Craving Maui

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Maui’s Latin American restaurants will have your taste buds dancing the salsa.

By Carla Tracy, Dining Editor

“Liquor is quicker down in Costa Rica” crooned blues legend Taj Mahal. Yet Taj’s taste buds would – in record-setting time, no doubt – be dancing the salsa with cocktails and cuisine at exotic Latin American restaurants right here on Maui. 

 In Pa‘ia, eyes are drawn to the yellow neon sign in the dining room of Lima Cocina + Cantina that reads, “Bad decisions make good stories.” Adding fun vibes to this Peruvian hot spot are big-band salsa dancing on alternate Saturdays, “Got Pisco?” T-shirts worn by the staff, and innovative presentations on South American food and drink. 

What’s pisco, you may ask? It’s a brandy distilled from grape juice into a high-proof spirit in Peru and Chile. You may imbibe in cocteles tradicionales (traditional cocktails) such as the pisco sour with lime, cane sugar and egg white and the pisco punch with pineapple gum, lemon and bitters. Or sip cocteles nuevo (new cocktails) such as the cucurrucucú paloma with tequila, grapefruit and absinthe.

Mieko Horikoshi

Xavier “Val” Valcarcel and his wife, Alicia Valcarcel opened Lima Cocina + Cantina in May 2022 using authentic recipes from his native Peru. “I wanted to keep it very traditional,” Val said. “All of the recipes are from my grandmother.” When the Valcarcels moved to Maui five years ago, there was little or no Latin food on the island. They credit their cousin, Gustavo Valcarcel, for helping to make the restaurant a reality.  

The top selling entrée is lomo saltado (stir-fried tenderloin) cooked in a wok at very high heat with shoyu, tomatoes,  French fries and onions, with a side of rice. Lima also serves fresh ceviche, using kampachi from Hawai‘i Island tossed with lime, fish stock and chilies. The stock brings the acidity down, instead of using coconut juice. 

A signature raw fish dish is tiradito de oliva of fresh sashimi with olive oil, capers, avocado and Hawaiian sea salt, topped with crispy calamari, served in traditional Peruvian cold-hot contrast called carretillero (street-cart style).Main courses are pescado a la plancha (grilled fish) of fresh mahi-mahi with garlic, herbs, potatoes and mango salsa; and arroz con pollo, or cilantro rice with chicken thighs and vegetables in salsa criolla. Churros make a sweet dessert. 

How have Lima’s Peruvian dishes been received on Maui? “Well received,” Val said, in part because Peruvian cuisine has Asian influence like shoyu, ginger and wok frying. 

And what of “+ Cantina”?   

“Latin people like to eat and drink and dance,” Val said. Kids and old-timers alike from all sides of the borders come out for big-band salsa dancing on alternate Saturdays and cut a wide rug of Latin music and dance: salsa, cumbia, merengue and reggaeton with a side of rock ‘n’ Español. 

Jason Moore

Fuego Argentinean Steakhouse is igniting wildfire-like interest as the newest kid on Maui’s Latino restaurant block. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, it is a South American odyssey, continents away from tastes at other local restaurants in Central Maui. 

While it doesn’t have, say, views of world-famous Iguazu Falls in Argentina, Fuego does boast an epic panorama of the West Maui Mountains from its optimum position overlooking the greens and a large pond at The Dunes at Maui Lani Golf Course. 

Adding to the ambience are new booths on the patio with brick-oven-colored cushions, a decorative drinking well, a fire-red neon Fuego sign and even an old-fashioned candy store that is like a museum of Argentinean culture from a past snippet in time. 

“Partner/Executive Chef Pablo Santiensanio is Argentinean, and this was his dream,” said Kitchen Manager Ruben Macias, a native of Mexico who has cooked at top restaurants on Maui for decades from Longhi’s to the Cafe O‘Lei family franchise. “Together, we made it a reality.” 

“Fuego” means “fire” in Spanish. No doubt, Ruben knows his fire. Every day at 4 p.m., the smell of his kiawe-wood-fired steaks starts wafting onto the golf course. Kiawe (Maui’s version of mesquite) comes through as a delicious char flavor. 

