There was a collective sigh of dismay when Cilantro closed its doors in Lahaina but Chef/owner Paris Nabavi was just off to bigger and better things–that would be Sangrita Grill and Cantina in Ka’anapali. The cantina was years in the making, and Cilantro was a stepping stone to this beautiful upscale Mexican eatery.
Fans of Cilantro will recognize some of their favorite preparations–like the roasted mother clucker chicken–but the familiarity ends there. Sangrita Grill and Cantina offers unique Mexican cuisine, as well as one of the island’s best collections of mescal and tequilas. Surprisingly, Nabavi says one of the reasons he wanted to open this restaurant was to serve healthy food.
“My philosophy for Sangrita is to promote healthy eating,” he says. “I want to assist with programs which bring healthy eating to every child in Maui County. There was no upscale Mexican restaurant on Maui. Cilantro cuisine was successful but the location was less than ideal. Customers praised the food, but it was hard to make the business work when you had no parking in the evenings. Sangrita is a few steps above Cilantro. We now have a full bar, bathrooms and food is being served on China.”
Sangrita is the most architecturally stunning location at the Ka’anapali Fairway Shops. The artwork on the walls, the mural behind the bar, the full dark wood furniture and the aroma of roasted meats, chiles and tortillas all inspire a hip Latin American vibe.
The menu translates familiar Mexican dishes for new school palates. On a recent visit I gravitated to the grasshopper tacos for shock factor, but I love to order the cocoa braised short rib tacos. They also have ono, steak, chicken, chorizo and shrimp, and the carb-conscious can order them on romaine rather than corn tortilla. It’s the attention to detail that’s brilliant for the modern foodie. They have far more adventurous cuisine than the tacos.
Nabavi employs Eduardo Pineda as Chef de Cuisine, and his passion for his native Mexican cuisine is apparent. You see it in the rich and deep flavors he puts into the sauces and careful roasting of proteins. But the way he embraces contemporary rendering of dishes is what gives them distinction. Ingredients like pineapple, honey, cinnamon, fig, pomegranate, tamarind and hibiscus aren’t new, but at Sangrita they are transformative. They result in dishes like the octopus tiradito with chimichurri, fig mole enchilada with chocolate, nuts, and chiles; and Spanish octopus. Sangrita serves several different guacamoles: the chipotle pineapple has pumpkin seed and bacon while the pomegranate guac has poblano and queso fresco. The chips are are mix of fresh fried flour and corn tortillas.
The ceviche is extraordinary. There is an ahi ceviche with strawberry and avo, a shrimp with watermelon and jicama, mixed seafoods, a mahi mahi and mango cucumber or one with shrimp, ono and octopus in a tomato broth.
“Healthy eating was the reason I became interested in Mexican cuisine, probably one of the most popular cuisines in America,” says Nabavi. “You might be surprised to discover that Mexican food is exceptionally healthy. The cuisine uses very little butter, cream and no flour-based sauces. All of our sauces are meatless and are thickened with vegetables purees.”
Nabavi says his “road to Sangrita” involved a few detours during trips he’s taken to Mexico.
“I discovered the amazing balance of flavors in Mexican cooking and was inspired to open Cilantro,” he says. “I continued to push the bar as I gathered inspiration for Sangrita, exploring many US/Mexican restaurants like Rosa Mexicana, Maya, Fonda San Miguel and Border Grill. The result is a contemporary style of Mexican cooking, applying some principles of European cuisine to create modern Mexican food.”
Also, you can’t eat at Sangrita without trying the avocado fries at least once. The cilantro pesto aioli alone is worth it. I love avocado, so the warm creamy flesh flecked with a crispy panko-like coating is akin to eating chips and guacamole. The restaurant recently added some dishes to their menu as well, like their seafood chili relleno, which is incredible.
“A successful restaurant is always looking to develop recipes to better serve their customers,” says Nabavi. “I am constantly checking with my customers and experimenting to see what they like and adjust accordingly. There is a period in the beginning of any restaurant where the kitchen needs to get comfortable working together. I feel we are reaching some harmony and our staff are getting more comfortable with the prep and executions. Recipes are continuously being refined to create a balance of flavors.”
The cantina offers more than 30 tequilas, and of course when you order a shot of Blanco, it’s served with a house-made sangrita, a traditional accompaniment when you drink it in Mexico. The cocktail menu features house-made sangritas, six margaritas, martinis and mojitos. Happy hour runs 3-6pm daily with discounts on food and drink, but you can also check out Margarita Mondays for $7 house margaritas all day, or Taco Tuesday for discounted tacos all day. Kama’aina enjoy 15 percent off their bill with Hawaii ID. Sangrita also has live music every Wednesday night from 5:30pm and, on “Final Friday Fiesta,” live Flamenco music by Indio & Avi.
All photos by Sean Hower
Sangrita Grill + Cantina Live Music
2580 Kekaa Dr., Ka’anapali
Live Music Every Wednesday Night, 5:30-7:30 pm
Final Friday Fiesta, Final Friday of Every Month, 6:30-8:30 pm, Live Flamenco Music by Indio & Avi
15% Kamaaina Discount (off of food only), All Day Every Day, Valid Hawaii ID
Margarita Monday, $7 House Margaritas All Day
Taco Tuesdays, Discounted Tacos All Day
Happy Hour, 3-6 pm Daily, Discounted Food and Beverage