{getaway} Eating in (Mostly West) Maui

Maui is a tropical paradise- what’s not to like? It’s so gorgeous and lovely and the very nice people are so full of Aloha spirit there that I’d go even if they had sub-par food (a few of the Caribbean islands come to mind, but I’m not naming names). But they don’t! The food there is some of the best. Especially if you are like me, and enjoy eating spicy raw fish multiple times a day.

This recent trip was my first time in Maui, and the first thing that became clear is that Maui is for locavores. Other than fish, which I assumed would be local, I didn’t imagine the island being so prolific with the livestock and vegetables, but Maui is great in that respect. Grass-fed beef cattle and chickens are raised “up-country” along with asparagus, Maui onions, avocadoes, sweet corn, and much more. They even have a goat cheese dairy on Maui, the cheese of which is featured on many menus. Let me assure you that the local products not only have the feel-good factor of being locally and sustainably produced, they have that all important taste-good factor as well. It goes without saying that the fish you get on Maui is fresh and delicious no matter what.

We were staying at the Ritz-Carlton in Kapalua, so most of the places we ate were in that area (west Maui). The Ritz-Carlton is an amazing property which we normally wouldn’t have splurged for, but we got a really good deal as part of an Orbitz package. (I mean a really good deal… the recession is hurting tourism, for sure.) If you can get a good deal there, I highly recommend it.

After a delayed flight, a traffic jam, and a much longer drive to Kapalua than expected… I was starving and cranky. Enter my savior.

Oh wait. Not that savior. (Although it’s comforting to know he’s “coming soon”- like the next summer blockbuster!) This one: ahi poke from The Fish Market.

The Fish Market is in an unassuming strip mall just northwest of Lahaina, on Lower Honoapallini Road. Their ahi poke is excellent- tell them how spicy you want it, and they’ll grab some fresh raw ahi cubes, Maui sweet onion slices, and scallions, then doctor up the mixture with soy sauce and sriracha. I could eat it every morning for breakfast. Did I say “could”? I meant “did”. It’s a small styrofoam cup of heaven. In my starving cranky state, it was one of the best things I had ever eaten. Revisiting in a non-cranky, non-starving, relaxed I’m-on-vacation-in-Hawaii state did not change my view.

Of course, you can’t just keep eating the same poke when you know there are so many pokes out there for you to try. A great place to experiment is Lahaina Farms, which is a Whole Foods-esque Hawaiian grocery store in Lahaina Town (in another strip mall, natch.) Lahaina Farms has a poke counter with 8 different pokes, and the guy will let you, nay, he will encourage you, to try a taste of each and every one before deciding. All of the pokes were fresh and delicious, and the mango black pepper was a standout.

My birthday occurred while we were there, and not being the type to leave things to chance, I had made myself a sunset hour birthday reservation at Merriman’s (great thing about the internet: you can look up the time of sunset in any location in the world, and plan your romantic dinner accordingly.) This was an outstanding meal and one I will definitely repeat on my next trip. Every ingredient on the menu was from Maui- barring a few cases where a few things were from other Hawaiian islands. The service could not have been better, and the food was absolutely delicious. I would highly recommend it. The view wasn’t too shabby either…

Of the sushi places we tried, we liked 2 the best: Kai in the Ritz-Carlton, and Sansei in the same area. Sansei was majorly talked up because it’s good, and because they have some half price thing late at night or at 5 PM, yada yada yada, but I gotta be honest with you- vacation is not the time for worrying about half price or eating dinner at 5. Vacation is for being awesome and doing whatever you feel like. I will say that I think Kai had better quality sushi, but Sansei was more fun. One thing Sansei had was a kick-a$$ Mai Tai- one of the best I’ve ever had. So I would recommend taking a seat at the bar and getting some Mai Tais and their best-known roll, the panko-crusted ahi roll. It’s the best-known for a reason. It’s hella good. Kai is in a beautiful setting above the ocean, and the fish was absolutely fresh and so tasty, especially the sake sashimi. They also had some interesting appetizers, like a scrumptious short rib gyoza.

One day we were really jetlagged and woke up around 5:30 AM. We took a harrowing coastal drive on a 1-lane road to the town of Wailuku for hot malasadas (Portuguese donuts) and coffee from Home Maid Bakery. They only have hot ones between 5-10 AM and 4-10 PM, and you’re definitely gonna want hot ones.

On our last day, we drove through upcountry on the way to the Haleakala Volcano National Park.We passed through several different landscapes on the way up the mountain, with stunning views of Maui all the way up. It was a gorgeous drive but very curvy- luckily we don’t get carsick!

After all the raw fish, we were craving something a little different. We found it in Makawao, a sweet little cowboy town with several art galleries and glassblowers along the main strip. At first blush, we weren’t too sure about the banging screen door and mismatched furniture at Pizza Fresh, but one bite of the pizza and our worries melted away. The owner uses only the freshest ingredients, locally grown when possible, and the crust was perfectly doughy and crispy. It was just what we needed to fuel our hike on martian landscapes of the volcano.

Our last stop before heading to the airport for a red-eye was Mama’s Fish House in Paia, a cute hippie-ish town near the Kahului airport. Mama’s was heartily recommended by a whole bunch of people we know, and not similar people either- folks who have very different ideas about what makes a good dining experience. It’s a little tricky to find, and it’s pretty pricey, but it’s a neat experience. My favorite thing about Mama’s was that for each fish dish listed on the menu, they literally call out the fisherman by name and note where exactly the fish was caught (e.g. “line-caught by John Smith off the Taka Atoll”). I have never seen that on a menu, and I like it!

It happened to be Mother’s Day and an elegantly dressed older woman came by each table to check in- it was Mama herself. This place is so popular and with such a well-defined (read: crazy Tiki Hawaiian) style that I have no doubt Mama has been approached many times about franchising the business. She hasn’t done it, there is only one Mama’s. It’s the real deal.

We enjoyed one last technicolor sunset from the beach at Mama’s before saying Aloha to Maui.

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