In the two years since it opened, Nalu’s South Shore Grill in Kihei has grown to be a favorite of residents and visitors alike. What’s more, they just launched a new dinner and show concept with Barry Flanagan of Hapa and Eric Gilliom on Saturday nights. They have a winning combination of great food, entertainment and atmosphere. But that wasn’t always the case for this spot in Kihei, which struggled for years. I asked owner Ron Panzo about what made him take the jump with this Azeka location that some thought was cursed.
“I live around the corner,” says Panzo. “So after Lu Lu’s closed I wasn’t ready to quit. Lu Lu’s was such a challenging restaurant in my career. But you know, you learn things. The challenges you face make you reflect on things. Instead of getting down and discouraged you can learn and try to improve. I think Nalu’s is what came out of that experience of Lu Lu’s in a way.”
He says the location intrigued him. He travelled for two years looking for concepts that sparked his interest and kept that spot in mind.
“I live right down the street from this restaurant and I would drive by going to Ace or other places,” says Panzo. “I would look at the place and think, there is all this parking, there are busy locations nearby. There is this incredible view of Ulupalakua and Haleakala. Every morning I am here Haleakala has no clouds she looks so majestic, I just feel her mana as well and the blessings from that. I saw the possibilities. I didn’t understand why nothing had worked here.”
He came up with a menu that bridged local flavors with healthy options, but a completely new way to look at it.
“I spent two years with that place in mind, I went to the Mainland and collected ideas,” says Panzo. “I travelled around to San Francisco, Napa Valley and restaurants in Nevada. I was looking at things that were different than what we had on Maui. I believed a lot of times here on Maui we are on a rock–we watch what each other are doing and come up with our own versions. I really wanted something fresh, something completely new. At the time nobody was doing fried chicken and waffles, and it is such a staple on the Mainland. It wasn’t here on Maui yet. Things like that.”
Doing counter-ordering was also strategic.
“I felt the concept with the counter would allow me to focus on the food,” says Panzo. “With the counter, you don’t need as much labor in the front of the house. You can direct that energy into the kitchen and the food. It’s also about having the right staff. Keeping our turnover low, and keeping the consistency of our dishes. By controlling front of the house resources we put that back into keeping our ingredients local. Our burgers are from Makaweli Ranch–grass fed beef from Kauai. Our produce is local as much as possible. It has been more difficult with Rat Lungworm but we are striving to keep that directive for our produce.”
Nalu’s General Manager, Vanell Kai, has been there since Day One. She says the menu has such a great reception they never launched the dinner menu.
“Ron was a visionary when it comes to our menu concept,” says Kai. “Everybody has enjoyed our breakfast and lunch menu including the salads so it just worked. We had plans for a dinner menu but we never launched it because everyone loves this menu. The favorites are the acai bowl, fried chicken and waffles. The cornflake-crusted French toast is popular, and so are the pancakes! It’s actually tough to name the most popular dishes because so many sell so well. The breakfast salad and loco moco are also top sellers at breakfast.”
Panzo rescued a canoe from Hilo that hangs in the entrance. He credits the trials and tribulations of rescuing this four-person koa canoe from the Big Island towards the success of the restaurant. Minute Stop in Hilo was dropping their ceiling and literally planned to chop the canoe up and throw it in the dumpster. Panzo had to drop everything and fly over to grab it. While there, local lore says the honu on the ‘ama was shedding tears. Panzo thought this might be a bad sign and nearly gave up his effort, until Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner Kimokeo Kapahulehua called him right at that moment of doubt.
“I don’t know if you have ever seen pictures of the Mother Mary with tears of blood, it was the same thing, says Panzo. “The manager from Minute Stop had taken photos and asked if I wanted him to send them to me. I said no, no, no. I was ready to walk away from the canoe at that moment. I didn’t want to bring any bad juju to this location. It’s not like I am superstitious, but I did see the photo, and everyone around me saw it and had the same reaction. My phone started ringing right at that moment. It was Kimokeo Kapahulehua. He had heard through the coconut wireless about the canoe and that I had gone to Hilo to save it. I told him I was there, and what happened with the photo. I said, ‘I don’t think I am going to bring it home.’ I didn’t want to bring any bad energy to that spot. We are talking about a location that struggled for 12 years. Nothing had really worked in there. I said I think I’m going to leave it. He came back and said, ‘No that is our kupuna, you bring it home and I will bless her.’ I believe in Kimokeo, so we brought it back. He believed that the tears we saw were tears of joy, because we were rescuing her.”
Then when they had restored her beauty after days of sanding and varnishing, they were ready to install her in the restaurant.
“We had her on the side of the restaurant,” says Panzo. “It was Mother’s Day, and I thought that was appropriate. Kimokeo said that she comes from a single log of koa, from a single tree in Ka`u. The tree had to be at least 200 years old for it to be this long. We were getting ready to bless her. Four doors down from Nalu’s is Cora’s Flower Shop, they were really busy because it was Mother’s Day. She had family that had come in to help, and around two in the afternoon they came out of the shop exhausted from the day. They perked up when they saw us with the canoe and came toward us to ask us about the boat. They said, our uncle made this canoe. We are all from Hilo. Next thing you know they form a circle around the canoe and Kimokeo gave his blessing and the canoe got its official send off from the Hilo Ohana to its new Maui Ohana. On her bow it says ‘Holomua’ and that is the name of our company. Holomua means to persevere, to move forward. We feel that is a fitting name for her.”
Panzo says the name of the restaurant Nalu’s comes from a different translation of the word than you might think.
“The most popular translation for Nalu is the energy of the ocean that creates the wave,” says Panzo. “There is also a hapa-Hawaiian phrase, with a slang meaning, and that is to go with the flow. That is how we are using Nalu, to go with the flow. Our menu goes with the flow, because it’s seasonal. We have fishing boats that pull up in front of our restaurant to sell us fresh fish. Depending on the bite, we have mahi, ono, or ahi. It’s the same things with the greens. Sometimes we have dragonfruit, sometimes we have mango. In doing this, our menu changes. The menu goes with the flow of nature.”
Make reservations to come see Barry Flanagan and Eric Gilliom and experience their marvelous three course dinner call Nalu’s at 808-891-8650 or visit NalusMaui.com for more information.
Live Dinner Show every Saturday at 6:30pm
Three-course dinner and show $55
Show only $25
1280 S. Kihei Rd.
all images by Sean Hower