I was meant to not just find Bamboo’s Restaurant on the Big Island of Hawaii, but experience it in its entirety. I ended up there when I was supposed to be eating somewhere else, yet the hour drive to and fro on dark roads after a long day of driving winding roads didn’t seem like the safest thing to do.
I asked my host where I could go for a ‘local’ bite to eat, somewhere close, somewhere that served Hawaiian cuisine and somewhere fun, if it was possible to find all three in the same place. “Bamboo’s would be great,” she said. “I know the owner, let me give her a call.”
“Bamboos, Bamboos, Bamboos,” I thought when she said the name, my mind racing. “Why does that sound familiar?” While she made the phone call, I went to my car and fished for paperwork, you know the paperwork you bring of all the research you’ve done on a place before you leave home.
In an email print out was a list of places to go and things to do from a friend who has lived in Hawaii for years (and years) but unfortunately wasn’t there during my visit. Before any adventure, any activity, any sunset to see or trail to walk, was Bamboos, probably the best restaurant on the whole island, the email said. Karma. Destiny. Yes, I MUST go to Bamboo’s I thought – this is a sign. I was craving something small and local and it couldn’t have been more perfect.
You have to remember that the town of Hawi, which is where Bamboos is located, isn’t necessarily on everyone’s stop if they’re visiting the Big Island, since it is a little out of the way and there aren’t as many accommodations in the Kohala area, as there are in and around Kona.
Not only is Bamboos local (as I had hoped) but it’s also FUN. When I walked in, a woman named Hope was giving a hula lesson while her husband John Keawe, a renowed Hawaiian musician played guitar. My table? In perfect eye’s view of the open space they created as a stage. (great tables are so easy when you’re traveling alone and it’s a great benefit of doing so). Below is a very blurry shot of what I walked into since I only had a pocket phone (I had left my Canon in the hotel room).
The restaurant with its Pacific Rim menu, is nestled in a historic, fully restored plantation building. My waitress just happened to be Hope’s niece and three of the so called guests in Hope’s hula class were her grandchildren. Does it get more local than that? I jumped up for Class #2 later in the evening and wished we could have gone on all night.
Bamboo’s Island Style Cuisine features fresh island fish, classic Hawaiian food, locally grown organic produce, free-range chicken, steaks and ribs, and plenty of vegetarian options if you don’t go for meat.
They are also known for their fabulous cocktails. Bamboo invented the Lilikoi (Passion Fruit) Margarita, Lili Mojito and Lili-tini although according to the email from my friend, I was NOT to leave until I had one of their Lilikoi margaritas, and so I did.
After I ordered, I zipped upstairs to their extensive gallery of Pacific art and Hawaiian handcrafts. They tout having one of the largest selections of aloha shirts on the island. The art and crafts were fun and colorful and they also have a decent selection of island jewlery as well.
And now onto the food. Owner Joan Steffy Channon wanted me to sample a few different things and so….I let her surprise me with what she thought I should taste from the kitchen. Do you think I left hungry? Take a look: (my neighbors contributed as well – it’s pretty easy to make friends in this place).
Recommendations: coconut crusted fish of the day, served with a sweet chili aioli and a vegetable. (Mahi Mahi was on the menu when I was there). They also have a great seafood risotto with artichoke hearts, calamata olives, garlic and parmesan cheese. (served on a bed of spinach – yum yum yum).
For something a little different, go for the Herb Grilled Fish based with a bouquet of Thai flavors: coconut milk, ginger, sweet chili, bean sprouts, cilantro and peanuts. They also have more classic dishes in smaller portions, such as the Kalua Pork and Cabbage, stir-fried noodles, Teriyaki Chicken, Buttered Noodles (yes, really — great for kids), or you can go for a Surf & Turf, or what my waitress says is to die for: the pork babyback ribs. (melts in your mouth sistah)
They call their cuisine “Fresh Island Style,” since they combine the food of East and West. If you’re one of those super healthy and light eaters, then they have a whole page of salads to choose from. If you’re the opposite, they have burgers, deep fried Calamari Strips and pot stickers.
For desserts, I’d try one of their Liquid Desserts for fun: The Hula Girl (Captain Morgan’s rum, butterscotch schnapps, lilikoi juice and vanilla ice cream in a glass ringed with chocolate) or the Lazy Gecko (Malibu Rum, cremes de menthe and Cacao, lilikoi (this is in so many things in Hawaii), ice cream and chocolate.
Joan, the owner, was zipping around like a chicken being chased by a tiger. It was a busy night which didn’t surprise me given how great the food and ambiance was and the fact that they had the incredible voice of John Keawe to listen to all night.
She clearly not only cares deeply about her customers, but her staff as well. A local mentioned that she sold the business and then bought it back again, clearly out of passion for the place from what I could see. When she dies, she told me she’s going to leave the restaurant to her Hawaiian staff since they are such an integral part of what makes it tick. How cool is that?
Joan is a special part of Bamboos, as are her very friendly managers, wait staff and chefs. Another special part of the establishment is the building itself, which was originally built as a hotel by the Harada Family sometime between 1911 and 1915.
In its heyday, hotel patrons were often contract laborers brought to Hawaii to work on the thriving sugar cane plantations. These men would depart their ships at Mahukona and be brought by buckboard to the hotel for the night. In a day or two, they were picked up by wagons and taken to the cane camp where they would live. Later, Japanese merchants brought their products to town and were guests at the hotel while they conducted business in Kohala.
The hotel was a lively place, with a large lobby and dinners served in the back room. The kitchen was in the same place that it is today. Horses were tied at the front of the building and wagons rolled through the streets. Rumor has it that as the town grew, the hotel hosted “ladies of the night” to entertain merchants and plantation workers.
After a hotel, it became the Takata dry goods and grocery business for 65 years, a place that had a motto: “Everyone should leave the building smiling.” What a great motto for life I thought when I read it. It then underwent restoration before it ultimately became the Bamboo where I dined in late May.
If you get to the Big Island, stop by and ask for Joan. Tell her I sent you and that I’m still remembering the taste of that fabulous margarita and the coconut crusted whatever that fabulous thing was. Ahhh yes, a fabulous Hawaiian experience! A definite WBTW Thumbs Up!
For more posts on Hawaii, check out this section. To experience nature, botanical gardens and rainforest by segway, check out this post. For more on Hawaii and food/wine only, go here. For Hawaii and lodging, here. For more on Hawaii and arts, go here.