We just returned from our Xmas vacation in Maui and I thought I'd share our observations on the restaurants and food shops we hit. Thanks to all who gave suggestions beforehand, as I went on the trip with a list of places I wanted to hit (and the ones to avoid).
Since we stayed in a condo in Kihei, we spent most of our time in South Maui, though we did venture up to Central Maui and Upcountry. FYI, we never even ventured out to the West Maui area (except for on Christmas Day, when almost all the restaurants in Lahaina were closed). I've starred the places where we would definitely go back on the next trip out to Maui, with **** being the highest rating.
HIROHACHI (a few doors down from Sansei in the Foodland plaza)
On the drive from the airport on our first day, we thought we could make it to the condo in Kihei and then go back out for lunch. But we were starving so we stopped at Sansei in Kihei (I know Kapalua is where we should've gone but we never made it out there). Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), Sansei doesn't open until 5, so we ended up walking a few doors down to Hirohachi, a tiny hole-in-the-wall sushi restaurant. We ordered some typical sushi rolls (unagi Q, spicy tuna, hamachi, and soft shell crab) and found they were decent and reasonably priced. Nothing outstanding (considering San Francisco has its share of amazing sushi places), but it hit the spot.
DA KITCHEN (near Denny's on S. Kihei Rd. across the street from Kamole Beach II)
Da Kitchen, a plate lunch place, was within walking distance of our condo. I found it average/mediocre (we have better Hawaiian plate lunches in CA) and not particularly impressive. Unfortunately, since it was right next door, we ended up eating there again on another day when we were hungover (long story).
**FERNANDO's (on Lipoa, near the intersection of near Kihei Rd. and Lipoa)
Fernando's is a Mexican place that I read about on chowhound that another poster said had better fish tacos than Jawz. We headed there for a late night snack (right before they closed around 9, I think) and had 2 orders of the fish tacos, which we found were tasty and moist. Plus, the friendly guy who answered the phone gave great directions. I even mentioned to him that I learned about the restaurant from chowhound, so he sends his thanks to the person who posted the recommendation!
**STELLA BLUES (Azela Place Mauka plaza)
The next day we really wanted malasadas, but Home Maid Cafe in the Azeka Place Makai plaza (the only place in Kihei with malasadas, apparently) was closed until 12/27 so we ended up going to breakfast at Stella Blues, which was better than expected. We had a half stack of their banana macadamia nut pancakes (and my husband usually hates bananas but loved these!), french toast, and the 2 egg starter breakfast w/linguica.
****AZEKA'S RIBS AND SNACK SHOP (Azeka Place Makai)
We had lunch at Azeka's Ribs and Snack Shop, our favorite "no-tablecloth" restaurant in Maui. We ordered plate lunches the first day (we had to check if the condo had a BBQ) and I loved their mac and potato salad. We went back the next day and ordered 6 pounds of their famous short ribs and they were lip-smacking good. Not only is the marinade delicious, but they were very meaty ribs that had been generously cut thicker than typical Korean short ribs we've had in SF. FYI, they will sell cooked ribs on certain days (Sat and Sun, I think) but we didn't want to wait so we bought the uncooked ones and BBQ'ed them at our condo.
**WHO CUT THE CHEESE? (Azeka Place Mauka)
This is a little cheese shop in Azeka Place on the same side as Stella Blues Cafe. I bought some great cheeses and copacolla here, to go with champagne we picked up at Costco. I think my favorite was the Humboldt Fog creamy goat's cheese (ironic that I discovered this California cheese in Maui!).
***WATERFRONT RESTAURANT (50 Hauoli St., in the back of what looks like an apt building)
Dinner was at the Waterfront Restaurant in Ma'alea, which a friend had recommended. We enjoyed the dinner, though it's a bit stuffy in terms of decor/ambiance (the waiters seemed quite overdressed and it didn't necessarily need to be that formal/cheesy given the gorgeous view of the ocean). There was even a woman walking around selling fresh leis, so that gives you an idea of the type of restaurant this is.
