Eating at Coconut’s feels like a mini-vacation. The casual, bright, order-at-the-counter fish shack atmosphere, the surfboard-shaped tables, the slim-cut staff t-shirts, and the plastic baskets filled with slow-cooked-fast-food is the perfect counterpoint to a sandy, salty day at the beach. Even when we’re on a quick lunch break, our blood pressure stabilizes as soon as we sit down.
Coconut’s is convinced that a fish counter can still serve healthy food; they lighten up on fat by substituting coconut milk for mayonnaise in the homemade condiments, and using an extremely light batter on fried items. Our personal philosophy is that all food is healthy if enjoyed in the proper spirit and in the right portions, and we do not believe in giving up flavor, for any reason. (We live to eat, we don’t eat to live.)
In the case of Coconut’s coleslaw, we’re willing to concede that the substitution works; the coconut milk creams up into dense foam, and the cabbage and carrots hold their crunch better than in squashy mayonnaise versions.
We’re also very pleased with the fish burger, which comes with that yummy slaw. The mahi mahi version is flaky and a little sweet, while the ono (our favorite) is firmer and more savory. They both arrive perfectly cooked with lovely grill marks, dressed sloppily (but sexily) in tomato, cheese, that decadent coleslaw, and tartar sauce. The fish can be rubbed with several flavors — blackened is a good choice — or grilled with butter. You can choose a sesame or whole wheat bun; or skip the bread altogether in favor of perfectly cooked, well-seasoned brown rice.
We’re warming up to the fish and chips, which are decidedly different. To cut the fat and lighten the calorie count, the kitchen batters the fish in Italian bread crumbs. This results in a very light, very seasoned batter that effectively seals in the juices, but also makes the dish taste a little like the fish sticks we ate as kids. If you like your fish in a thick batter and enjoy that crisp sound when you bite it, you would do well to stick with the grilled fish burgers. The shrimp and calamari are fried in the same breadcrumb batter and the same advice applies.
The fish tacos are simply delicious. One order is $12 and nets you two plates, each with a layer of corn tortillas and a pile of perfectly grilled fish, mango salsa, tomatoes, cheese, and coleslaw. Almost impossible to eat with your hands due to the size, we dig in with a fork.
Another winner is the garlic steak sandwich. A generous 9 ounces of rib eye is grilled, sliced, and slipped between the folds of a garlic toasted bun. The meat is perfectly tender and perfectly done. The “special sauce” that comes on the side is a horseradishy-cream with a hint of garlic that just kills. This is a small place, and the owner is often on site. The last time we moaned out loud while eating this sandwich, he came over to tell us that it’s inspired by the “steak” dinners his French mother cooked for his large family. She couldn’t afford a great cut of meat … but she could make this sauce, which they ate by the ladleful. He’s serving a good cut of meat here, but merci, maman, for that sauce.
Seafood chowder is just silly to put on a menu on Maui. Who wants a cream-based hot soup? Everyone, including us. The New England style chowder is another recipe from maman, and Coconut’s makes four batches a day to keep up with demand. Studded with perfectly tender ono, mahi mahi, and clams, it is creamy and perfectly seasoned. We can split a cup ($4) and be very satisfied.
Salads and burgers and pastas round out the menu, although we tend to return to our favorite, and we think about that garlic steak sandwich at random moments of reverie. There’s also a very good children’s menu.
Coconut’s is one of the more thoughtful additions to the South Maui dining scene, and we cannot recommend it highly enough for a casual, moderately-priced meal prepared with careful recipes, high quality ingredients, and lots and lots of Love.
Address: 1279 S. Kihei Rd., Kihei, South Maui
Location: in the Azeka Mauka Marketplace
Meals: Lunch, Dinner
Hours: Daily, 11am-9pm