What is lau lau, and where do you get it?
The answers to the second question are below. As for the first, in case you’re among the presumable majority of island visitors who haven’t yet heard of the dish (don’t feel bad), lau lau is, simply put, meat wrapped in taro leaves.
There’s a bit more to it than that, however. This traditional Polynesian dish, in its modernized Hawaiian form, typically contains chicken, pork, or beef, combined with salted butterfish. After being encased in several layers of taro leaves, the resulting brick of mighty calories gets stuffed underground.
You may recognize this as a distinctively Hawaiian cooking process called kalua. The brick cooks in an underground oven called an imu thanks to some burning-hot rocks that are buried along with it. The cooking process often takes several hours.
Upon removal, one does not even eat the leaves; their sole purpose is to create an impenetrable fortress of flavor enhancement. Instead, one peels away the cooked leaves as if unwrapping a gift to discover mind-bendingly savory, juicy, tender meat inside.
Lau lau has been described by Condé Nast Traveler as “Hawaiian soul food at its finest.” Here’s where you can find some of the best.
Being the home of the state capital, Oahu is often the island to find old-school, classic food spots that really epitomize their kind. Young’s Fishmarket is just such a place. Established in 1951, this iconic restaurant now has two Oahu locations: Honolulu and Kapolei. The lau lau here is nothing short of famous, but there’s plenty else to eat too.
The Honolulu location is at 1286 Kalani Street and is open Monday through Friday, 9:30 am to 7 pm, and Saturday 8 am to 4 pm. The Kapolei location is open 7 days a week, 10 am to 9 pm, except for Sunday which is 10 am to 6 pm, at 4480 Kapolei Parkway #600.
The Big Island
At 83-5409 Mamalahoa Hwy in the small town of Captain Cook, you’ll find what seems to be the definitive popular answer to the question “where is the best lau lau on the Big Island?
Kaaloa’s Super J’s is open every day except Sunday from 10 am until 6:30 pm. While the name itself may be a little perplexing, the reason why the hungry flock here won’t be. The traditional Hawaiian food, including lau lau that has wowed tourists and television presenters alike, is raved about by virtually every person you can find who has been. Hidden behind the walls of this unassuming yellow roadside building is perhaps some of the best local cuisine in the state, and certainly some of the very best lau lau.
If you find yourself in Lihue (a likely discovery if you’re visiting the Garden Island) you’ll absolutely want to visit Smiley’s Local Grinds. Visitors often mention the lau lau served here as being some of the island’s best - and what’s more, at 4100 Rice St, it’s just down the street from the self-explanatory Kauai Beer Company.
Smiley’s is open every weekday from 9 am to 8 pm.
If you're towards the island’s southern end in the Kihei and Wailea region, a popular spot for lau lau and lots of other traditional eats is Piko Cafe. This is a local business, formerly known as Da Kitchen, that struggled and had to close some locations during the pandemic, much to the dismay of anyone who has ever eaten at one of them.
However, with Piko, the business is making a comeback. That means you can try their fresh local cuisine, including a classic lau lau plate lunch. They are open every day except Sunday and Monday, 8 am to 2 pm, at 1215 S Kihei Rd, Suite E.
If you’re towards the northern end of the island, we’d once again recommend Poi by the Pound in Kahului at 430 Kele Street. Though, as the name suggests, poi is the specialty dish here (and it put this restaurant firmly into our guide to poi places in Hawaii), this father-daughter owned family restaurant specializes in Hawaiian cuisine full stop. That means the lau lau here is fantastic, and as authentic as you’ll find on the Hawaiian islands.
Poi by the Pound is open Tuesday through Sunday from 12 pm to 8 pm.
Lau lau is an adventurous dish. Many visitors will find themselves to be having a distinctly unfamiliar experience as they begin to unwrap the dark taro leaves. Dig in and savor the event. You may find a new favorite food in there - many have.