What I love most about travelling is the opportunity to find out more about a place through its food. You can discover so much about what is prized in a culture that way — for example, the way Thais try to “balance” out different flavors seems to point to the premium Thailand places on harmony and each piece of the whole doing its own part.
While high-end restaurants in Hawaii can be accused of submitting to a kind of “global fusion” ideal — pan-Asian food with a few French and local touches — the real stuff points to a culture more mixed and interesting. It’s American food (I have never eaten so many hot dogs, no joke), but different, with an incorporation of local ingredients and flavors. Macadamia nuts, pineapple and bananas liven up the impossibly fluffy pancakes at local stalwart The Gazebo (a popular restaurant improbably placed next to a hotel swimming pool); pineapple and bacon adorn a hot dog from a food truck next to the highway.
This emphasis on local ingredients makes ice cream flavors here a lot of fun. At Dave’s Ice Cream (it’s been written up in People magazine!), hidden away in a plaza on the outskirts of Honolulu behind a statue of Hawaiian-born sumo wrestler Akebono: the inevitable coconut, pineapple and macadamia nut flavors, plus ube (Okinawan purple yam), cotton candy, and acai.
And then there’s the actual street food, which in the U.S. means food from trucks: a lot of hot dogs, for sure, and tacos, tacos, tacos. In a town called Haiku on Maui (dotted with a lot of other towns like Haiku — one main street, one general store, about 40 people), in a parking lot in front of the (regrettably closed) Hawaiian food restaurant Hana Hou, not one but two good food trucks, one packed and one just starting out…
Maui native Dickie Lee has worked the Texas hibachi at Island Tacos, on and off, for the past decade. His latest incarnation of the taco stand was only four days old, but still offered delicious grilled chicken, beef, pork and best of all, mahi mahi tacos ($5 each) with plenty of fixings: shredded cabbage, jalapenos, black beans, salsa, soy sauce, hot sauce, and, unexpectedly, Sriracha and Thai sweet chili sauce.
Just a few steps from Dickie, Prana Nui Cafe does a brisk trade in, uh, “vegan ayurvedic cuisine”. A collaboration between a nutritional therapist and a chef, Prana Nui makes food that might conjure up the stereotypical image of tasteless, brittle health food, but which is actually pretty delicious. For our second lunch of the day, a great kale seaweed salad ($7) with umeboshi plum dressing and hemp seed “gomasio” (apparently a dressing used for texture), plus a “dosha” bowl ($10) corresponding to our ayurvedic type (there is a chart in front so you can diagnose yourself; @SpecialKRB and I think we are both kapha, or water, as opposed to air or fire).
It may be because Maui seems to draw a disproportionate number of alternative lifestyle types, but the people of Maui sure do seem to love their greens. In Makawao, which has the feel of a Wild West border town, we encountered a counter-full of good but healthy salads at the Rodeo General Store. Some were delicious (beets and greens; raw kale Caesar; pohole fern), some not as much (ahi tuna with lavender cream; a beet-and-carrot slaw called “Got the Beets Ya’ll”), but all were interesting.
A counter-point to the goody two-shoes greens: our “favoritest doughnuts evah” at, let’s be honest, a dumpy-looking Makawao store called Komoda Store & Bakery. They are glazed and baked on a stick and cost $1.25 each! Doughnut lovers, it’s worth the trek to Maui.
Some of the local bounty wasn’t as palatable. Take this local fixation on Spam. Rodeo General Store offered its own paean to this: spam “masubi” (which appears to be a sort of nigiri), which @SpecialKRB likened to a slab of cat food on a handful of dry, stale rice. Sort of an apt metaphor for the end of our drive along the “road to Hana”, which is supposed to be the most “Hawaiian” of Maui towns. Not sure what that means, unless “Hawaiian” is a euphemism for “non-existent”. What we discovered in Hana: a baseball diamond, a school, a hotel, a general store and a Thai restaurant.
And the high-end stuff? I’m sorry to say this, but in general Maui’s restaurants are overpriced and afflicted by flabby, affected cooking. At the end of our stay, we ended up taking more comfort in fashioning something out of the local produce by ourselves. With both Mexico and Thailand represented at our villa (thanks @sergiomireles!), we came up with grilled steak and pork ribs, Thai steak salad, fried rice and fajitas. It ended up being our best meal on the island.