Sip an Evita Margarita named after former Argentinean first lady Evita Perón or opt for the Last Tango rum favorite. Check out the sexy pictures of tango dancers and soccer players as you sip. Crunch fresh grilled corn and sink your teeth into langostino (small relatives of lobster), the latter grilled on the asador and accompanied by cherry tomatoes, shaved fennel, cabbage and garlic mayo. 

All steaks are certified Angus beef and range from New York to bife gaucho (tomahawk steak). Or choose pollo asado (roast chicken) and costillar de cordero (grilled lamb). 

True carne aficionados will even find chinchulines (small intestines), mollejas (sweetbreads) and morcilla (blood sausages). Plentiful vegetable sides, appetizers, salads, pastas, pizzas and house specialties will make others happy at the table. The undisputed masterpiece is manzana flameado, an apple pancake flamed in rum and topped with freshly whipped cream. 

General Manager Nicholas Roustan, who has experience at Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Wailea, said Fuego Argentinean Steakhouse is fine dining. The team’s goal is to continue to elevate the culinary offerings of Central Maui, he said. 

Jason Moore

Maui restaurant lovers are jumping with joy in welcoming the re-emergence of a charming Central Maui favorite, The Empanada Lady Restaurant & Lounge, in Wailuku. It had closed due to the construction of the county’s multi-level parking garage on Vineyard (tomahawk steak). Or choose pollo asado (roast chicken) and costillar de cordero (grilled lamb).  

Maui’s only sit-down Caribbean restaurant is a rainbow of taste, color and music – breezy and open air with water features. You’ll find Dominican slow roast pork served with homemade chimichurri sauce, Jamaican coconut curry shrimp, Puerto Rican pastele stew (served Fridays), and a variety of flavored empanadas – all aromatic and elevated by gracious Chef/Owner Sara Kleiven, a native of the Dominican Republic who moved to Hna in 2008. 

“In Hana, children lined up outside my house starting at 6:30 a.m. for my cooking,” Sara said. “When they saw me at Hna Bay, they’d scream, ‘There she is the Empanada Lady!’ The name stuck. My daughter wrote a theme song for me.” 

In fact, Sara’s daughter, singer-songwriter Tanama Colibri, has performed everywhere from Paris to the stage of The Empanada Lady. Live music is an integral part of her mom’s restaurant, and Tanama performs there between table service. 

“We are open weekdays for lunch and Tuesdays through Saturdays for dinner, and we feature nightly entertainment,” said Tanama, a Dominican/Puerto Rican beauty who not only resembles Sade, but she performs the famous singer’s covers as well as her own original tunes. 

“On Wednesdays, we have an open mic variety show,” Tanama continued, “Thursdays, we feature local jazz musicians Phil and Angela Benoit. Fridays is our Latin dance night with a DG. Saturday, it’s Jazz night hosted by Jazz Maui society and Bryant Neal.” 

Besides a complete refurbishment of the downstairs dining rooms that boasts colorful artwork by the illustrious Frank B. Shaner, more is coming. “We are creating a nightlife in Wailuku,” Tanama said. “However, I do want to emphasize that we are family-friendly, an all-age establishment.” 

The good news is, music generally starts early, like at 6 p.m., so even geezers can get up and cut a rug before an early bedtime. As for the food, order and share the trio of empanadas, which are either sweet or savory Caribbean puff pastries with a dipping sauce. Fillings include Cuban picadillo beef, Puerto Rican adobo chicken, Dominican-style kalua pork, Jamaican vegan chickpea, mushroom and spinach, and sweet banana with powdered sugar. 

Main dishes such as Jamaican jerk chicken come with your choice of guandule rice (died yellow from achiote seed and blended with pigeon peas and green olives) or black bean coconut rice and a green salad. Tostones, or fried plantains, are thick and crisp chip substitutes. Do try the new Cuban ropa vieja (shredded flank steak) or the snapper in a Caribbean cream sauce with capers and coconut milk. Remember to bring your dancing shoes. 

Jason Moore

Latino food lovers may also get their fix at farmers’ markets, food trucks, cafes and more across the island. Every Saturday at the Upcountry Farmers market at the Kulamalu Town Center in Pukalani, you may get your Latino mojo working. Maui Empanadas attracts a line-up of shoppers, who wait for savory dough pies. Fillings include the Ho‘okipa with grass-fed beef, green and white onions, peppers, boiled egg and Kalamata olives; and the vegan P‘ia empanada with spinach, carrots, mushrooms, zucchini and sesame seeds.  

