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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 21, 2010

Mama's Fish House a Maui charmer

By Gary A. Warner
Orange County (Calif.) Register

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Coconut milk is poured over a plate of lau lau at Mama's Fish House. Fresh fish is the specialty and the mai tais-and-tiki torches atmosphere is a draw at the Päia landmark.

CINDY YAMANAKA | Orange County Register via McClat

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Some visitors to Maui go to Haleakalä 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 formerly illicit delicacy was at Mama's, a north coast Maui landmark. Its availability on any given day can vary, although moi is now a farmed species.

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 retro-Polynesian, it sits in semi-isolation on a scenic stretch of beach called 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 Kíhei. If you want the full-blown tiki torches-and-mai-tais mix, head for Mama's. I call the higher prices a "charm surcharge."

Start out with one of its fishbowl-size mai tais — the best I've tasted in the Islands. For 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 back side of Haleakalä, 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 drive back to Kíhei or Käanapali 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 that if you stay, you're automatically extended kamaäina rates in the dining room, the 20 percent discount offered locals at many Hawaii businesses.

If you go: Mama's Fish House, 799 Poho Place, Päia; lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner 4:15-9 p.m. The Inn at Mama's rates start at $175 per night for a studio room. www.mamasfishhouse.com, 808-579-8488.