Kuau Store: 1942 Never Had It So Good
By Vanessa Wolf
In nineteen hundred forty-two
Kuau Store was brand spankin’ new.
Since that time, the little building off the Hana Highway has been through many incarnations, the most memorable to whit being the former Kuau Mart.
Known for plate lunches, local surfer sightings and the proprietors’ uncanny knack for learning – and usually remembering – every (and we mean EVERY. Even tourists) customer’s name, the fat lady sang in February 2011 to notable public outcry.
After sitting empty for three long, lonely years, the space reopened last winter as the upscale market and deli now known as Kuau Store.
This latest incarnation is sleek, bright and reminiscent of a Whole Foods more than the family-run shop of yore.
Walk inside and get a load of more Maui-made products than you can shake a Maui Hands walking stick at. Hot sauce options alone boast the Maui Preserved, Hana Hotties and Adoboloco brands, to name a few.
But Kuau Store isn’t just an upscale-ish (Fritos, Bud Light and the like beget the “ish”) local market, but a takeaway deli, poke and plate lunch proprietor as well.
A plate lunch of Shoyu Chicken, Smoked Pulled Pork or a mix thereof will set you back a reasonable $7.99.
We started with the bird and received several pieces of skin-on, bone-in dark meat chicken.
Deeply marinated, the soy and ginger flavors permeated the juicy flesh straight to the bone. This is Hawaiian comfort food at its finest.
Although the name clearly denotes that the pork has been smoked, your taste buds might assert that that’s an understatement.
We found the smoky flavor of the pulled pork so intense, it’s almost like you’re eating the remains of a campfire.
The accompanying barbecue sauce is very sweet with notable molasses notes. It helps to cut the ‘in yo face’ smokiness of the pork, but add in the heavy-handed salt application, and it was all a bit too much for us.
All plate lunches come accompanied by (but of course) white rice and mac salad. The latter is mayo rich, with bits of carrots and some hard-boiled egg. It took a few bites to determine where a notable sweetness was coming from, and we honestly think we tasted a bit of cinnamon in there. Interesting.
Long story short?
Unless you’re Smokey the Bear, “Shoyu Chicken” is all you need to say.
Well, maybe not all.
Kuau Mart also serves a limited variety of poke, and we made a beeline for the Spicy Ahi Poke Bowl ($7.99).
The tuna itself was very fresh and coated in a typically spicy mayonnaise sauce – and lots of it – replete with scallions, onion and tobiko.
The strong sesame oil notes aren’t really our thing, but the unexpected after burn – reminiscent more of the heat of a Hawaiian chili pepper than Sriracha sauce – coupled with the tender cubes of fresh ahi renders this a top notch variation.
For those seeking less local flavors, Kuau Store also offers a vast assortment of panini sandwiches.
The Prosciutto Caprese Panini ($8 solo/$9.59 with one side) finds the classic Italian combination battling it out in a head-to-head flavor showdown.
In one corner, 12 large basil leaves flex their herbaceous muscles… Resulting in total flavor domination over the three thin slices of cured meat, tomato and delicately flavored cheese cowering on the other side of the bread.
We recommend thinning down to a single layer of the herb, but you do what you want.
Made on a ciabbata bun, we incorporated some minor adjustments (i.e. removed a portion of the basil) and greatly enjoyed this take on Italy’s answer to the ham and cheese sandwich.
Speaking of buns…
Who wears short shorts?
The girls working the front register wear short shorts.
Service is friendly, helpful and occasionally scantily clad.
On all our visits, the folks behind the deli counter were patient, efficient and cheerfully answered our menu questions.
The ladies running the register, however, seemed a little more focused on their cell phones.
They’ll get you rung up eventually, but in the meantime, we could only imagine already-embattled couples on the Road to Hana finding something new to bicker about after catching sight of Daisy Duke.
Treat it as inspiration for your next workout or an irrefutable cause to throw in the towel and order a Reuben Panini ($8/$9.59 with one side salad from the deli case).
Made with Boar’s Head pastrami, creamy sauerkraut and capers, this is one (admittedly non-traditional) badass sandwich.
We don’t know if the sauerkraut is local or freshly made, but it’s good. Really good. Return-just-for-a-tub-of-sauerkraut-even-though-we-never-eat-sauerkraut-outside-a-Reuben good.
Topped with Swiss cheese and a ketchup-less Thousand Island dressing, this is one of Kuau Store’s core offerings and worth the trip all by itself.
Billed as the last stop before Hana, it’s kind of on the wrong side of the road for those headed east.
Parking can be scarce and backing out of the lot down right death-defying, but if you’re in the mood for something warm on a bun – or maybe just leering at buns – it’s no doubt worth the risk.
Kuau Store is located at 701 Hana Highway in Paia. They are open daily from 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.