Get ready for a love fest.
Maui means so much to me. Not just because it’s incredibly beautiful, which it is, but because it holds a lot of really precious memories for me. I lived there for the first few years of my life on a small mom-and-pop style resort managed by my grandparents, known as “Tutu” and “Papa” to me. I took my first steps on Napili Beach, was later christened there by a Hawaiian minister when I was a year old (I was even given my very own Hawaiian name, which my dad had tattooed on his arm, as did my husband eventually) and then got married there twenty years later on that same stretch of sand. Maui is home in a lot of ways, the place I feel the most connected to, my own little “kokomo” I head to whenever I need to recharge and rejuvenate. Over the years, I’ve brought a lot of friends to Maui in the hopes that I could share with them everything the island brings to my life, and it’s enchanted them just the same. There’s a reason why it’s referred to by the Hawaiians as “The Magic Isle”. Because it’s special and it’s blessed, and I feel like every time I’m there, it passes some if its blessings on to me.
And since this blog’s called Happy Opu and all (opu means tummy in the Aloha State), I figured I better pay proper homage with a blog showcasing my top ten favorite places to chow down on Maui. These are my absolute favorite spots to hang out, kick back, relax, and get happy! But be warned: you’re gonna want to hop a plane and get lei’d ASAP after reading this. Which you should, really and truly. You owe it to you!
Some quick tips to start with, though: Maui’s great to visit all year round, but the most spectacular time to go is during whale season, which is generally from November to March. No matter what patio you’re sipping mai tais on, you’ll be able to see humpback whales breeching out in the channel between the islands pretty much daily (this gets even more exciting with more mai tais!). You’ll notice that most of the restaurants I’ve included are on Maui’s west side, which in my opinion is the best place to stay. If you usually stay in Kihei or Wailea, try the west side just once, especially further north. It’s less touristy, more off-the-beaten-path, and less commercial, which is really what Maui is all about anyway. Try finding a condo in Napili Bay, one of Maui’s best kept secrets for swimming and sunbathing, or nearby Kahana or Honokowai. Plenty of great ones can be found on www.vrbo.com all depending on what your needs may be, and renting directly from the owners saves you a lot of coin in the long run. Screw the Hyatt, guys: renting your own condo is the way to go! Also, if you want to see the entire island in all its splendor–and you do–it’s imperative to rent a car. The island is easy to navigate, so you don’t have to worry about getting lost, and it’s truly the best way to get the most out of your visit to Maui.
Alright. On to more important matters. Let’s EAT:
Situated smack-dab in the middle of Front Street, Kimo’s is a Lahaina institution. I can’t remember a trip to Maui that didn’t include at least three afternoons spent on Kimo’s patio, sipping mai tais ($5.50 during happy hour!) and eating plates of smoked marlin while we waited for the sun to set. The view’s the best you’re going to get in Lahaina, the ocean lapping underneath the deck and the island of Lanai looming in the distance with a glittering stretch of ocean in between. It’s pure magic. The food’s good too, especially the mu shu kalua pork, succulent and juicy shredded pork served with little tortillas for wrapping and plum sauce for dipping. Kimo’s is more of a place to go for pupu’s (that means appetizers– you’ll be able to say it with a straight face soon, I promise) and cocktails from 3pm-5pm when the prices are right, the sun’s setting, and the live music starts up. FYI: I’d skip the Hula Pie, a giant ice cream cake monstrosity that has “I’m an ass-hat tourist who just likes the word hula” written all over it. Best to chow down on lots of that pork and head elsewhere once it gets dark. www.kimosmaui.com
#9. Roy’s Kahana Bar & Grill
And why the heck wouldn’t you go to Roy’s? Now, let me just defend myself, here: yes, Roy’s is a chain, with a total of thirty-one restaurants all over the world and a whole slew of cookbooks for sale at Barnes & Noble. Roy’s like the Gordon Ramsay of Hawaii, James Beard award and all. But guess what? Roy Yamaguchi is no slouch. He knows what he’s doing, and I have never, ever been disappointed with either the food or the service at a Roy’s restaurant (wish I could say the same for Mr. Ramsay). The location in Kahana is situated just off the Honoapi’ilani Highway, which is the main highway servicing West Maui, in a mini-mall facing the road. Meaning, don’t go here for sunset. But the food is spectacular, truly Hawaiian-fusion at its best, complete with an amazing Wagyu beef “loco moco”, a kind of Hawaiian-style egg and meat hash, and plenty of locally caught fish (ono, opa, ahi, mahi mahi) prepared in a variety of delicious ways. We always start with the canoe for two, which is an appetizer sampler featuring the restaurant’s best-sellers– grilled Szechuan pork ribs, the lobster potstickers, an excellent spicy tuna roll coated in panko and flash fried, seared tiger shrimp, and some sesame-dusted blackened ahi. I almost always order the misoyaki butterfish for my main course, a seriously tender and sweet melt-in-your-mouth piece of fish soaked in a miso sauce, with the kalua pork fried rice on the side, if they have it. And my husband Matty always cracks out and gets a double order of those Szechuan ribs, cuz he’s crazy like that. And no matter how full you are, end with the molten chocolate souffle. You’re on vacation. Live it up. Get fat.
