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A long overdue review: Maui & Honolulu

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A long overdue review: Maui & Honolulu

femmenikita | Jan 11, 2012 08:04 PM

Aloha, fellow 'hounds,

In late October 2011, I traveled to fair Hawaii on honeymoon. I relied heavily on recommendations from this board as I meticulously planned my food itinerary over the course of many months, and I had some amazing meals! Thus, even though this review is a bit belated, I really wanted to share a few finds and pay the knowledge forward. I am hoping that my food experiences might help others looking for eats on Maui and Oahu. I will mention joints that were decent, and a few places that I thought were outstanding. Will put asterisks next to the outstanding ones, so they'll be easy to jump to.

In Maui, I stayed in Paia town, and visited several eateries, the first being: PAIA FISH MARKET. This is what I would call "dirty food." You can find other reviews of it on this board, so I'll just say that the fish was fresh, service quick, and food was always hot and hearty/filling. I ate there three times in two weeks, and each time I ordered some variety of taco. The filling in these greasy-ish tacos overflows and one was usually plenty. Generous dashes of Tabasco sauce and a coconut porter made for some happy afternoons sitting at the picnic tables at Paia Fish Market. Decent eats for the weary traveler! Avoid paying extra for their blah sides (rice, french fries, or home fries, with or without "cajun seasoning" aka Tony Chachere's) and just order a la carte.

Also in Paia:

ONO GELATO. I tried several flavors over the course of a couple of weeks, and can say with certainty that the Key Lime Pie was the clear winner. They make their own graham cracker crust and crumble it into their very tart and creamy lime flavor.

MANA FOODS: This hippie grocery store reminded me of the co-op grocery in my hometown (Austin, TX). A huge variety of natural foods crammed in a very small space. Was not that impressed by their prepared foods (very small hot bar/bakery) but enjoyed having a store nearby that decent cheeses and french bread. And of course, the ubiquitous and delicious Maui Onion Chips!

ANTHONY'S COFFEE: This place is your average small-town coffee shop (think walls lined with kitschy mugs your grandma would love and flavored non-dairy creamer on the condiment bar). I am mainly mentioning it because, oh my god, the lemon bundt cake! It is neon yellow, the icing drizzle is laden with zest, it is a little too sweet, and it is to die for. Cinnamon rolls were passable as well, but the bundt cake is the thing. They don't have it every day, so strike when the iron is hot.

CAFE DES AMIS: I would go here for happy hour, for apps and cheap drinks. There are other places on the island to have a better meal, but the sangria and Mediterranean platter hit the spot after a long day of beachcombing.

***MAMA'S FISH HOUSE: This place lived up to all of my expectations. It was definitely the best food experience I had on Maui. I wonder if those who have been less than impressed with Mama's went in expecting very creative or innovative preparations of the dishes. That is not what Mama's is about. Most of the dishes are pretty standard, but very well executed. This is mostly due to the high quality of fish and vegetables used. Strangely, my favorite thing at Mama's was an amuse bouche: a pureed asparagus-ginger soup. I liked it so much that on my second visit I asked if it would be possible to order a full bowl, and the kitchen happily obliged. On each of our three visits to Mama's we ordered a sashimi appetizer (served in a martini glass with a wasabi/soy sauce, grape tomatoes, and taro chips). That app was TO DIE FOR. I remember having Ono in a white wine sauce, and and their macadamia nut crusted fish stuffed with crab, and both were tasty, but I will say that the real standouts were always the raw fish dishes for me. On one occasion I ordered a salad and that was my one huge disappointment: finely shredded (could it have been ICEBERG??) lettuce completely soaked in a bland dressing. Other than that: Excellent mai tais (not too sweet!). And you have to try the famous Black Pearl dessert. And admittedly, the ambiance seals the deal. Get an early dinner reservation on the lanai-- say 4:45 or so, and you will be finishing your meal just as the sun sets, and will outsmart the crowds that fight for a table *starting* at sunset.

In Makawao:

***HALI'IMAILE GENERAL STORE (lunch): This odd place is an old pineapple plantation house-- the type with a huge wrap-around porch, set in a strange location that seems a bit in the middle of nowhere. Definitely get your directions straight before you go. I wouldn't exactly call this place fine dining, but it is on the nicer side of mid-range. That said, you MUST order the sashimi napoleon. It was the highlight of the meal, and the presentation was excellent. The server presented the dish and then offered to decompose the dish for us, explaining how it should be eaten. I ordered the brie and grape quesadillas, which I did not enjoy. The pureed pea dip served with these quesadillas just did not marry well with the other flavors. I had a house salad and my husband ordered the Kalua pork enchilada pie. This "pie" was an absolute beast! He enjoyed it, but was very heavy. He ate about 1/3 of it. i saw many other people ordering it though, so that tells you something. This place has lilikoi lemonade! Tart, and so very Hawaii.

