Waimea restaurants show strength of Hawaii's farm-to-table movement

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The first of three Merriman's restaurants opened in 1988.
The first of three Merriman's restaurants opened in 1988.

Hawaii has fully embraced the farm-to-table food trend, and not just because it makes for a good message on the restaurant website, but for practical reasons as well. The Aloha State is one of the most isolated places on Earth, and everything that comes from outside the islands is inefficient and expensive.

The Island of Hawaii, big enough to fit all of the other islands inside its footprint, is a chief crop producer for the state and an ideal place to experience the state's farm-to-table movement first hand from the growers to the award-winning gourmet chefs. Today, it's easy to find menus stocked with local beef, pork and fresh catch paired with Hawaii-grown nuts, tomatoes, onions, tropical fruits and other produce.

Waimea is in the heart of Paniolo (cowboy) country on Hawaii Island, and one of the first places in the islands to have large-scale cattle ranches. The town of roughly 10,000 people punches above its weight when it comes to dining options. There are original meccas in Hawaii's modern food movement, newcomers pushing the boundaries of flavor and ingredient combinations, and decades-old cafes serving up the perfect cup of Kona coffee. It's a winding 30-minute drive from the Kohala Coast to Waime and a little over an hour from Hilo -- well worth the trip to try one or more of these restaurants.

Merriman's: The original in what is now a trio of eponymous restaurants from one of modern Hawaiian cuisine's pioneers opened in 1988, after chef Peter Merriman had built up a network of local providers for produce, meat and fish as executive chef at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel. More than two decades later, the menu still highlights Hawaii Island products with a mix of now classic dishes, such as macadamia nut-encrusted Kona Kampachi, and new creations from the chef who continues to expand his restaurant roster across the islands.

Fish and the Hog: This barbecue joint is almost always bumping with a packed parking lot and buzzing dining room. Locals and visitors alike come out for the selection of smoked meats, including baby back ribs, brisket and pulled pork, massive slices of homemade pie, and cocktails with muddled fresh tropical fruit. Grab the sample platter, which comes with a variety of cuts and two sides. The cornbread has just enough kick to cut through the sauce-slathered barbecued meats, and the grilled local pineapple is the perfect sweet bite after all the brisket is gone.

Village Burger: Perfect for lunch after an active morning of hiking or playing in the surf, chef Edwin Goto serves up standard burgers made with local Hawaiian Island beef, in addition to Wagyu beef burgers from Kahua Ranch and veal patties. Don't miss the crispy, twice-cooked french fries with a variety of different dipping sauce options like wasabi mayo, and wash it all down with a root beer or orange cream soda. There are also fish and vegetarian burger options.

Red Water Cafe: The menu is crafted by chef David Abrahams, who cut his culinary teeth in California restaurants and hotels before moving to Hawaii Island for a job at Merriman's. He then worked at the Fairmont Orchid before deciding to venture out on his own with Red Water Cafe in 2010. The focus is on fresh produce, fresh fish and local lamb and beef combined with techniques and styles pulled from a variety of cuisines. In addition to an eclectic mix of entrees from dry aged pork chops to seared salmon, there is a sashimi and specialty sushi roll menu.

Waimea Coffee Company: This coffee shop near the center of town has been serving up roasts of Hawaii Island's famous coffee beans along with pastries, sandwiches and other treats for more than a quarter-century. Try the 12-year aged Kona peaberry from the Sakamoto estate paired with the coconut macaroon.

Hina Rae's: Owned by two graduates of nearby Honokaa High School, this cafe is a good place to fuel up in the morning. There is coffee, Italian sodas and sandwiches, but the stars of the menu are the 10 varieties of acai bowl and fluffy waffles. Try the "Local Boy," a Spam-filled waffle topped with scrambled eggs and sliced Spam. They also feature a daily lunch special, such as poke bowls and Filipino dishes. The cafe works with numerous local providers, including Rincon Farm for strawberries and Aina Meli for pure raw honey.

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