A few booths away, Da Pasteles dishes up a taste of Puerto Rico with what else, pasteles and pastele stew. Pasteles are basically Puerto Rican tamales, but the masa is made of green plantains instead of the typical Mexican corn. Fillings are pork adobo. Owner-chef Kapa Haskell uses his grandparent’s recipe for pastele stew, which adds in tomato sauce base, cilantro and black olives and colors it more with achiote. 

Coffee lovers also line up at Alba’s Cuban Coladas food truck between the Upcountry Farmers Market and Long’s CVS store. Potent espressos and steamed-milk-infused cortaditos coffee will perk you up for whatever comes your way. The business is named after the Cuban-born grandmother of the owner. Get your empanadas here, too. 

Maui Coffee Roasters in Kahului may be famous for its Hawaiian coffees, but its owner, Nicky “Beans” Matichyn, purveys a light roast from beans grown under the Fuego volcano at La Antigua, Guatemala (remember what “Fuego” means); a Brazilian Mogiana dark roast and a Columbian supremo, to boot. Buy bags to take home and brew yourself. 

Maui Puerto Rican Association has its own cultural center at Heritage Hall Maui in upper Pa‘ia. Go online to find out about occasional cooking classes and some lively music and dancing and community events. 

Mieko Horikoshi

Last, but not least of our Latin tour of Maui, Momona Bakery & Coffee Shop in Kahului opened in February across from First Hawaiian Bank on the corner of Ka‘ahumanu and Pu‘unene avenues. Partners Sophia Brassolo and Lucia Sabbione hail from Buenos Aires, and Silvana Larcher is from Cordova, Argentina. The ladies moved here independently over the decades and met each other on the island. 

“We are baking European and French pastries and feature Argentinean pastries such as alfajor like a cookie sandwich with dulce de leche,” Sophia said. “We also do moist cakes, cheesecakes, lemon and marble loaves, cookies and medialunas, or ‘half-moons,’ similar in shape to a croissant but very different in taste – plain or with fillings.” 

“There is a huge community of Argentineans on Maui,” Sophia added. “We live mainly in Ha‘iku, Lahaina, and Kihei. Us Argentineans, we love to eat!” Indeed. So do Mauians and visitors alike! I say, “vamos” to any of the island’s spirited Latin American restaurant establishments, and quicker than Taj Majal can belt out a famous lyric, your taste buds will be dancing the salsa.  

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Tribute to Mama’s Fish House Founders 

The Maui Arts & Cultural Center in Kahului hosted a colorful Celebration of Life and Love for the founders and owners of the world-famous Mama’s Fish House in Kuau. Maui’s most iconic restaurant couple was known as the “mama” and the “papa” of their family-owned establishment that thousands of diners have come to know and love. Floyd Eldon Christenson, 88, passed away Nov. 18, 2022 under Hospice Care. His wife, Doris Oden Christenson, 84, predeceased him June 24, 2021, at Maui Memorial Medical Center. 

Mama’s Fish House

Celebrating 50 years in business, Mama’s Fish House is the most sought-after restaurant on Maui for visitors and residents alike, and it can take up to a half year to get a table. It was only fitting that emcee Eric Gilliom joked that when Floyd met Doris at the Pearly Gates, St. Peter told them they would need “a reservation and six months to get in.” 

At the tribute, held in February, award-winning vocalist Amy Hnaiali‘i Gilliom sang “In This Life,” Kyani Bateman, daughter of Executive Chef Perry Bateman, performed hula. So did Hlau Kamaluokaleihulu with Floyd and Doris’ daughter Karen Christenson. The couple also is survived by son Keith Christenson and 5 grandchildren. There were more tributes to this iconic couple from friends and family. 

Floyd and Doris lived their dream by sailing the South Pacific before making Maui their home in 1962. They started Mama’s Fish House in 1973 and forever changed the culinary landscape by supporting local farmers, fishers and craftspeople. They raised the bar of dining excellence on the island, and they helped customers create lifelong memories of dining at “Mama’s.” 

The Christenson’s restaurant legacy will live on under the direction of daughter Karen, and team leaders Tami Joslin, Scott Burns and Chef Perry Bateman. Looking to the future there are also two third-generation members of the Christenson family starting to get their feet wet in the business.  

– Carla Tracy 

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