buzzes with a kind of familiarity rarely seen in the touristy villages down the hill. The restaurant, which serves smoky barbecue and fresh-caught fish, each in a variety of styles, deftly weaves local ingredients and avoids the touristy pageantry of hotel-centric spots. There’s crack seed (dried plum powder) in the barbecue sauce amid sides of grilled pineapple, coleslaw, and cornbread. Fish comes in sandwich or taco form, but also in poke. The television in the corner displays surfing, but few people are watching as families gather at the tables, and folks at the bar weave in and out of each other’s conversations.

Related: Hawaii’s storied Mauna Lani Resort reopens after $200 million remodel

There are fewer tangible local ingredients down the road at the Big Island Brewhaus, but stopping by for a pint after dinner to listen to live music wafting in from the beer garden will make you feel far more at home in Waimea than any tropical fruit. The award-winning beers do sometimes incorporate coconut, Kona coffee, and other Big Island specialties. But the small-batch quality and small-town feel speak even louder of its local roots; it’s the people table-hopping and greeting old friends that give this place a friendly Hawaii atmosphere. Beers like the Overboard IPA are just bonuses.

Fresh, sweet lilikoi available at the farmers’ market.
Courtesy of Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)/Dana Edmunds

Don’t overdo your Friday night, though: Saturday mornings in Waimea mean farmers’ market time. The tiny town of about 11,000 people supports four separate farmers’ markets. The two biggest are the Waimea Town farmers’ market at the Parker School, which features a wide variety of baked goods and prepared foods, and the Kamuela farmers’ market at the Pukalani Stables. The latter takes its name from the official name for the town (there’s another Waimea on Kauai, and the U.S. Postal Service only allows one town per state to have each name) and lays out a destination-worthy spread.

The Hilo farmers’ market is certainly the most famous on the island, long lauded for its maze of fresh fruit. But the Kamuela market offers a more manageable size with an also impressive selection. The breathing room allows time to chat with fruit vendors, to sample the various flavors of mochi, and to wait for the man selling wood-carved utensils to get change for a customer buying a buttery, softball-size avocado. Taste your way through locally grown fruits such as star apples, soursop, and lilikoi (passion fruit), and pick up tiny cocktail avocados or giant papayas, fresh taro, or local beef. Vendors set up shop with plenty of prepared foods for people looking for a little Saturday morning snack, including spicy Indian-style dal, breadfruit sourdough loaves, and vegan banana lassi made from macadamia nut yogurt.

A “farm tour” of Mala`ai, the culinary garden of Waimea Middle School and a one-acre organic outdoor living classroom.
Courtesy of the Hawaii Tourism Board

On any other morning of the week, though, the breakfast choice is easy. (No, not the malasadas truck in front of the KTA supermarket; save those for after lunch.) This about the biggest breakfast you’ll ever eat—at Hawaiian Style Cafe. And those giant, dinner-plate-size pancakes? Those are considered a side dish here, so you don’t have to choose between them and the Spam omelet. A half-dozen varieties of the Hawaiian classic Loco Moco anchor the diner-style menu, but gems like the Pulehu ribs and the Kalua hash hide throughout.

The emphasis here might be on the size of the portions, but what makes it endearing is that every last bit of the mountain of mac salad in front of diners is surprisingly good—even if a lot of it ends up going home with them (or, if left behind, to the local hog farm, they don’t waste anything here). The only thing bigger than the pancakes is the wait, so make sure you plan for a little extra time before you need to eat.

Produce and flowers for sale at Kamuela farmers’ market.
Courtesy of Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)/Dana Edmunds

The lines can be a good thing though, as Waimea, in general, is best enjoyed slowly with walks through the farmers’ markets or by taking the scenic route on Old Mamalahoa Highway into town from Hilo, or popping into shops while waiting for a table. But even if you’re rushing through on your way from one coast to the other, there’s a worthwhile food stop. Earl’s isn’t much more than a counter, but it’s a counter that serves up bento rolls that turn messy dishes like teriyaki beef, smoked pork, and Korean chicken into neat, lunch-size rolls fat with rice. A few hot dishes served over rice, Spam musubi, and some grab-and-go lunches complete the menu. Nothing takes more than a few minutes to pick up, and the prepackaged foods last long, making them the perfect thing to grab on your way out of town. Nobody on the plane home will have anything better to eat than your chicken katsu bento.

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Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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