My favorite item was the appetizer the waiter recommended that doesn't appear on the menu--pan-fried oysters in a creamy white sauce that is finger-licking good! I don't recall what was in the sauce (I don't think I even heard it the first time he explained it), but I love oysters and he said it was the best (and he was right!). My husband enjoyed his lobster chowder and we both ordered Hapu'u (Hawaiian sea bass) but prepared 2 different styles. I had it en Bastille (angel-hair thin potato shreds wrapped around the fish and then deep-fried) while he had it Island style (I think grilled with salsa?). I liked my dish better than his.
****HALI'IMAILE GENERAL STORE (900 Hali'imaile Rd)
By far, this was the best restaurant we ate it the entire trip! We loved the fresh and vibrant cuisine, the charming and more laid back ambiance (compared to Waterfront Restaurant), and friendly service. We ordered the "Sushi in Your Dreams" appetizer (spicy ahi and hamachi inside-out rolls w/sashimi ahi and hamachi), Macadamia nut crusted Mahi Mahi, and Coconut Seafood Curry. We also got an order of the Paniolo Ribs to go (which we ate for lunch the next door before the flight home). This place is in the middle of nowhere, but DEFINITELY worth the drive and the price! I can see why some have referred to it as the Hawaiian Chez Panisse, as I felt the fresh vegetables (the string beans in particular) to be outstanding--flavorful and cooked perfectly (not overdone so as to be soft/chewy, nor undercooked, but so fresh it felt as if they were freshly picked minutes before our arrival).
MAMA'S FISH HOUSE (799 Poho Place)
I'd been here almost 15 years ago the first time I went to Maui, and couldn't remember if I liked it, so I brought my husband here this trip. It was the most expensive meal we had on Maui and it wasn't the best. Yes, it has a lovely view (particularly in the daytime, as we had lunch here) and a relaxed atmosphere, but we felt Hali'imaile was so much better (and better prices, too). I don't think I'd go back the next time we're in Maui as I didn't think the food was spectacular enough for the drive or the price.
*TREATS AND SWEETS (on Oihana St, off Main St./Kaahumanu)
First, a little background: we were desperate for malasadas, and when we learned Home Maid Cafe in Kihei was closed until our last day (12/27), we called all the bakeries in the phone book that weren't too far from Kihei. Many were closed on Sunday, sold out of Malasadas (they stopped at 9:30 am the day I called), or didn't answer the phone. So we drove to the Kahului Foodland (which had a Home Maid Bakery) but those were cold and overpriced ($0.50 for a cold stale "donut hole" masquerading as a malasada). I then asked a WalMart cashier to recommend a place for Malasadas, and when I told her Simply Sweets and Home Maid were either closed/sold out, she recommended Treats and Sweets. But we got lost (she didn't give very clear directions, "Look for the Chevron gas station and it's next door" but it's not next door to a Chevron). Luckily, I asked a person stocking shelves at the Star Market in Kahului and he gave us great directions (even warning us of the weird left turn part where cops sometime stake out to give people tickets).
This is definitely a hole in the wall frequented mostly by locals, as it's in an out-of-the-way place that we probably never would have found without specific directions. It's near the only overpass in Maui (at least according to one of the free maps we got), so you can't even really see it from the main road.
It's what used to be the Dairy Queen, so same set-up: a counter and small kitchen is all there is. The rest of the menu consists of plate lunches and desserts. Treats and Sweets did indeed have malasadas that they deep fry AFTER you order, so they're hot! We went back again the morning we flew out, as Home Maid Cafe opened 12/27 but didn't plan to make malasadas until the next day after we were gone. Not sure if we would definitely go back here first for malasadas (who knows where they get their malasadas, as I doubt they've handmade in that tiny kitchen). But if the other places are closed, then we would go here, as at least they're better than the cold ones Home Maid Bakery sends out to retailers.
Hope this is helpful to future Maui visitors!