PS. If you’re up for it, Maui Brewing Company is in the same mini-mall. It’s a local hangout, it’s super casual, and a great place to go if you’re sick of mai tais (apparently this can happen?). It’s also got this nifty wrap around bar with an ice strip to rest your pint on so it doesn’t get too warm. Try a coconut porter or a pau hana (which means “done work for the day” in Hawaii) pilsner while you watch surf videos on the TV.
#8. The Gazebo
Since breakfast is the most important meal of the day, I had to showcase my very favorite breakfast joint on the island. The Gazebo is a fabulous little spot to start your day, with one of the best views around. The Gazebo sits on the Napili Shores Resort property (Dad used to be one of the maintenance men there) overlooking the ocean and beautiful Napili Bay. There’s almost always a daunting-looking line, but it moves fast, and there’s free help-yourself coffee out front while you wait. Plus, it’s so beautiful there, don’t you dare complain about waiting, you lucky nut! Once you get inside, the service is fast and friendly, and the food’s delish. Start off with an ice cold glass of POG (pineapple orange guava juice– a hangover cure if I’ve ever found one) and then try one of their many ginormous omelettes, or a plate of buttery fried eggs and portuguese sausage. Or if you’re like me, get serious and order a short stack of their famous macadamia nut buttermilk pancakes, complete with coconut syrup and whipped butter… Not exactly bikini-friendly, but by now you should know that bikini-friendly eating isn’t exactly my first priority.
The Gazebo: 5315 Lower Honoapiilani Rd 96761
#7. Mala Ocean Tavern
And now for a little romance….. Mala is at the far north end of Front Street in Lahaina, away from the hustle and bustle and perched on a stretch of rocky beach overlooking the ocean. This is as close to the water as it gets, and it’s the perfect place for a romantic sunset dinner. Its lanai (deck) is tiny, so get there early to ensure a great table and also to take part in happy hour, from 3pm-430pm. Have a glass of house-made sangria and some pomegranate-ginger chicken wings, and then tuck in on the lanai to watch the sun go down. The food overall doesn’t take itself too seriously, focusing instead on what’s available and what’s fresh, and I guarantee you’ll always have a fabulous and unpretentious meal here. Try the seared ahi bruschetta with edamame puree, a sauteed freshly caught opakapaka (a Hawaiian snapper once only reserved for royalty because opakapaka has to be caught in deep water– a heck of a lot easier nowadays, thankfully, because it’s insanely delicious) in a tomato cream sauce made with tomatoes grown right on the island, an organic chicken grilled on lava rocks, or hoisin glazed baby back ribs. Get the chef Mark Ellman’s signature “Caramel Miranda” for dessert, a plate coated in caramel and served with the freshest grilled fruit available and macadamia nut ice cream. OHMYGOD.