In Hana:

***CAFE ROMANTICA:

When I was searching the boards in 2011 for recommendations near Hana, I saw no mention of Cafe Romantica. Hopefully that is no longer the case! But if people aren't talking about this place, they should be. Stumbled upon this vegetarian food trailer which keeps odd hours, and is run by an old German guy named Hans, and his new-agey wife (who is from San Antonio, TX). They will talk to you about their slow-food philosophy and their chakras while serving up some of the best food on the island. Highly recommend the soups and any of the curry dishes. Tried their "chile relleno" which was not at all like what we call "chile rellenos" here in Austin... Their version was more like a Spanish tortilla: eggs and green chiles and other veggies and spices, baked like a frittata. This was a stand-out. We also tried the apple strudel. Everything was good! They use a lot of curry and phyllo dough in their dishes. Wish I would have had room (and courage!) to try their "vegetarian beef wellington" but ran out of time and cash. Which reminds me, CASH ONLY.

In Lahaina:

I only spent one day in Lahaina, and with the abundance of chain restaurants, it really felt like "Anywhere, USA" food-wise. One place I will mention is...

OKAZUYA & DELI HONOKOWAI, which is a "plate lunch" joint. I had read about their mahi & lemon/caper dish, so of course that is what I ordered. I enjoyed this dish very much, mainly due to the abundance of lemony sauce and the tenderness of the fish. I am a sucker for any kind of piping-hot "rice + sauce" so this was perfect for me, and I liked the creamy, glossy sauce laced with white wine. That said, I could see how some people might not like it. Someone on yelp mentioned thinking something was off about the sauce, but I wonder if it isn't just that they probably use cheap wine and then toss some corn starch in there to give the sauce its sheen. The side dishes here (veggies and mac salad) are bland. Husband ordered the Teriyaki Steak, ate all the steak, and lamented that it was tasty but not enough. And then of course he was nipping at my mahi. Would return to this place for the Mahi and maybe to try the chicken katsu, but only if I was already in Lahaina.

----On to Honolulu in Oahu---

I ate at many, many terrible places in Honolulu, so I am going to go ahead and leave out those gorey details. I found a couple of places that I absolutely loved, though... first, a hidden dive, a gem!:

****8 FAT FAT 8: Yep, that's the name of the place. A friend who had traveled to Oahu a month before I did stumbled upon this Korean dive bar, which is complete with pool tables, karaoke (which isn't going all the time, so you can usually eat a meal in peace and quiet) and old men in trucker caps. The reason to go: the oh-so-succulent and crispy Fat Fat Special Chicken with a side order of fried lettuce. My friend is a chicken connoisseur. The atmosphere may be lacking, but the food will not disappoint.

****TOWN: ok, I was only in Honolulu for five days, and I ate at Town twice. I had planned on one dinner at Town and another at Alan Wong's, but the dinner at Town was so amazing that I blew off AW. I should note that part of the appeal of Town for me was its hipness and its modern, stream-lined approach to the food and menu. We are in our early thirties and while the prospect of food at Alan Wong's place seemed exciting (I was so interested in his take on loco-moco, made with scallops!), I pictured a stuffy atmosphere and an older crowd. Of course, I didn't actually go there, so that may not be the case at all! That is just my long-winded way of saying that I felt at home at town. The servers were laid back, yet very knowledgeable about the menu, and seemed passionate about the food. There was background music, but it wasn't loud or annoying. There were a few children here, but they seemed content and well behaved! But enough on atmosphere: The highlight of my meal was the gnocchi. A classic preparation with sage brown butter and squash, but so perfectly executed. Best gnocchi i've had outside of Europe, actually. So light and pillowy! No sign of the gluey, gumminess that so often plagues gnocchi! Everything a little caramelized in the butter-- small bits of char on the squash. They only make a small batch of gnocchi each day, according to the menu, and when they're out, they're out! Steak frites also great: beautiful cut of meat, well-seasoned herb fries. Lemon tart for dessert. Good wine list. Well-mixed drinks (if a little on the stiff side, not that that is a bad thing!), and creative rotating list of house cocktails. Entrees with a cocktail, an app, and a dessert set us back around $130.

***DOWNTOWN by TOWN: I loved Town so much that when i heard they have a lunch joint called "Downtown" set inside of a museum, I made a special trip there on my last day in Honolulu. You can choose counter service or sit at a table to be waited on. Classic bistro fare with fresh farm-to-table ingredients and no mac salad to be found (sorry, just not into the bland mac!). Think: vegetable beef and faro soup, paninis with emmentaler cheese and olive tapenade, fruit tarts and pastry with thick Bavarian cream. very near to the Hawaiian royal palace, so a good place to stop if you are in the area. This place was also hard to find, as there aren't really signs in front of the building to guide you to the proper entrance. Check your directions online first!

There were several local sushi places (not Nobu or any of the big names) recommended by the staff at my hotel (Hotel Renew) in Honolulu, but I can't for the life of me remember the names now. All I know is that all the places they recommended had NO reservations available, and i was a bit heartbroken. So apologies for failing to deliver a good Honolulu sushi report. Went to a few bars in Chinatown, most notably Bar 35 which I'd heard was a good spot for nightlife. There was definitely more of a 20-something hard-drinking group there (not really our crowd anymore), but the space itself is huge and felt empty of life; not good unless you have your own entourage with you. I would have rather gone back to Town for my cocktails. Made a special trip to WAILANA COFFEE HOUSE. Felt like Mel's Diner. Some fried eggs, so-so mac nut pancakes, but nothing to write home about!

Alright, i think that's all my memory can muster a whole 10 weeks or so after the trip. Sorry if it is a bit all over the place. Just really wanted to crank it out... hope it helps some of you!

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