Owner and chef Susan Alexy opened the Sweet Potato Kitchen and Takeout one year ago in Hawi on Hawaii Island. // © 2014 Diane Merlino
Feature image (above): At Cafe Ono, the focus is on serving beautifully presented and healthful vegetarian cuisine. // © 2014 Cafe Ono
Whether you are a carnivore or an herbivore, eating at one of Hawaii Island’s vegetarian restaurants is hands down one of the best feel-good/good-for-you experiences the island has to offer. While most eateries on the island serve at least a few vegetarian options, only a handful presents a completely plant-based menu.
Two of the following vegetarian restaurants are relatively new, both opening within the last year. That’s evidence of a growing consciousness about the health benefits of vegetarian and vegan cuisine, as well as a testament to the evolution of the sustainable agriculture movement on Hawaii Island.
All four are owned and operated by committed Hawaii Island residents who are vegetarian cooks or chefs and who proudly source many ingredients from local farmers. Each restaurant has a distinctive ambiance that reflects the personality of the founder. And each serves a range of unique, creative and delicious menu options that can satisfy any palette.
Opened six years ago by artist and cook Ira Ono, Cafe Ono is a granddaddy among the vegetarian restaurants on Hawaii Island. The cafe is located in Volcano Garden Arts, a multiple-purpose endeavor developed by Ono on the grounds of a former 1900s estate. Volcano Garden Arts now includes the cafe, an art studio, a gallery, cultivated gardens, greenhouses, nature trails and a rental cottage.
Cafe Ono’s organic vegetarian fare includes hearty soups and sandwiches, homemade breads, casseroles and lasagna, salads and desserts. A purple Hawaiian sweet potato casserole is a signature dish.
“When people think of vegetarian food, they think of a dry, gray soy burger — and I wanted to change that perception,” Ono says. “My goal is to serve beautiful, healthful and satisfying local cuisine at a reasonable cost in a beautiful setting.”
Volcano Garden Arts and the cafe are located in Volcano Village, which is about one mile from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Noting that there are very few restaurants in the village or surrounding areas, Ono says about 70 percent of the cafe’s guests are visitors rather than locals.
Sweet Cane Cafe
Sweet Cane Cafe opened about three years ago in Hilo on the eastern side of Hawaii Island as a natural extension of the family-run Kalapana Organics farm and sugarcane juice bottling business.
“When I found a perfect space with a kitchen and a small seating area, we decided to expand into a little cafe,” says Jackie Prell, owner of Sweet Cane Cafe. “We have become very successful as people are responding positively to the healthy food options we are providing. A lot of it is farm-to-table from the two farms we own or from other local farmers.”
The vegetarian menu at Sweet Cane Cafe includes a variety of smoothies and icy blends, fruit and berry bowls, sandwiches and plant burgers. Farm Fare, one of the cafe’s signature dishes, consists of taro-cassava fritters with turmeric sauce, served with organic salad and sauerkraut. Breadfruit patties and jalapeno burgers are favorites with locals. Organic sugarcane juice, grown and pressed on the family farm, is served as a beverage option and as a base for smoothies.
“Sugarcane juice is our signature drink,” Prell says. “It’s a really healthy sugar for your body because it’s totally unprocessed and has antioxidants and electrolytes.”
Local residents currently make up about 95 percent of Sweet Cane’s business, although Prell anticipates that more visitors will find their way to the cafe when it relocates to a larger space in Hilo in spring 2015.
Sweet Potato Kitchen and Take-Out
If you are driving through the small town of Hawi on the northeastern tip of Hawaii Island and you blink, you might miss Sweet Potato Kitchen and Take-Out.
Owner Susan Alexy set up shop one year ago, cooking and serving organic vegan and vegetarian cuisine from a tiny slice of downtown Hawi. Her eatery extends from the sidewalk into an outdoor area featuring cozy family-style outdoor seating and a walk-up window where orders are placed.
Alexy started out selling organic ice cream after she moved to Hawaii Island two years ago. Eventually, persistent requests from local residents prompted her to expand into serving a full menu for breakfast, lunch and Sunday brunch.
“It was more than welcomed,” Alexy says. “It was pushed on me.”
In fact, residents helped fund the eatery by giving her cash in exchange for future meals, some turning over as much as $1,000. That’s enough cash for a lot of meals at Sweet Potato Kitchen, whose motto is, “Just like Gramma would’ve made if she was vegetarian.”
Sweet Potato Kitchen has an extensive menu, especially considering the tiny size of the kitchen, and offers daily specials. Breakfast items include an assortment of cereals and combo plates such as beet steak (a patty of beets, rice, bean, veggies and spices) served with mashed sweet potato seasoned with wilted greens and mushroom gravy. The restaurant also serves a variety of salads made from ingredients sourced from the organic farms in the North Kohala region.
Under the Bodhi Tree
Under the Bodhi Tree is the newest addition to Hawaii Island’s vegetarian restaurant scene. Chef and owner Stephen Rouelle opened the restaurant in July in The Shops at Mauna Lani on the Kohala Coast.
A Hawaii Island resident for 21 years, Rouelle has a long history of involvement with the culinary arts, including a stint as executive sous chef at the Fairmont Orchid, Hawaii. There, he became familiar with a variety of dietary and health concerns expressed by guests and a growing number of requests for organic options and vegetarian cuisine.
That experience convinced Rouelle that there was a demand for a vegetarian restaurant that focused on serving natural, local and organic whole foods.
“We took what was a nuisance to most hotels and made a business out of it,” Rouelle says.
The warm and whimsical interior design of Under the Bodhi Tree incorporates recycled and re-purposed materials throughout. The menu includes vegetarian and vegan salads, sandwiches, plates, snacks and desserts. Salad selections include Fungus Humungus, featuring marinated and roasted mushrooms, quinoa, sweet peppers and dressing. A Squash Island plate, which is also vegan and gluten free, includes spaghetti squash, spinach, zucchini and pumpkin seeds with red pepper coconut sauce.
Under the Bodhi Tree attracts an equal mix of local residents and visitors. Nearby hotels offer shuttle service to and from the shopping center.