Review of Mama’s Fish House, Paia, published in Top Maui Restaurants 2012:
Readers consistently ask us these three questions:
Should I drive the Road to Hana?
Should I get up for sunrise at Haleakala? Should I go to Mama’s Fish House?
Our answer is the same for all three questions: It depends.
The decision to go to Hana, Haleakala, or Mama’s Fish House is deeply personal and requires careful examination of your true desires, expectations, and motivations. We leave the first two questions to another section of this book, and will address Mama’s here. While we can’t offer advice to you directly, we can tell you the parameters by which we would make the decision.
Mama’s Is a Landmark … for a Reason
Mama’s is a landmark, an institution, and a well-run, profitable business that brings joy and happiness to tens of thousands of diners every year. If this were Florida, it would be Disney World or Epcot.
When we first made this comparison, we heard from the restaurant that they resented it. They pointed out the careful choices in decor, the one-of-a-kind items that had been brought back to Maui from journeys to the South Pacific. They felt we were saying they are just a tourist trap. Well, we’re not saying that — at all! To start, we don’t think Disney is a tourist trap. Disney offers its guests the best in entertainment — the best singers, dancers, rides, parades, high quality souvenirs, the most beautiful landscaping. They control every aspect of your experience with the intention of making sure that you feel happy. Are they popular? Absolutely. Does it cost an arm and a leg to go there? Yup. Does this mean it’s not worth it? No — you either love the world they have created for you, or you don’t. There is no middle ground.
Mama’s also offers a highly controlled experience. The owners toured the South Pacific in a sailboat many moons ago, and they’ve recreated the experience for you here, both in the Tahitian-inspired cuisine and the sea-spray- kissed atmosphere. Mama’s also offers the best. The fish is unequivocally fresh. The tropical fruit, the vegetables, the seaweed, the ferns, the roasted macadamia nuts and everything else are of the highest quality (and the menu lists where each ingredient comes from, including the name of the fisherman, his boat, and how he reeled his catch in). The preparations are painstakingly developed and carefully made, and delicious across the board.
The Greatest Show on Maui
The show starts when you hand your keys to the valet (there is no self- parking). Walking down to the restaurant and the grounds, we still marvel at how perfectly Hawaiian this place is.
The restaurant sits on what is called Mama’s Beach, which offers one of the most breathtakingly beautiful views available. After you check in at the hostess/souvenir/gift kiosk and walk through the narrow walkway to get inside, the restaurant, the gracious ceilings and wide open walls and fresh breezes create a perfect setting for a terrific meal. In this parallel reality, you go “on vacation” for the length of your meal — even if, like us, you already live on Maui.
From the start the service is like clockwork. Servers bring menus, drinks, dishes and then clear them away with a regularity that can seem precisely timed. We suspect that it is. This is a restaurant — one of the few on the island — that can fill every table several times in one afternoon or evening — and they do not particularly want you to dawdle over dinner.
The strength in this food is not gourmet flourishes, but fresh food cooked simply and garnished perfectly. The menu is focused, but perfect. The fresh fish of the day is listed, along with the best preparation to complement it. The pork and steak dishes are similarly developed with perfection in mind. One of our favorite preparations is a simple butter lemon sauce with macadamia nuts, because it is Just Done Right. The beef Polynesian, served in a grilled papaya, is a medley of medium rare morsels spiced with chili and lime. The ceviche? Out of this world — and we love the giant fried sweet potato chips that accompany it. This fresh-and-simple-and-perfect ethic stretches even to the drink menu. The mai tai is strong and sweet. Our favorite nonalcoholic drink on the island is the coconut mint concoction that blows our senses with its straightforward freshness. In general, there’s a lot of coconut on this menu, and tropical fruits figure heavily into the savory dishes.
The desserts warrant your attention. The insanely beautiful Tahitian black pearl is a glossy globe of ganache ensconced in a pastry shell and surrounded by sunrays of lilikoi sauce. In the center of the “pearl” hides a soft lilikoi cream. The sleek Kuau pie is an addictive slice of silky chocolate atop caramel cookie crust. The house-made ice creams are fabulous — especially the banana and coconut — and are delivered to your table with a song if it happens to be your birthday.
If you want to take advantage of the superlative view, lunch time may be a good time for you to book a table (or walk in). The menu is reduced in size but not in quality, and the prices are slightly (but not much) lower. Another strategy we suggest is to make this the meal you eat right before you get on a plane to leave Maui, especially before a red eye flight to the mainland. It may seem odd, but it makes sense: you can be sure you will enjoy your meal, that it won’t last overly long due to slow service, and you’re only fifteen minutes away from the airport.
Sometimes, we simply head to Mama’s to indulge in resplendent drinks and dessert. We sit at the bar and act like we live this luxuriously all the time. (Whenever we’ve tried this, though, we’ve always caved and ordered an appetizer or two.)
The bottom line for us is that we like Mama’s exactly for what it does: provide a one-of-a-kind experience. You get an excellent, fresh meal with incredible views and very well-trained service. We do not expect or want it to change any more than we’d want Disney to stop doing what Disney does. You can have a wonderful meal elsewhere on the island — that’s true.
But only Mama’s gives you Mama’s.
That is our long-winded answer to “Should I go to Mama’s Fish House?”
We hope it is helpful.
Address: 799 Poho Pl., Paia, North Shore
Meals: Lunch, Dinner