#6. Aloha Mixed Plate/The Old Lahaina Luau
Why am I fitting two in here at once you, ask? A. because it’s my blog, and B. because the food comes out of the same glorious kitchen for both places. First, let me tell you about the Old Lahaina Luau, which happens to be one of my favorite places/things/shows to visit in the world. If you’ve never been to a luau, they’re giant outdoor parties with a buffet of Hawaiian delicacies, hula dancers, and lots of happy revelers. Maui has a lot of them (luaus and revelers), offering deals as cheap as $50 for all you can eat and drink plus a show, but none of them I repeat NONE of them compare to the Old Lahaina Luau. For one thing, it’s authentic, complete with a big ol’ pig wrapped in ti leaves and buried in an “imu” (underground oven in the sand). Its location and setting can’t be beat either, a beautiful grass area with a low stage encased in lava rock, palm trees and the ocean as its backdrop, and smiling shirtless boys (I said shirtless) sporting tribal tattoos serving you cool drinks as you lounge on the grass. You can choose from traditional seating with cushions on the floor (choose that) or conventional chair seating, and each table is called up one at a time to fill their plates with as much food as they want from the buffet. It’s insane– steamed purple sweet potatoes with lilikoi (passionfruit) butter, ahi poke (diced raw ahi tuna in an onion and soy sauce, served cold), tender crab and pea salad, lomi lomi salmon (salted salmon with tomatoes and sweet Maui onion), guava-glazed chicken, plenty of crispy fried rice, and that pork: cooked until it falls apart, running with juice, salty sweet and oh so ono! Which means delicious. Following dinner, you’ll be treated to a spectacular show, telling the story of how Hawaii came to be, and all the while those shirtless boys are bringing you as many cocktails from the open bar as you can handle. Did I mention all of this costs only $95?!?! My favorite lunch spot Aloha Mixed Plate is right next door, so you can have that delicious food the very next day all over again on the cheap: a traditional Hawaiian plate lunch of one scoop macaroni salad, two scoops rice, and your choice of soy sauce marinated chicken, grilled mahi mahi, teriyaki beef, or coconut prawns. DOUBLE OMG!
Perched atop a bluff in Kapalua, Merriman’s is the perfect, best, most gorgeous place to watch the sunset on the entire island. Sure, you could drive all the way up to the Haleakala crater, but there ain’t no wine bar at the crater. Merriman’s has it all figured out: chilled glasses of Ca’Vittoria Prosecco (25% off from 3pm-5pm every day), goat cheese with a strawberry and Kula onion salad, kalua pork quesadillas with mango chili sauce, mini Maui cattle filet and applewood bacon sliders with blue cheese mayo, lobster avocado and tomato salad, parmesan truffle fries… Settle in on the deck at the point, put your feet up, and savor this moment. It’s as good as it gets. Thank you, Peter Merriman, you friggin’ genius, you.
#4. David Paul’s Island Grill
We stumbled upon David Paul’s one night in Lahaina after a few cocktails at Kimo’s, in search of somewhere with great food that could take our large party on short notice. David Paul’s is on a quieter stretch of Front Street, located just past the Hard Rock Cafe in a relatively vacant mini mall. It has no frills and gimmicks out front to entice people to come in, Jimmy Buffett isn’t on the stereo full blast, “Aloha” prints aren’t burning your retina everywhere you look… It’s simply an elegant, understated, beautifully designed room with a relaxed patio, perfect for settling in to enjoy some seriously delicious food. And if you ask me, this place slays the majority of restaurants in Lahaina, and it deserves to be packed to the rafters every night. Start off with the “reconstructed California roll”– a sweet and tender crab salad with avocado relish and fried nori threads. Order the pancetta wrapped beef tenderloin with sauteed tiger shrimp for the main course, or choose from one of the many delectable specials they have on that day. Once when we were there, they had a glazed grilled quail stuffed with goose liver and served with truffle mashed potatoes, a concoction that I think may have made me gleefully scream, “What the fuck did you just say?!” (You know how I feel about delicious little birds!) Also: their french fries are fried in duck fat and served with truffle ketchup. Just go. GO!
