It is early Friday evening as dozens of vendors set up their stalls for Hanapepe Art Night. Musicians play, smoke rises from an outdoor grill and as the sun sinks, it catches a shower tree in full bloom and lights up chandeliers of pink and yellow flowers. A line of people, some seated on wood benches, wait for 5 p.m., when owner Helen Lacono will open Hanapepe Café.
Along the sidewalk, Midnight Bear Breads sets out warm loaves made in the café’s kitchen. Next to them, pots of the café’s soup are set out, which are also sold every Wednesday during the Kauai Culinary Market at The Shops at Kukuiula.
Lacono is the author of Kauai Farmers’ Market Soups, which is available at Talk Story Bookstore and during the Kauai Culinary Market. The cookbook features 16 of her most popular soups, including Hungarian mushroom and pineapple avocado gazpacho.
Andrea Pisciotta Kaohi opened Hanapepe Café in 2003 and Lacono took over when her daughter wanted to spend time raising her children. The café was twice the size and booked solid every Friday night. That ended on March 30, 2012, when Lacono was diagnosed with heart disease and took time off to heal. Last October, the recovered chef downsized the café and reopened for dinner, which is only on Friday nights.
“Mom and I cook on Tuesdays for the Wednesday market and on Thursdays for Friday’s dinners,” explains Kaohi. “It’s great because we’re back there working, joking and laughing like we never have before.”
As the crowd enters the homey cafe, Jack Johnson plays quietly on the sound system. High-backed chairs line a U-shaped bar with checkerboard tile. Nine tables are topped with votive candles and dressed with black tablecloths, silverware and paper napkins.
Granddaughter Ku’ulei Breen brings a basket of fresh-baked focaccia, a small pitcher of fruity olive oil and iced goblets of fresh-brewed tropical tea. There’s a $5 corking fee if you bring your own wine.
A small menu features three soups ($5 cup/$10 bowl), three salads ($12), seven entrees and six desserts ($5). Ku’ulei, a student of the Culinary Arts program at Kauai Community College, carries a plate filled with Eggplant and Spinach Lasagna ($15) to a nearby diner.
“More food than plate,” she says. “That’s how we do it here.”
Bombas ($15), a spicy purple sweet potato patty, is studded with whole shrimp and chunks of white fish. The patty is coated with cornmeal before it’s cooked, so it has a nice, crispy exterior and sweet, creamy interior. A side of romesco sauce is made with fire-roasted red bell peppers and plenty of garlic. The dish is served with a salad of local greens, carrots, and cucumbers tossed in a lemon honey Dijon vinaigrette.
Tonight’s special is pan-seared ono with a lemon butter sauce. Its comes with a cucumber salad and dill yogurt dressing; baby green beans and thinly sliced carrots tossed in a spicy tomato sauce, and black rice pilaf with celery and pecans.
During dinner, Lacono leaves the kitchen to check on her guests. She lingers at each table, soaking up the conversation and throwing her head back in laughter.
Hanapepe Café, 3830 Hanapepe Rd., is open every Friday from 5 to 9 p.m. Info: 335-5011
• Marta Lane, a food writer on Kauai since 2010, offers farm to fork food tours and is the author of Tasting Kauai: Restaurants – From Food Trucks to Fine Dining, A Guide to Eating Well on the Garden Island. For more information, visit TastingKauai.com.