Hawi—the second-to-last last stop before you hit the end of the world, aka the lookout at Pololu Valley—wasn’t where I expected to find one of my favorite cafés in the islands. But a year ago, while visiting friends, that’s exactly what we found.
In August 2010, friends from New York road tripping on Hawai‘i Island told me they found this place called Zest and were in raptures about it. I had to see for myself. So when I found myself in the village two months later, I told my companions we had to have lunch there. We found it in the last Wild West-style old wooden building, on the left, with a sign in red script proclaiming “Zest.” Then we learn that the chef is Jason Verdon, previously executive chef at Roy’s Waikoloa, and the menu is an eclectic cafe dream of things like beet salad, Cuban sandwich and kabocha ravioli.
That salad was a Christmas-colored composition of stuff just harvested from nearby Waimea, sweetened with pieces of Maui pineapple, and topped with a yuzu vinaigrette. The Cubano was a refined interpretation of the pressed sandwich, gushy with beautifully fatty slow-roasted pork butt and accented with pickled jalapeños and prosciutto in the place of the usual slice of canned ham. Ahi tataki was perfectly seared, if a little overwhelmed by the yuzu-liliko‘i vinaigrette. We inhaled the mushroom dumplings in a garlicky white wine sauce.
I was just in Hawi last weekend, and was relieved to see that is is still open. Verdun has left, and owner Patrick Sullivan has taken over in the kitchen (he said Verdun is now at Daniel’s Organic Cuisine in Waimea). I was pleased to find that the menu is almost intact, and the Cubano still worth the drive. “Jason taught us well,” chuckled Sullivan.
Zest Kitchen, 55-3435 Akoni Pule Hwy, 808-889-1188
Photos by Cyrus Amini.