Paia, Maui: Mama’s Fish House

A visit to Mama’s Fish House north of Paia is a “must-do” for those who visit Maui but this landmark restaurant has a well-deserved reputation for being expensive. Yet there are ways to visit without stretching your credit card’s limit or breaking the bank.

Mai Tai with mushroom bisque
Founded in 1973 by "Mama" Doris Christenson, Mama’s Fish House has become an institution on Maui. Situated right on a beach just south of Hookipa Beach Park on the north shore a few miles north of Paia, the location simply cannot be beat.

The setting is lush and the scenery is beautiful. With the restaurant looking out onto the sand at the bottom of a hill and the ocean just beyond, it has the feel of being on a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific. And I mean more like the island where Tom Hanks was marooned in Cast Away than Maui, but with the advantage of a top-flight service staff and a five-star gourmet kitchen stocked with all manner of yummy seafood.

The food is delightful but dear - so much so that even well-heeled friends warned us before our trip - so we employed a variation on a strategy I discovered during my salad days while working a split shift that left my mid-days free. It was then that I made the discovery that lunch at most restaurants was far more affordable than dinner, and the food was usually just as good.

Specific to Mama’s, we decided to sit at the bar in the center of the restaurant – there are two bars on the premises – and as close to the end of the bar, near the ocean, as we could manage. Fortunately, no one else on that Tuesday afternoon had that same idea, so we scored exactly the seats with the vantage point of the crashing surf that we had intended.

Because we were on vacation, we started the afternoon by enjoying a signature drink. My wife selected a Plantation Punch ($15) while I chose a Victor Bergeron Mai Tai ($16). Contrary to rumors in some circles, there is a certainty about the origin of the Mai Tai: it was concocted by Mr. Bergeron, the proprietor of the famous Trader Vic’s, in 1944. The name comes from the Tahitian phrase, “Mai Tai roa ae” which means “Out of this world” in Tahitian, and was reportedly uttered by the two Tahitian guests, Eastham and Carrie Guild, who became Trader Vic’s first guinea pigs for his new concoction.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Mahi mahi roll
For our luncheon, we decided a selection of appetizers was in order, and Mama’s has plenty to choose from. We decided to share a crispy mahi mahi roll, an order of Polynesian ceviche served in a coconut half, and lobster guacamole ($18, $24, and $20, respectively).

Before our orders came, our server brought us each an amuse bouche of Mama’s hamakua mushroom and fennel bisque. It was full of the deep umami flavor of the mushrooms with a slight spiciness imparted by the fennel, though almost none of the licorice notes.

Our appetizers, however, stole the show. The mahi mahi roll was more like a large egg roll stuffed with flaky, tender fish than the sushi roll I’d been expecting, but it was a pleasant surprise nonetheless. It was fresh – as is all Mama’s seafood – perfectly cooked and flavorful, served atop sliced mushrooms and a demi-glace.

Polynesian ceviche
The Polynesian ceviche was made with coconut milk in addition to the lime juice that essentially cooks the fish. Along with a variety of other spices, it created a thicker coating on the tender fish than a Mexican or Peruvian ceviche, but the coconut milk also took some of the bite out of the lime juice. In addition, the coconut meat was still inside the coconut and, with just a little effort, I was able to pop it out and nibble on it as well.

The lobster guacamole was probably the least memorable of the three offerings. Don’t misunderstand; it was very good, with lots of perfectly cooked, tender lobster – including hunks of large claw and tail – mixed with a moderately spicy guacamole and served with both white and purple taro chips. It was just less inventive than the other two offerings.

Lobster guacamole
We also asked for a sample of Mama’s complimentary poi so we could compare and contrast it to the poi we’d had at a luau the night before. Mama’s is hand-pounded and served fresh, with a bit of sweetness still apparent. Many of the pois I have experienced elsewhere had been allowed to ferment and developed a bit of tanginess as a result, perhaps the most familiar flavors to those who have dared to try poi at all. Reflecting on the reality that poi is often the first solid food a Hawaiian baby eats, I could never understand how a baby would accept poi, which is much more tart than mother’s milk. Having now tasted the fresh stuff, I can better understand.

With a check topping $100 including tax and tip, I had to wonder what we’d have been in for if we’d decided on a full meal.

The view from the bar
While the on-line “sample menus” at Mama’s web site strategically do not disclose prices, there are no surprises in that regard at Mama’s; everything is quite clearly laid out on the menu, including the name of the fisherperson who caught the fish. “Ono wrapped in a ti leaf … caught by Kurtis Chong Kee off the back of his jetski,” read one entry.

Seriously? I found that particular facet of its operation a bit too precious and pretentious, rather like the episode of Portlandia where the Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein characters go for dinner, select the chicken, and then ask about its name, where and how it was raised, and whether they could visit the farm before ordering.

That aside, the menu made it clear we’d dodged a fiscal bullet. The ono was $44, a la carte. Prices on the first page of the menu – at lunch – ranged from $36 to $75 for Tristan Island Lobster Tail “from the most remote inhabited island in the world.”

Again I ask: seriously? But for many, that type of detail and personal connection is part of the place’s appeal. Personally, I prefer excellent food well prepared, served attentively in an engaging atmosphere. In all of those areas, Mama’s excels and is well worth the visit, although I would like to know if Kurtis and his fellow fisherman get a percentage of the sales.

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Photos by Carl Dombek
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