Makawao, Maui: Polli’s Mexican Restaurant

When I travel, I prefer to eat local: local establishments as opposed to chains, and local cuisine whenever possible. But occasionally, when that’s not possible, I find myself on the receiving end of a happy accident.

So it was during our recent trip to Maui. On the recommendation of some dear friends, we decided to head Upcountry for the morning to check out what they described as some authentically Old Hawaiian haunts.

After not very long on the road, we had climbed to more than 1,500 feet elevation and pulled in to the little town of Makawao. Because it was after the Labor Day weekend, the crowds had thinned out, so it was easy to stroll the two main streets and to speak at some length with the shopkeepers, like the hostess at the Maui Hands studio, an outlet for local artisans, and the manager of pearl purveyor Maui Master Jewelers.

Come lunch time, we had intended to take our friends’ recommendation and head for the T. Komoda Store and Bakery. Unfortunately, the proprietors had other plans: a sign in their shop window said they were closed for their “semi-annual vacation.” One shop owner told us they did that twice a year: right before the beginning of, and right after the end of, tourist season.

Margarita, chips and salsa
Makes sense, but disappointing, as it came highly recommended.

Kitty-corner across the main intersection, however, we saw another place that looked promising: Polli’s Mexican Restaurant.

Right now, you might be thinking what I was thinking: Mexican food in Hawaii?  After years of trying to find good Mexican in Indiana, I thought I’d face the same situation here.

Our first clues were the Margaritas. Though they were the “house” Margaritas, they were made with freshly squeezed lime juice, not sweet and sour or a mix. Served on the rocks as requested, they had none of the cloying sweetness of so many well Margaritas ($6.75 at lunch).

Next, we ordered chips and salsa. They aren’t delivered automatically, as in so many Mexican restaurants, but were well worth the modest $2.95 price. The chips included a mix made from both flour and corn tortillas and were accompanied by salsa that had obviously been made in-house. The tomatoes were freshly chopped, mixed with chilies, cilantro, onion, and spices. Cholula and a house “Extra Hot” hot sauce sat on each table for those who felt the need for an added kick.

After perusing the menu, my wife decided on a taco salad ($10.50), which contained chicken, lettuce, tomatoes, alfalfa sprouts, avocado, and was lightly dressed when it arrived in its deep-fried flour tortilla bowl. A side of salsa, which she’d requested as her dressing, was barely touched because the salad already had such full flavors.

Taco salad
Having grown up in Arizona and having spent a number of years in California, two areas where Mexican food is practically a staple, I admit to being something of a Mexican food snob. I asked our server about the chili relleno, which I consider to be a bellwether of a Mexican restaurant, and the item she described sounded exactly as I thought it should be: dipped in egg batter, then deep fried to a delectable brown puffiness. The platter was served with rice and beans (refried or black; I chose refried -- $10.95).

What made the place even more remarkable was its story: Polli's was originally opened in 1981 by Polli Contreras Smith as a Mexican restaurant which featured her favorite family recipes, including vegetarian offerings. The current owner, Tim, bought the place ten years later.

Chili relleno platter
In addition to its dedication to keeping the theme of fresh Mexican food, Polli’s has retained the original vegetarian recipes and added more traditional dishes like those we enjoyed, but which are done a cut above average.

In the spirit of aloha, Tim the owner also has a well-established record of giving back to the community, which made us feel even better about patronizing what initially seemed like a contradiction in the surroundings of Maui’s Upcountry.

I heartily recommend a trip Upcountry and a stop at Polli’s.

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Photos by Carl Dombek
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