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Plate Lunch Palaces

If you haven't yet come face-to-face with the local phenomenon called plate lunch, Kauai is a good place to start. Like saimin, the plate lunch is more than a gastronomic experience -- it's part of the local culture. Lihue is peppered with affordable plate-lunch counters that serve this basic dish -- two scoops of rice, potato or macaroni salad, and a beef, chicken, fish, or pork entree -- all on a single plate. Although heavy gravies are usually de rigueur, some of the less traditional purveyors have streamlined their offerings to include healthier touches, such as lean grilled fresh fish. Pork cutlets and chicken or beef soaked in teriyaki sauce, however, remain staples, as does the breaded and crisply fried method called katsu, as in chicken katsu. Most of the time, fried is the operative word; that's why it's best to be ravenously hungry when you approach a plate lunch, or it can overpower you. At its best, a plate lunch can be a marvel of flavors, a saving grace after a long hike; at its worst, it's a plate-size grease bomb.

The following are the best plate-lunch counters on Kauai. How fortunate that each is in a different part of the island!

The Koloa Fish Market, 5482 Koloa Rd. (tel. 808/742-6199), is in southern Kauai on Koloa's main street. A tiny corner stand with plate lunches, prepared foods, and two stools on a closet-size veranda, it sells excellent fresh fish poke, Hawaiian-food specials, and seared ahi to go. It's gourmet fare masquerading as takeout. Daily specials may include sautéed ahi or fresh opakapaka with capers, one of life's consummate pleasures. For a picnic or outing on the south shore, this is a good place to start.

On the Hanamaulu side of Lihue, across the street from Walmart, look for the prim, gray building that reads Fish Express, 3343 Kuhio Hwy. (tel. 808/245-9918). It's astonishing what you'll find here for the price of a movie: Cajun-style grilled ahi with guava basil, fresh fish grilled in a passion-orange-tarragon sauce, fresh fish tacos in garlic and herbs, and many other delectables, all served with rice, salad, and vegetables. The Hawaiian plate lunch (laulau or kalua pork, lomi salmon, ahi poke, rice, or poi) is a top seller, as are the several varieties of smoked fish, everything from ahi to swordfish. The owners marinate the fish in soy sauce, sugar, ginger, and garlic (no preservatives) and smoke it with kiawe wood. The fresh fish specials, at $8.95, come in six preparations and are flavored to perfection. At the chilled counter you can choose freshly sliced sashimi and many styles of poke, from scallop, ahi, and octopus to exotic marinated crab. This is a potluck bonanza that engages even newcomers, who point and order while regulars pick up sweeping assortments of seafood appetizers on large platters. They're all fresh and at good prices, especially for Friday-afternoon pau hana (after-work) parties.

In east Kauai's Kapaa town, the indispensable Pono Market, 4-1300 Kuhio Hwy. (tel. 808/822-4581), has similarly enticing counters of sashimi, poke, Hawaiian food, sushi, and a diverse assortment of takeout fare. It's known for its flaky manju (sweet potato and other fillings in baked crust), apple turnovers, sandwiches, excellent boiled peanuts, pork and chicken laulau, and plate lunches -- shoyu chicken, sweet-and-sour spareribs, pineapple-glazed chicken, teriyaki fish, and so on. The potato-macaroni salad (regulars buy it by the pound for barbecues and potlucks) and roast pork are top sellers. Pono Market is as good as they come.

At Mark's Place, 1610 Haleukana St. in Puhi Industrial Park (tel. 808/245-2722), just southwest of Lihue, island standards (Korean-style chicken, teriyaki beef, beef stew, chicken katsu) come with brown rice (or white) and salad for $7.25 to $9. The selection, which changes daily, always includes two salad and three entree choices as well as hot sandwiches (chicken, beef, and hamburgers) and the ever-popular bentos. Mark's is a takeout and catering operation, so don't expect table seating.

Lihue, the island's county and business seat, is full of ethnic eateries serving inexpensive plate lunches. Po's Kitchen, 4100 Rice St. (tel. 808/246-8617), offers Japanese specials: cone sushi, chicken katsu, teriyaki beef plates, and bentos. One block away, Garden Island BBQ, 4252-A Rice St. (tel. 808/245-8868), is the place for Chinese plate lunches and local staples such as barbecued or lemon chicken and teriyaki steak, as well as soups and tofu dishes.

A Taste of the Islands

Hawaii's Meadow Gold Dairies has a line of rich premium ice cream for true aficionados looking for a melt-in-your-mouth taste of Hawaii. We recommend the Kona coffee, macadamia nut, or honeydew melon. Traditionalists will go for the vanilla, chocolate, Neapolitan, rocky road, or cookies and cream. People who can't make up their minds will love the blended flavors like mint chocolate chip or the espresso fudge pie. Sherbet fans have two flavors to choose from, rainbow rapture or orange. You can find these ice creams in the frozen section of most supermarkets across the island. For more information go to www.lanimoo.com.

Icy-Cold dessert

Maybe it's because Hawaii can be hot. Maybe it's because it's just downright refreshing and delicious. But there's nothing quite like enjoying some Hawaiian shave ice under the tropical sun -- don't leave Kauai until you've tried it. The mainland has "snow cones," which are made from crushed ice with sweet flavorings poured over the top. Shave ice (not "shaved" ice) is made by shaving a block of ice with an ultrasharp blade, which results in ice as thin as frozen powder. The shave ice is then saturated with a sweet syrup. (Flavors can range from old-fashioned strawberry to such local treats as li hing mui.) You can also ask for shave ice on top of ice cream. (Try it with sweet Japanese azuki beans for a special treat.) Shave ice can be found all over the island, from small, hole-in-the-wall stores to vans alongside the road. A few to look for are Hamura's Saimin Stand, pictured here, in Lihue; Shave Ice Paradise, in the Hanalei Center (tel. 808/826-6659); Hawaiian Blizzard, a small stand in front of Big Save, in the Kapaa Shopping Center, 4-1105 Kuhio Hwy., no phone; Halo Halo Shave Ice, 2956 Kress St., Lihue (tel. 808/245-5094); and Shaka Shave Ice, in the Kalapaki Beach Hut, 3474 Rice St, Nawiliwili (tel. 808/246-6330).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.