Mahalo for the memories

Banana macadamia nut pancakes at The Gazebo in Maui

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.

Hot dog breakfast in Maui

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.

The counter at Dave's Ice Cream on Oahu

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…

Dickie Lee of Island Tacos

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.

Grilled mahi mahi taco with everything

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).

Kapha dosha bowl with millet and tempeh skewer

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.

Deli counter at the Rodeo General Store

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.

Komoda Bakery's doughnuts on a stick

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.

Spam masubi

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.

Our dinner at home


Filed under food, food stalls, Hawaii, restaurant

2 responses to “Mahalo for the memories

  1. Chelsea

    Hey, came across your blog as I’m currently living in Bangkok and looking for good places to eat! Anyway, I’m from Maui and I just wanted to say that I’m sorry you had such an unlucky impression of Hawaii. I’ve never had a hot dog besides at an occasional family barbecue, and although tacos and mexican food are big, you missed out on huuuuuge local foods that steal the prize! Poke, for one, our absolutely amazing local takes on sushi (like Sansei and the sushi restaurants in Kihei), great vietnamese restaurants, local food, including the staple plate lunch with fish or chicken and mac salad, shoyu and teri chicken and beef, local-kine noodles and saimen, and the list goes on… One thing you did get is Komoda upcountry though, although one of the best towns for good eats, Paia (much better in comparison to Makawao), with Mana Food, the haven of all health food stores, is also worth multiple meal visits.

    I hope your next trip there will be a bit better, and to get a great taste of import local blends of korean and chinese food, Honolulu is wonderful. Although restaurants can be expensive on Maui, that’s just where the tourists go… the best stuff is relatively cheap, and amazing! You just have to know who to ask, I suppose.

    • Oh, we are definitely going back! I absolutely LOVED Maui, and am looking for any opportunity to return. How lucky you are to be from there! And I will be sure to ask you where to eat before we go 😉

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