If you are reading this you either made it or are planning to make it into paradise. Lucky you. Lucky us, because thanks to the generosity of my in-laws, this is the fifth time we’ve been here. There are a lot of fun activities to enjoy or even hurt yourself, but because this is a food blog, let’s talk food.
The first time we visited I was a bit paranoid, because Maui is not cheap and I wanted to avoid tourist traps. Also please keep in mind that I am not a professional food critic and in many cases my family disagreed with me, so this is a very personal guide. On the other hand, I am known to have a good tasting palate (thanks to my coffee tasting practice) and I am very demanding when it comes to providing quality for the price. In my case it is connected with my passion for finding and providing high quality coffee and I demand the same from others. Ok, sometimes I can be a jerk about this. I understand that many people go to Maui and are ready to splurge, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, etc. I am listing only places we visited and experienced. There are a few we really wanted to try, but did not have the chance yet, Like the Shark Pit food truck. I love this chef’s mission statement. Perhaps next time.
Pineapple from a street vendor – anywhere
This is the best thing you can do to feed your foodie. The “Maui Gold” pineapples are amazing. You will see this pineapple at “Pineapple Express” stands all over Maui, in grocery stores, the airport but they are always green and not “gold”. This is why you should do a pineapple hunt! Find a street vendor. We stopped at several different ones, usually just a card table set out on the roadside in front of their house with a pile of pineapples other fruit and a small box for honor system payment. This year we saw them 1 for $2/3 or 3 for $5. Be sure to choose carefully – pick them up, look them over, sniff and pull a leaf to check for ripeness (the leaf should pull out easily if it’s ripe). These vendors appear and disappear so it’s best to have a designated lookout while you’re driving, or ask someone about the closest one. Here is a small map of vendors where we scored pineapples in the past 5 years. These pineapples are gold and they smell and taste amazing. Highly recommended.
While you’re at it, get other tree ripened fruit. Papaya is my favorite — you will not eat papaya like this on the mainland. The very first year I got some from my friend Greg Stille, the former owned of a tiny coffee farm on Maui – Pilliani Kope (by the way, his amazing coffee farm is for sale, click here for the real estate promo video OR my video I made about the farm 4 years ago.). Those were the best papayas in my life. The store bought one (on the picture) was also very good. Isn’t it gorgeous?
Have Local Coffee – almost anywhere
I am stunned that almost nobody offers Maui local coffee. Yes, Maui grows coffee! Even restaurants proudly serving local products fall short. In the best case scenario you might get coffee from Kona (the Big Island) but not from Maui. How sad. Be aware of the blenders’ cheat techniques, where “Kona Blend” might have very little Kona in it and “Kona Style” which has zero Kona in it. One of the ways to experience local coffee is Maui Grown Farms. They offer self-guided tours, where you can drive through their farms, explore the coffee bushes and different coffee varieties. For a coffee nerd like me it is the best part of the trip. The views from the farm are stunning! After you experience the farm, go and visit their store, which is about ten minutes drive from the farm where you can taste and buy their coffees. If you are a true coffee aficionado, then you might be slightly disappointed about the level of their roasts. The medium roast was for my taste too dark, but it is true for all the coffee I found on Maui. Even the best Konas are roasted dark; I would still drink that over any other coffee I drank on Maui. I really enjoyed their Mokka variety, although I miss the Pilliani Kope light roast.
Poke – anywhere
Poke is raw tuna salad. If you had offered me this delicacy four years ago I would run away and claim that you must be crazy. Forgive my ignorance, I come from landlocked small country where we eat only overcooked white fish loaded with bones. Poke is my discovery of 2014. It’s a staple – you can buy it at grocery store deli counters. I skipped the one at Safeway (something smelled fishy) and I got mine from the Napili Market. I have heard that there are poke specialized stores which I have to find next time. You can’t eat giant quantities but toast and a spoon full of poke is an amazing start to the day. I love poke. Also I just love to say the word poke. Poke.
Julia’s Best Banana Bread – Keanae
Do you want to feel like Antony Bourdain on one of his travel shows? The typical formula of the show is travel to an unknown territory + have some hardship on the road + find a local gem + it should be home made with love + it has to taste good = No Reservations (we’re big fans, by the way). To experience this yourself, go get Julia’s banana bread. If you approach Keanae from Lahaina and Napili, first the road is marked as “forbidden to tourists”, whatever that means. Second, it is a winding and hilly road narrowing by every mile. The final part is a one-lane road where you should be prepared to back up on a hill if a car from other direction will approach. And they usually do approach. To get to Julia’s banana bread you need some driving experience (or good insurance) and lot of patience. Chill, you are on Maui and you are about to experience “world’s best” banana bread. Once you get there, good luck with parking. It is a small shed surrounded by a charming village and amazing views. If you are lucky you will meet Julia; we did not have the honor. This is the place where you exchange money for banana bread and/or other treats. I liked her taro chips. The banana bread is very good but I like chunks of banana in my banana bread. This has a lot of molasses rather then banana flavor going on. Not to everybody’s taste, but definitely for mine. Is it the best banana bread on the world? Probably not, but it is a very good one. If you add the adventure to get there and the amazing views to the whole experience then it gets pretty close.
Star Noodle – Lahaina
You find their very cool and hipsterish looking ads in all the Maui “What to do/Who paid a lot of money to be in this issue” magazines. They also get very good reviews on Yelp. We tried them twice and both times got excellent food. My personal favorite is their “fried soup”. I could not stop eating that thing. But, there is a reason why I would not go back for more. Both times we ordered takeout and they were extremely rude. We think the reason is that we did not tip 15-20% as for table service, but we rounded up the bill. It was TAKEOUT. We did not obtain any service. We took the food home and we still rounded up the bill. Even if you think we are jerks, do you think they should behave this way? I do understand that everyone can have bad days. This is why we let it slide the first time, but not the second time. If you feel this behavior is ok, Star Noodle has delicious, very imaginative and well executed food.
