From the moment you step into Santa Fe Cantina in Lahaina, you begin to forget you’re in Hawaii. That may sound like not such a good thing to those of us who love living on this island paradise, but hear me out: You’re not so much transported away from Maui as you are taken to somewhere else.
That somewhere else is the American Southwest, a singular land of adobe buildings, big sweeping skies, strikingly gorgeous red rock formations—and some seriously delicious cuisine.
The eats at Santa Fe are mostly reminiscent of what you and I would call “Mexican food,” but the dishes actually bring together a desultory array of styles and influences. “New Mexican food incorporates Mexican, Native American and Anglo ingredients,” the back page of Santa Fe’s menu informs you.
And, indeed, you’ll notice a subtle but marked difference between the fare at Santa Fe and more traditional Mexican restaurants. The pork al pastor tacos are an excellent example. Wrapped in a soft corn tortilla and garnished with onion, cilantro and lime, the tacos are made truly special by their filling. A delicate, mouthwatering combination of marinated red chile (different in spelling and style from the Tex-Mex “chili”), pineapple and slow-roasted pork, the concoction is a perfect balance of sweet and savory, with just a touch of spice.
That same balance is struck in the grilled steak chimichanga, though here the culinary scales are tipped slightly more on the spicy side. Wrapped in a crisp fried tortilla and augmented by lettuce, tomato, beans and Spanish rice, the steak has a wonderfully distinct taste and texture. But what really unifies the dish is what it’s smothered in: a red, green or mixed “Christmas” (which I opted for) chile sauce that’s got enough of a kick to bring water to the backs of your eyes but that doesn’t overwhelm the other flavors.
If your palate needs cooling, there are a number of intriguing libations available, including the Maui Margarita, a mix of tequila, lime and triplesec, plus mango and pomegranate juice, or a glass of sangria, a traditional Spanish wine punch. (Those who enjoy convivial imbibing should also make time for the 3-6pm happy hour, featuring $2 tacos and $3 domestic drafts.)
Backtracking a bit to the appetizer phase, a highly recommended option (and one that came free with the purchase of two regular entrees when my wife and I dined on July 24) is the chile con queso, a bowl filled with tomatoes and chiles floating in creamy melted cheese, served with all the warm salty tortilla chips you need to soak it up. The only challenge with this enticing pupu is to not eat so much that you don’t have room for the rest of your meal.
After all that hearty fare we hardly had room for dessert, but it’s tough to pass on the sopapilla, a crisp cinnamon and sugar pastry coated in a caramel-based cajeta sauce and paired with a scoop of sweet, cool Lappert’s vanilla ice cream.
If all that isn’t reason enough to transport yourself—and your taste buds—to another place for the length of a dinner (or breakfast or lunch, they serve all three), I don’t know what is. MTW