Kuleana Rum Shack (Waikoloa Village, Hawaii)

One of the places I was looking forward to visiting on our trip to the Big Island was Kuleana Rum Shack. Since discovering their most excellent rum products back in 2021 (when they were one of the sponsors at our annual Ohana charity luau), I wanted to both see if what the distillery was up to, and try the Rum Shack (which is their restaurant and tasting room).

The name Kuleana Rum Shack gives the impression of a, well, shack, and on the Big Island that’s not completely outside the realm of expectations… but they are actually located in Wakoloa Village in the Queens’ MarketPlace, a large outdoor shopping mall. It’s actually quite a nice indoor/outdoor dining area and sampling bar, with roll-up doors that allow the indoor and outdoor dining areas to be combined in a very pleasant and airy patio.

We arrived during their daily happy hour, which in addition to having a good number of cocktails featuring their flagship rum lineup, it also had a lot of nice Hawaiian-style appetizers, including some lumpia. The version they’ve got at Kuleana are made with dried and salt-cured brisket and swiss, served up with a house-made kimchi and Thousand Island dressing. These were particularly good as a happy special: good, crisp rolls, a nice salted interior, and with the kimchi and Thousand Island dressing, this made for something akin to a Detroit-area corned-beef egg-roll (yes, that’s a real thing).

As frequent readers of Offbeat Eats know, I’ve got a particular weakness for a classic “wedge salad”, so when I saw one offered at Kuleana, I couldn’t resist, and their version is quite nicely done: good fresh, crisp iceberg lettuce, nice juicy bits of local tomato, a good crumbled blue cheese and a dill ranch dressing… and instead of the usual bacon, they used a nice local variation on the concept: chopped pipikaula (basically a Hawaiian jerky: seasoned, dried, and chopped beef). Overall, a winner.

Carol and I had a bit of indecision, and ended up doing our typical splitting of two entrees to solve that issue. One of the regular items on their menu is a sesame-seared ahi, but on this visit they instead had some fresh mahi-mahi that they used instead. The end dish was essentially the same: a nice slab of high-grade mahi-mahi, seared and topped with furikaki, sesame wakame, and unagi butter, and served on wasabi aioli and white rice. Very flavorful fish, nicely prepared, and exactly the sort of dish I like for fish.

For our second shared entree, we went with a steak. In addition to the very large seafood industry, the Big Island has more than a little cattle ranching going on, so there is some high-quality local beef. In this case, the Pulehu Steak, a locally-sourced strip loin, with ali’i, crimini mushrooms, cracked peppercorn, with a demi-glace made from their Nanea rum. Served with roasted potatoes and more fresh asparagus, and this was a very flavorful and nicely-executed steak.

The cocktails at Kuleana are a star as well (in fact, one of the reasons we visited). They’ve got a nice collection of their own rums ranging from agricole to a dark, aged rum, and they do a good job coming up with a list of cocktails that feature their spirits. We started with Hilo Slings, a variant of the classic Singapore Sling, with St George Gin, Huihui rum, Benedictine, Cointreau, Cherry Liqueur, lime, pineapple, Angostura bitters, and soda. We then did their HI Punch, a variant of the classic “Ti Punch”, served up as a agricole rum, fresh cane juice, and mango sorbet (instead of the classic lime). Both were enjoyable, and did a great job showcasing their good rums.

Finally, it was time for dessert. Here, I was happy to see the Hawaiian classic of Portuguese origin: Malasadas. As detailed in our previous review of Leonard’s Bakery over on Oahu, these are basically little donuts, the classic version of these are filled… the version at Kuleana is instead served with dipping sauces of Lilikoi, Haupia, and Bananas Foster. Despite the unusual presentation, these were really nicely executed and flavorful.

I’d happily go back on a future trip to try more items at the Rum Shack. The rum itself, and their custom cocktails highlighting it, were top-quality, and the food was extremely enjoyable as well. It’s definitely one of the more interesting spots on the Kona coast.

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