#3. The Pineapple Grill
So… little disclaimer: I have spent many, MANY nights lounging at the bar at The Pineapple Grill, sampling pupus and drinking the night away with my cohorts, getting to know the bartenders (Hi, Megan!) and basically acting like I own the place. They treat us extremely well, and for that I am totally thankful. But I swear, I’m not biased in giving it the #3 slot! There’s a reason we keep going back: it’s always great, always relaxed, always friendly, and even (at least for Maui standards) affordable. For instance, every Thursday their extensive pupu list is 50% off from 5:30pm-10:30pm, as well as 8pm-10pm on Fridays and Saturdays. We’re talking kalbi flat iron beef satay, shiitake and pork hash in butter lettuce cups, ahi and salmon tartare, miso sake grilled shrimp, ahi tacos, short rib sliders, etc. etc. etc. Even better? Almost everything they use is locally raised on farms on the island. Oh, and did I mention their wine list is like something out of a dream, with about 100 wines to choose from? And those bottles are 50% off every Wine Wednesday? You starting to see why I frequent this place a lot?? See you there.
I’m going to try to write this without drooling all over my keyboard. Sansei. Is. Awesome. I simply cannot go to Maui without having at least two meals at Sansei. It’s sometimes our last stop before we head to the airport to fly home, because I just need to have one last crab and mango salad hand roll before I go. There are two locations, one in Kihei and one in Kapalua (the one we frequent the most), and there’s always a wait for a table, unless you’re smart and book a reservation well ahead of time. They have a late night happy hour after 10pm with half price sushi (and karaoke!), but my advice is, make a reservation between 7 and 9 to avoid the huge crowd. You can always stay for sake and karaoke after, when you’re good and full. Order the calamari salad sauteed in a sweet and spicy vinaigrette, the panko crusted ahi roll with wasabi butter sauce, the miso butterfish, the Sansei special roll with spicy crab and thai chili sauce, or the shrimp dynamite: flash fried tender shrimp tossed in the most incredible garlic aioli and drizzled in eel sauce. Really, you can’t go wrong, no matter what you order. Plus, Sansei’s a fun place to hang out, and you don’t have to get all gussied up… I’ve been known to wear flip flops and sweat pants, chow down on as much as I can get down my gullet, and then break out a little Grease Lightnin’ on the karaoke machine. You’ll have a blast. Promise. Unless you happen to be there when I’m singing after a few sakes, in which case, I apologize.
#1. Mama’s Fish House
And the grand finale…. Mama’s.
Mama’s is one of my favorite restaurants in the whole wide world. If I were sentenced to death for breaking into Christian Louboutin and vandalizing millions of dollars worth of shoes (a heinous crime worthy of the death penalty), this is the place where I would have my last meal. Mama’s is simply and truly one of the most extraordinary restaurants in the country. Nestled on a private beach on the outskirts of Paia (you’ll pass Paia if you brave the dreaded Road to Hana– which if you do decide to take on, do yourself a favor and spend the night in Hana when you get there instead of turning around and heading back. Less pain. More mai tais.), Mama’s Fish House sits in a converted beach house amidst a cluster of palm trees. Put your name in for a table and settle in one of the nearby hammocks to wait, or better yet, make a reservation so you can get to eatin’ that much quicker. The ambiance is romantic and relaxed old-Hawaii, with tiki torches and soft Hawaiian music playing, comfy throw rugs and wicker chairs inviting you to kick back and make yourself at home. The service is always top notch, warm people who really care about the experience you’re going to have and who take a lot of pride in the food they’re presenting. Fair warning, friends: you’re going to pay a hefty bill at the end of this meal, but I’ve never felt sorry about it, and neither should you. This is a treat to be enjoyed and relished with abandon! For goodness sake, order a mai tai, which is one of the best and booziest mai tai’s on Maui, and listen to the servers entice you with the daily specials, complete with which fisherman caught what, when, and where. Cool! DO NOT MISS the wasabi crusted calamari to start, as well as the stupidly yummy Polynesian lobster soup with coconut. Then dig into the grilled ahi sandwich with applewood smoked bacon and Vermont cheddar, served with a pile of Molokai sweet potato fries. Or, go big or go home: get the stuffed mahimahi, a juicy piece of fish crammed with the freshest lobster and crab, then breaded in a macadamia nut crust and baked until golden… with a side of kalua pig fried rice, because you just have to. Just don’t operate any heavy machinery after, okay?
There you have it. My ode to Maui, my magical, beautiful place of indulgence! Mahalo, Maui, for giving me an appreciation to always have a very happy opu. I love you, I miss you, and I’ll sure as heck see you soon!