799 Poho Place, Paia, 96779
Mama’s Fish House is the quintessential Maui dining experience. So it is a little embarrasing to admit I’d never had more than cocktails and pupus here.
From the moment you turn off Hana Highway at their landmark boat and roll down their seaside driveway, your senses are stimulated. The strip of Kuau land the restaurant and inn occupy is geologically well-endowed, with its own private beach and coconut grove; guests are invited to stroll at their leisure and take photos. When you check in with the hostess behind the banyan tree archway the excitement is palpable and the smells are already fantastic.
The retro-Polynesian charm is genuine. Owners Floyd and Doris Christenson fell in love with the South Pacific and have been traveling throughout the region for many years. (Check out some old photos and clippings here of their incredible adventures before Mama’s) The vintage tableclothes, the old architecture, the antiques and music all harken you back to a time in the islands it would be difficult to capture anywhere, but they do it well here. I have never seen as many vintage aloha prints in one room as I did on the restaurant servers. Making reservations ensures you get to take advantage of the best seats and service but if you happen by they try to accommodate as best they can.
There is a fantastic orchestration going on behind the scenes with your meal. A lot of it begins with Mama’s Fish House Fish Guru, Mike Pascher, who works with the boats and fishermen bringing in the fish that appear with their names on the menu. Pascher says, “If you are eating closed season fish it is coming from imports. You won’t see that here at Mama’s.” Four master cutters get to work on the fish before handing it off to Executive Chef Perry Bateman, and his team of Sous Chefs Harold Symonds, Tom Sawatsanthia and Kapuni Tupua. The beautiful ingredients come to life with the team in the kitchen. Chef Perry has a mantra for them, saying “Tasting is essential. Everyone taste, communicate, and work in harmony!”
The menu is absolutely a work of harmony. The key players are Floyd and Doris Christenson who have created their masterpiece of collaboration between their tahitian and polynesian bounty inspired dishes, fresh Maui ingredients, and Chef Perry and his team. The Christenson’s philosophy has been all about Mama’s since opening their doors in ’73 and it continues to this day. Their intense focus and fondness for Mama’s has evolved the restaurant into the dining experience it is today. They often dine in their restaurant, meaning you still get glimpses of Mama in her element.
By far the menu favorite is the Mama’s stuffed Mahi Mahi. I recently visited Yelp to reminisce my Mama’s mahi experience with others. People all over the world love this dish. Mahi baked to perfection with a stuffing of lobster, crab and aromatic Maui onion, served with grilled corn, asparagus and rice pilaf. I ordered a side of poi, they have the most incredible fresh poi at Mama’s. You certainly cannot miss trying one of their fresh raw fish starters, the ono in coconut milk is served in the coconut shell poisson cru style. This is a direct reminder that the polynesians were foodies, and had an incredible menu themselves. Your meal starts with complementary warm fresh baked honey wheat bread and an elegant soup tasting served in a glazed ceramic cup. The lobster guacamole is a favorite of mine, the lobster is incredible topping the quac and served with sweet potato crisps that I kept snacking on throughout my meal.
Their crab cakes are also fantastic. The macadamia highlights the irresistible texture of the fresh crab meat seasoned and lightly fried, and the housemade relish adds lightness. There are a few items not on the menu so listen to your server, and don’t shy away from trying these exotic specialties of Mama’s kitchen. While at Mama’s I had the Kama, or fish collar, deep fried and served with dipping sauce and cucumber namasu. The tender fish chunks in the cheeks are prized for flavor.
With so many amazing things to try on the menu it will be hard to hold out for dessert. They have a fantastic dessert menu, so much so you could make the trip just for dessert and coffee, but I will give you a tip, they make their own ice cream and you can always fit in a frozen treat, right? They make small batches so the flavors change often, when I last visited the mint cookies and cream was so good I wanted to order a pint to take home. The chocolate Kuau pie is absolutely for chocoholics with a caramel layer in between a rich the rich ganache mouse and cookie crust. They are most famous for the Polynesian Black Pearl, that is served in an elaborate pastry shell. Their dessert was featured on the Best Thing I Ever Ate on Food Network earlier this year where the chefs and stars get to choose their fav items.
The experience at Mama’s is just that, a whole body, mind and soul food experience, its not everyday fare. But everyone should treat themselves to a bit of the Mama’s experience from time to time. Allow yourself the pleasure of this food and ambience.