Leoda’s Kitchen and Pies – Lahaina
Definitely the number one place to go on Maui. The pies are out of this world. They are the best pies I ever had in my life. All the flavors we tried were amazing, but the banana cream might be my favorite. Pies are not the only thing that is good here; for the second year in row I had their seared Ahi tuna Sandwich. This is probably the best sandwich I ever had, and I am not big fan of fish – I know I just said I like Poke, but the raw tuna really suits my taste. Leoda also scores with the fact that they offer a local coffee blend. I do not know how much of the blend is coffee from Maui, but it is the closest I have seen to a Maui restaurant offering local coffee I (we) highly recommend Leoda’s. Make sure you have an early dinner, because the pies sell out.
Hali’imaile General Store – Makawao
We dined here 3 times in the past but we skipped it in 2014. On our first trip we dined together with Oprah! Well, almost dined together; she and her partner were three tables away from us. Still counts right? The sad thing is at the time I did not even know who Oprah is. I think all of like Hali’imaile although my observation was that the very first time the food was much better then the past two years. The very first time we left with WOW, the other times “only” with GREAT. I fondly remember their mai tais, probably the best I had on the island, and the food is very creative. They have a nice kids’ menu and fancy drinks for the non-alcoholic set. I would definitely recommend to try them out. It is not cheap but a great “worth it” experience.
Photo by: Ro-Bin
Aloha Mixed Plate – Lahaina
I am probably the only one in the group who likes this place. You have to take it for what it is. It is a big restaurant introducing island food to the tourist in a inexpensive way. Do not expect high-class gourmet dining or innovative food pairings. Expect something like honest food from a multiethnic Hawaiian grandma’s kitchen executed on a mass scale. And I think they do very good job with that. My favorite was their Kula Pork with sides of rice, macaroni salad and poi (yes poi).
Sansei Seafood Restaurant & Sushi Bar – Kapalua
This very cool Japanese sushi restaurant is in Kapalua, a big resort not far from our more modest one. It got great reviews and we had to try it. This place is very popular so there was no chance of a reservation, but by lining up an hour ahead of time, you MIGHT get in. Personally I hate hype and lines in front of restaurants so I must give big credit to my brother and sister in law and their two kids who decided to wait to get us to this place. It is a typical sushi place, there is nothing innovative about it, but that is a good thing. I liked all the sushi I tried, but to be honest I am not a sushi professional so for me it is hard to judge. I fondly remember my son’s teriyaki beef and my sister in law’s Panko Crusted Ahi Sashimi. That was so tender and so tasty! I would be happy to visit them again, but I would not wait in line.
Photo by: clndr
Sea House restaurant, Napili Kai Resort
We ate a lot here since it’s part of the resort where we stayed. This restaurant is on the beach and has amazing views. During our first visit the food was very disappointing but that was five years ago, and since then it improved immensely. My personal favorites are breakfast. Pancake and their breakfast burritos are imaginative and full of good flavor combinations. Unfortunately their fruit yogurt parfait is a letdown: the yoghurt and granola both taste “cheap” and I think that is a no-no in a place like this and a $10 dish. Guess what else. No local coffee. If you like nice views, good food and solid cocktails, this place is a good stop.
Ka’ana Kitchen – Hyatt Andaz
I was very excited to go to this place. It was announced as best new restaurant on Maui. My father in law was generous enough to take us here and we intended to enjoy it. The menu is very creative. It is really hard to choose; lots of interesting flavor combinations and a thumbs up for the creativity. Based on the server’s recommendation we decided to order a few dishes and share them among six adults. I think that was a mistake. The portions were too small to share among so many, the portions seemed about right for two. We had dissect each dish to make sure everyone had a chance to try the various components, and sampling them all was the whole point of the experience. I loved the presentation of the meals; that was excellent. Most of the food was really good although some was just OK. I feel the experience was not constantly amazing. It did not have a flow. My favorite was lobster with pork belly and their execution of panzanella salad. I was a bit let down by their coconut cream pie, especially when the server recommended it so highly. I guess we were spoiled by Leoda’s. My biggest disappointment was their coffee and cappuccino. The coffee was from Kona (thumbs up) but was over-roasted. You can arguably say that they do not cater to my taste. OK, but the cappuccino was badly executed. The foam was not silky and creamy but hard like a meringue, very unprofessional in the coffee world. I feel that coffee is the last dot on the end of a dining experience and as such it determines the whole impression. I am willing to forgive badly-executed coffee for a mid-level establishment but not places like this. What is wrong with high class chefs and their depreciation of coffee? Why don’t they take it seriously? We are living in the renaissance of coffee, we never before had access to such a good coffee beans and great preparation techniques. Chefs! Start to take coffee seriously or do not serve it.
My final unpleasant experience was their indifferent response to our party’s discomfort. I got to be the lucky one to sit on a spot where the sun was shining directly into my face. When we asked for help the server told us that sun will set in 5 min and everything will be OK. After 20 minutes my compassionate mother-in-law asked for help again, but we got the same answer and a shrug. I do not think this is appropriate service for a place where an entree is around $50.
Would I recommend this place? Yes, but with reservations. Personally if I would go for fancy dining I would go for Hali’imaile General Store. Do not get me wrong, the quality of food (except coffee) at Ka’ana Kitchen is excellent. It is the small things that ruined it for me. I do not care for free valet parking, but I want my coffee executed at the same level as the rest of the meal. If you decide to share (a good idea) count on two people per plate and if you get a sunny spot be more assertive then I was.
Photo by: Patrick Shyu