Coconut’s Fish Cafe

Coconut’s Fish Cafe
1279 South Kihei Road #304 in the Azeka Center
Open daily 11am-9pm

If I had my way, restaurants would be judged on the basics—things like sauces and dressings. For example: at a typical fish place, the traditional cocktail sauce is ketchup, horseradish and lemon, right? Well, not at Coconut’s Fish Cafe in Kihei. Thanks to its eight secret ingredients—including a touch of cilantro—this cocktail is subtle and light.

The words light (and healthy) don’t usually come to mind when you’re talking about fish and chips…or shrimp and chips… or calamari and chips. But, thanks to owner Mike Phillips, his fish menu at Coconut’s is very close to being fat free.

Mike’s been in the restaurant business—serving mostly Italian food—for more than 30 years where, he points out, nothing was low fat. But when he got healthy himself 15 years ago he committed himself to providing healthy food to his customers. In fact, he says he hates traditional fried food. Very difficult, you might say, when you serve fish and chips. Not so, according to Mike. It’s about the fish, not the batter. The goal, he says, is light (there’s that word again) rather than the traditional heavy batter.

The on-the-side coleslaw is another feat of culinary engineering. Mike’s daughter, Frances, experimented with 13 different recipes until she hit upon the right one. The result? Not too creamy, not too dry and (you guessed it) almost fat free.

One of the most popular lunch items is the Caesar salad—Coconut’s sells as many as 30 of these at lunchtime. The secret is in the details. The lettuce is cold water-bathed for freshness and the dressing, developed by Mike’s mom, takes a day to prepare. I often gauge a restaurant by the quality of its Caesar and as far as I was concerned they had me at salad.

The calamari and chips are also nautical miles away from the traditional tangle of tentacles and rubbery rings. They’re made by slicing actual calamari steaks so that they’re meatier, in a fish sort of way. The fish tacos, made with grilled ono or mahi mahi, are moderately spiced and topped with tomato, cheese, coleslaw and mango salsa.

It’s obvious fish burgers are their signature item—because it says so on the menu. You can have them served on wheat or freshly baked sesame seed buns that are delivered daily. Or get them minus the bun, on white or brown rice. Mike points out that while Maui is traditionally white rice country, he serves a lot of brown rice with the burgers.

What sets these burgers apart is the choice of preparations. While this feature is usually only available at high-end restaurants, Coconut’s gives you your burger multiple ways: grilled butter, salt and pepper; south of the border with Ortega Chile; blackened, Cajun, lemon butter; and my favorite, Asian Flair with soy and wasabi, a sauce with a real kick, developed by Mike’s ex-wife.

If you’re able to look past the food, check out the décor. The tables are carved like surfboards—complete with fins up—and the benches are shaped like paddles.

Mike and his ohana are in the process of opening another location in Lahaina and hope to take the experience to Oahu sometime after that. Proving what a true family affair Coconut’s is: the restaurant is named for the family cat—who should be pleased with the menu. Maui Time Weekly, Nancy Kanyuk