At first impression, Haiku comes off as a sleepy village with not much going on. But those of us who have lived there or currently do know there’s a vibrant community behind all the greenery and quiet roads, with the two canneries, Haiku and Pauwela, forming the commercial foundation. If you haven’t visited lately there are lots of reasons to.
At the Haiku Town Center across from the Haiku Cannery, a new restaurant, Max, has emerged from the abrupt closing of another. The new owners, John and Cristina Graziano, are forthcoming in their honesty and admit they aren’t seasoned restaurateurs. But, they’re quick to add, that has allowed them to stick to their guns and not skimp on the quality of their produce and ingredients—almost to a fault. Their ultimate aim is to provide good food at a great price, even if it cuts into the bottom line. That’s a length most seasoned food and beverage people won’t go to.
I can appreciate this rookie enthusiasm. And I appreciated the food, too. My first lunch was Caesar salad and a veggie sandwich, with a pizza to go. It was quiet in the restaurant as I slid in at the buzzer (lunch ends at 2:30pm). Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” was playing as I took in the pleasant green and brown decor accented with large canvas paintings of giant flowers and bamboo. The Caesar was huge, a meal in itself with authentic dressing and crisp, buttery croutons. The veggie sandwich was a masterpiece, arriving on toasted focaccia, stuffed with romaine, tomato, carrot shreds, red onion, avocado, grilled eggplant and cucumber with a tasty pesto spread. The really amazing thing about this sandwich was it was good the next day; the veggies went the distance and the bread was still soft.
Pizza is one of their signature items and worth ordering every time you stop by. The thin crust, handmade with organic flour, is full of great crust traits: a bit savory, chewy and crisp outside, soft inside. The ham was juicy and tender and the pineapple provided a fresh blast of fruit flavor with every bite.
Max also offers a delivery service, which makes me a bit jealous (there was no delivery service when I lived in Haiku!). Their voice-guided GPS-packing drivers will even go as far as Pukalani and Paia for hungry peeps.
My return trip to Max was a Friday night family event and the place was hoppin’. Benny Uetaki was strumming his island vibes, and the dining room was full. We opted for a booth to contain my unruly 3-year-old and settled in with the menu. The restaurant is a crossroads for Haiku neighbors and we saw lots of Upcountry friends fly by picking up take-out or dropping in to eat.
We dove into a plate of spicy chicken wings for starters. Owner John Graziano explained the wing recipe is uncommon, featuring smaller, less fatty fried wings. They went down fast, easy and just as messy as their more common counterparts. Next up, my dining mates and I ordered the island-grazed beef Milanese sandwich, chicken breast Parmesan and the BBQ baby back ribs. All were fantastic. The half-rack of ribs came with sautéed veggies, spaghetti with marinara and a salad for $15; all were prepared well, the ribs just barely clinging to the bone and smothered with a tangy peppery housemade BBQ sauce. My 3-year-old food critic put in her vote for the spaghetti, finishing it with a few big sloppy swoops of her hand. Somebody mentioned an improvement in the chicken breast Parm sandwich from the last time, a sure sign the kitchen is making an extra effort to fine-tune its repertoire.
Max is working hard for the East Maui and Upcountry crew and is looking to make itself a destination for family- and date-nights alike. They’ve got a kid-friendly menu, seductive chocolate desserts and a welcoming vibe, plus a pizza menu I can’t stop thinking about. They’re also conscious about supporting local growers and using organic ingredients. With daily specials to boot, there are more than enough reasons for folks from all over the island to head to the country for a delicious meal. MTW