Thanks to the Maui visitor’s and conventioner’s bureau, which invited me to be its guest on Maui, I was able to sample an array of island eats — from low-brow to high-brow.
Chef Peter Merriman is one of the original founders of Hawaii regional cuisine, and his restaurants have long been a favorite of any visitor to the islands. Ninety-percent of his ingredients are sourced locally, and the seafood is caught sustainably.
With its ocean-side setting, Merriman’s Kapalua restaurant is a great place to watch the sunset while you dine.
An assortment of fried root chips is set down on the table, accompanied by smoked taro hummus, and fresh, crunchy slices of cucumber and radish.
The “Mix Plate” ($48) is a great way to try a little bit of a lot of things. It comes with mahi mahi in a citrus ponzu sauce, prime filet with roasted Hamakua mushrooms, and Merriman’s signature wok charred ahi, which indeed has a lovely smoky taste to it.
Many of the entrees come in both a smaller and a larger portion. If you still can’t decide among them, the restaurant will let you pick two to create your own duo.
Among the dessert offerings are malasadas, of course. The fried dough balls ($12) are a little denser here, and quite sweet with their white chocolate filling. They arrive in a paper bag, which your server will shake, before depositing the powdered sugar-coated doughnuts on the plate.
Mama’s Fish House
A trip to Maui just wouldn’t be complete without a meal at Mama’s Fish House.
You have to love a place that sits right on the beach. You also have to hand it to a place that gets in whole fish daily from fishermen they’ve worked with for years. And you’ve got to admire the fact that they take such pride in that as to list on the menu the name of the fisherman — and the location — of where each fish was caught.
Chef Perry Bateman does an astounding 400 lunches and 600 dinners nightly. What’s even more amazing is that the quality remains so high even with those crazy numbers.
The restaurant also continue to innovate, which is not always the case at some other restaurants here that have built up a loyal following over the years and find no need to change.
At Mama’s, you’ll find a fabulous three-fish sashimi sampler ($24). The night I was there, the selections included salmon with coconut, chile and Molokai pink sea salt; ahi with star anise, daikon and kukui nut; and onaga with the unexpected accompaniments of pineapple, Hawaiian black sea salt and pomegranate.
Beef Polynesian ($20) brought a charred papaya half stuffed with juicy slices of seared sirloin.
Grilled octopus — caught by Clifford Chow free-diving near Kuau Cove — is not to be missed. The slivers are smoky and incredibly tender.
If you’re a fan of piccata, the monchong ($48) — caught by Travis Ikeda over submerged sea mounts near South Point — is done in that zesty style with Maui onions and the brightness of citrus and capers. The firm textured, flaky white flesh is a little like seabass, so it takes well to the pop of the briny capers.
The Phenomenon of Shrimp Trucks
You’ll find them all over the various islands. These food trucks specialize in — what else — shrimp. Big portions of them with their crisp shells still attached.
We finally made it to one on this trip: Geste Shrimp truck, which can be found parked usually on Kahlului Beach Road.
If your appetite is modest, by all means, share one of the plates with a friend. At $12, it’s plenty of food. You get a dozen large shrimp with your choice of sauce. We chose the Hawaiian Scampi. The plate also is loaded up with a scoop of white rice and a scoop of creamy-good macaroni salad that has bits of crab mixed into it.
Locals and tourists alike wait in line to order, then take their orders with them or just take a seat in their cars to chow down. It’s messy to be sure. But worth it. The shrimp are succulent and coated with butter and a hit of spiciness. You can go to the trouble of peeling the shells off. But why bother when you can eat the whole thing with their potato-chip-like crunch.
Mala Ocean Tavern
There are many ocean-front restaurants. But Mala Ocean Tavern is practically in the ocean.
Take a seat at a table on the lanai, and you can practically stick your hand out to touch the water.
This casual spot is a great place for lunch. Chef Mark Ellman says he was hard pressed to find any local ingredients available when he first came to Maui from Los Angeles more than 20 years ago. But now, with so many family farms growing especially for restaurants, he’s able to source most anything he needs.
The freshness shows in the food, too. A mahi mahi ceviche ($16) was full of bright, tangy flavors with chunks of plump fish. And a grilled mahi mahi sandwich ($19.95) brought a large fillet on a whole wheat bun with a pile of crisp seasoned fries.
Hali’imale General Store
The long-time restaurant is housed in what was once a general store for pineapple plantation workers.The two-story building is sort of in the middle of nowhere. But an illuminated string of lights adorning the front lets you know you’ve found the place.
Chef Beverly Gannon took it over in 1987 to do catering, take-out and a kitschy, welcoming restaurant done up in a whimsical fish motif and plenty of breezy ceiling fans. Take a seat inside and be reminded of Key West.
Signature items have been on the Hali’imale General Store menu for years because regulars just won’t stand for them to be taken off.
Red snapper ceviche ($18) came in a big goblet with spritely flavors. Macadamia-nut crusted mahi mahi ($38) was nicely moist and laid over a big mound of purple sweet potato mash. With a tropical fruit salsa plus a mango-lilikoi butter sauce, the dish overall was a little too sweet, though.
When Chef Wesley Holder came here about three years ago, the former Bay Area chef steered it into a more Italian direction. He gets burrata flown in regularly, which stars in a caprese salad with local onions and tomatoes. He will soon start making his own pizza dough. And at least one pasta dish is made with house-made noodles. There’s even a small garden on the property, from which he sources herbs to finish dishes and to garnish cocktails.
Molokai sweet potato gnocchi ($18) is a dish that won him first place in a local food festival last year. Offered as an appetizer, the gnocchi have a slightly dense, chewy quality. Their deep purple color definitely makes them stand out on the plate. They are finished with crisp bits of pancetta, caramelized Maui onion, sauteed spinach, currants and pine nuts to create a satisfying mouthful of sweet and savory, soft and crunchy, minerality and porkiness.
Seppia tagliatelle ($25) is squid ink pasta made in-house. The tangle of wide noodles gets tossed with tender rings of calamari, spicy Calabrese sausage, green onion and plenty of garlic.
Monchong ($36) gets an unusual treatment — coated in a layer of risotto, which turns crisp and golden, and leaves the fish especially moist inside. Like the technique of potato-crusting fish, this also helps protect the delicate flesh when cooking.
Holder wants to experiment with curing his own meats and fish in the near future. Time will tell what creations he comes up with next.
More: Other Eats on Maui
And: Eating on Oahu