Mama's Fish House in idyllic Kuau Cove is renowned as a habitat for fresh island fish.
You'll find papio caught by Calvin Wada, pan seared with caramelized Maui onions and Haiku tomatoes. Opakapaka hooked by Layne Nakagawa, sauteed with Ali'i mushrooms in garlic butter, white wine and capers. And, ahi by the crew of the fishing boat, Kawika, seared in a Hana ginger-panko crust, served with kalua-pig fried rice.
Schools of visitors put Mama's on the top of their "must do" list for Maui. Locals swimmingly celebrate birthdays and other big events as they feast on onaga, opah and mahimahi, along with oysters on the half shell, lobster guacamole with island crisps, Kauai prawns Polynesian -and my personal favorite, he'e, or grilled octopus.
A major north shore industry, Mama’s Fish House employs more than 300 Maui people, including Chief Engineer Scott Burns (from left), Property Manager Bill Kohl, Fish Guru Mike Pascher and last, but not least, longtime Executive Chef Perry Bateman.
Mama’s Fish House photo
Ti-leaf roasted onaga with Haiku lemongrass. in Hana ginger and tomato sauce.
EPES SARGENT photo
Papa’s Sashimi Trio is onaga with calamansi, olive oil, green baby shiso and Molokai pink sea salt; ahi with watermelon radish, citrus pearls, kukui nut, baby red shiso and ponzu; and ono with lilikoi, Hawaiian chili pepper and Hawaii Kai black sea salt.
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The beef Polynesian appetizer is tenderloin stir-fried with onions and tomatoes in papaya.
Mama’s Fish House photo
With more than 300 well-trained employees who cater to your every whim and open-air dining rooms that evoke an island fantasy land, Mama's is at the top of its game as it marks its 40th anniversary this year.
Founders Doris and Floyd Christenson, the Mama and the Papa behind Maui's Best Restaurant Overall and Maui's Best Seafood Restaurant as voted by the readers of The Maui News, are grateful, indeed.
"Thanksgiving is very special to us because we have so much to be thankful for," says Floyd. "We're grateful for the people of Maui, our wonderful restaurant, and the great life that we've had here."
* Where: Situated in Kuau Cove off the Hana Highway at 799 Poho Pl. Look for the fishing boat at the entrance.
* Hours: Open daily for lunch from 11 to 2:30; lighter bar fare from 2:30 to 4 p.m. and dinner from 4:15 to 8:45 p.m.
* Menu highlights: I'a maka ahi (poisson cru); crisp mahimahi roll; opakapaka, mahi and ahi sauteed in Panang curry; Hawaiian shrimp won tons; and Tahitian Black pearl dessert.
* For reservations or more details: Call 579-8488; or visit www.mamasfishhouse.com.
The Christensons also had a great, adventurous life even before they moved to Maui. They sailed the high seas to the South Pacific with 2-year-old son, Keith, in tow. They spent four years island hopping and daughter, Karen, was born, taking her first baby steps on their ketch. From New Zealand to Tahiti, the couple had to strap the kids below deck during a hurricane at sea; and they have fond memories of calm waters in French Polynesia.
A wonderful poster of Floyd spearfishing there hangs in the restaurant. It's an image still being used by the Tahitian Visitors Bureau today.
By 1963, they sailed their ketch to Maui, put the kids in school and joined Lahaina Yacht Club, where they ran the the restaurant/bar for a decade, until they bought a beachside shack of an eatery on the north shore.
More back story
Mama's humble beginnings were in what was then a very rough-and-tumble area east of Paia. During the era of the early '70s, visitors who came here dined on steak Diane and other frou-frou European fare, while only local residents ate island fish they caught themselves.
"I remember when they opened Mama's so distinctly," says daughter Karen, who now serves as the vice president of the company, which also encompasses an upscale inn steps from the restaurant.
"It was my 12th birthday. We always went to Chez Paul (former legendary French restaurant in Olowalu) for special occasions. I even remember the dress I had on that day. We were sitting there dining, and my dad pointed his finger right at my face and said, 'Just you wait, little girl. Mama's will be a special occasion place, too, one day.' "
Hilda Costa James was the first chef, the first Mama, and the image of the island woman on the cover of the menu holding fish and a spear is of her. She has since long passed.
Over the years, the Christensons put all of their money into the converted beach house with Polynesian artifacts, local hardwoods, eye-popping tropical flower arrangements, original artwork and much more. Even the pathway is made of gecko-shaped stones a la M.C. Escher, an outrigger canoe rests on the beach fronting the restaurant, and you walk under a banyan archway that was cut and trucked in.
"So much of the inspiration for my parents' restaurant actually came from their time spent in Tahiti," Karen says. "Some people have said that you 'don't get Mama's' unless you've been to Tahiti. To this day, when my dad walks in the door, he invariably turns up the music. In Tahiti, music is everywhere - it's pervasive."
Today, Mama's Fish House has won awards from Trip Advisor's Top 10 Restaurant in the U.S.; Hale Aina's 2014 Gold Best Maui Restaurant and Gold Best Place to Take Visitors; and too many others to list here.
"For the Christensons to take a mom-
and-pop shop and turn it into what is a world-class, award-winning restaurant is amazing," says Executive Chef Perty Bateman. "They are the true pioneers of farm to table, before the term was ever coined. They subsidized a fishing buoy and are launching another one. It's bringing in the spirit of the community. Floyd and Doris and true lovebirds, too. They're inspirational. They don't just talk the talk, they walk the walk. Floyd perpetuates what Hawaii was like when I was growing up."
And, everyone and their mother (pun intended) has gotten a taste of it, from Frank Sinatra to Marlon Brando to Oprah to Helen Hunt. Carlos Santana gave Doris a signed guitar. Leonardo DiCaprio came in discreetly with his family, then afterward stood on the bow of the outrigger ala Titanic-style, for pictures. Steven Tyler walked in and shouted, "I'm heeeere!"
People come for the food and the stellar service. Amuse bouche, or small free tastes, of soup are brought to the table as is freshly baked bread. Cold, lemon-scented towels are presented with a taste of haupia after your fabulous meal. These days, Master Sommelier Patrick Okubo is training staff on the finer points of wine.
"Obviously our focus is on service," says Karen. "People pay top dollar to dine here, and they have extremely high expectations. So we train and train and train."
"We have traveled in over 90 countries and finding a place to eat is always an adventure. We were introduced to Mama's in 1982 and it's become our favorite, not just because of the food and the location, but because of the staff who have become our special friends," say Carol and Bill Eckhoff, who dine there Thursdays.
"One thing we really like is that their menu is always evolving," say Steve and Annie Elkins of Kula. They name the fishermen that catch and deliver the fresh fish daily, and where it was caught. They have a terrific wine list that ranges from great wines to rare wines that would satisfy even the most particular connoisseur."
What's new? Ahi ribs that you pick up and eat with your fingers; and ulu, or breadfruit, ravioli stuffed with lobster, aromatic and divine.
The ribs look prehistoric, but they are full of flavors and richness. Sip a mai tai created by Trader Vic in 1944. Share some ceviche. Look out over the ocean and enjoy.
Of course, you must cap the feast with a creamy and oh-so picture-perfect Tahitian Black Pearl dessert.
Happy anniversary, Mama's!