Of all the awards won by Mama’s Fish House in Paia, it was the Travel & Holiday Award – Hawaii’s Best Kept Secret – that made me laugh. Best kept secret?! Mama’s Fish House consistently ranks on every Top Ten List of Maui Restaurants. It’s also on most Top Ten List of Things To Do since Mama’s is an experience as much as a place to dine.
Round the curve on the two-lane highway beyond Pa`ia, turn at the meticulously restored, permanently parked surf wagon, hand over your vehicle to the valet, meander down the path fashioned of artistically designed gecko shaped stones, then gasp at sight of the coconut grove framing sybaritic views of the crashing surf. Linger before strolling through the arbor preceding the hostess stand. From there you will be guided to your table through the eclectic structure festooned with brilliant floral arrangements, thatched roofs, and oriental rugs. This is how it must have been a hundred years ago in Hawaii when westerners brought their treasured, albeit out of place, upscale possessions and mingled them with lauhala mats and coconut trees. There aren’t many places like this left in Hawaii.
There is a part of me that wishes I didn’t like Mama’s so much – the part that manages my budget. It’s well known that before you even step inside you must get past the fact this romantic, delicious, picture-postcard perfect place will cost you dearly — like most things we love and just gotta have.
The online menu doesn’t even list prices – but read a few posts on travel message boards and you’ll get some idea. “Our lunch was over $200!!” “I expected this meal to be pricey but I didn’t expect to pay $350 for three!” “Sixteen dollars for a Mai Tai? The Four Seasons only charges $12!” Mama’s fees are hefty, so it’s inevitable someone will occasionally feel a bit let down.
Much more often you’ll read that this high priced, far-flung outpost of Tahiti (it’s really more South Seas than Hawaiian if you look closely) is worth every penny. “A must –do for everyone on every trip to Maui!” enthuses one reviewer. In spite of the fact dinner at Mama’s is probably the most expensive meal many tourists will enjoy on vacation, most seem to walk away hypnotized, wrapped in Mama’s undeniable spell.
What makes it so worth it? I can attest the food is good. Some dishes are even stupendous. If you are in the mood for a special dessert, the Black Pearl tops the charts. The Poisson Cru renders a trip to Tahiti unnecessary. The ahi couldn’t be any fresher unless you were on the boat when they pulled it in.
Mama’s is known for fresh fish taken from the water that morning with the name of the fisherman and location of catch often noted on the menu. In truth, fish pulled from the sea hours before it’s served is standard at many Maui restaurants. Although Chef Perry Bateman was named Best Chef 2009 in a readers poll conducted by Maui No Ka Oi Magazine, there are other great chefs on Maui who are quite skilled and innovative, especially with fish.
When people travel to Maui from the mainland fantasizing about a little grass shack on the beach, they are actually thinking of Mama’s which essentially personifies the tropical dream. The setting, views, distinctive décor, and overall appeal of the place are simply unmatched.
There are very few, if any, places like Mama’s that are open to the public in Hawaii. Although the restaurant has expanded over the years into a huge, rambling dining room, most guests never notice the banquet hall parameters of the place. They are only aware it is a restaurant they will never forget. And yes, the fish is fresh and excellently prepared.