Some visitors to Maui go to Haleakala for to celebrate the sunset. I go to Mama's Fish House. It's warmer and the drinks are better.
There are plenty of great, fancy meals to be had in the islands, but the most Hawaiian experience for me is moi — the Pacific threadfin that was once "kapu" (forbidden) to anyone but royalty. The best place I've ever tasted the ex-illicit delicacy was at Mama's, a north coast Maui landmark. Its availability on any given day depends on the luck of local fishermen.
Part of the allure of Mama's Fish House is that it is everything you'd expect from a fantasy version of a Hawaiian restaurant. The decor is the retro-Polynesian, it sits in semi-isolation on a scenic stretch of beach the locals call Channels, and the tropical drinks will knock you for a loop.
Mama's is one of the more expensive fish places in Hawaii, and I've read plenty of online message boards over the years that have branded it as overrated and overpriced. But the crowd always waiting to get in the door shows the flip side. If you want good, cheap fresh fish, head for Alexander's in Kihei. If you want the full blown tiki torches-and-mai-tais mix, head for Mama's. I call the higher prices a "charm surcharge."
Never miss a local story.
Start out with one of its fishbowl-size mai tais — the best I've tasted in all the islands. On the list of appetizers, my favorites include macadamia nut crab cakes and Maui onion soup.
There's usually a long list of fresh fish on the menu. How fresh? The menu, which changes daily, includes details of who caught it, where and how it is prepared. So you can order, say, "Monchong caught by Kevin Awa over the deep sea ledge off Kona, Upcountry style with caramelized Maui onion, tomato, avocado and jasmine rice" or "Lehi caught by Raymond Otsubo bottom fishing off the backside of Haleakala, Sauteed with Haiku tomatoes, garlic, capers, white wine and lemongrass rice."
A good way to cut the high cost of a Mama's meal is to sleep at Mama's. For one thing, the strong drinks can make the long drive back to Kihei or Kaanapali an iffy proposition. Mama's has rentals up against the rocky beach, each with a DVD and CD player, washer, dryer and a kitchen. But the best amenity of all is if you stay, you're automatically extended "kamiana rates" in the dining room, the traditional 20 percent discount offered locals at many Hawaiian restaurants and other businesses. When dinner, drinks and dessert can top $100 per person, that's not a small consideration.
Before or after dinner, wander the path down to rocky Kuau Cove. It's not an A-grade Hawaiian beach, what with the craggy volcanic boulders and backwashing waves. But it's a nice backdrop to a memorable meal.