Hawaiian Aye

If you want aloha, you're better off at Tita's Hale'aina than at Roy's

Let me say this right away: I'm the girl tropical drinks were invented for. I like the flavors of coconut, guava, mango, and papaya, and yo-ho-ho-and-a-bottle-of-rum is quite OK by me, too. If it comes with a paper umbrella, fine.

Within a very few minutes of checking in to our hotel in Maui, on our recent and first visit to Hawaii, my sister and I found ourselves sitting on a terrace, watching a ridiculously beautiful sunset framed by palm trees swaying gently in an honest-to-God warm, sweet trade wind. I was sipping a Haupia, an icy, blended drink named for the local coconut pudding, involving coconut rum, coconut liqueur, and cream (don't laugh, it was delicious) and adorned with a cocktail pick stabbed through a plump maraschino cherry and a wedge of juicy, impossibly good pineapple, which came with every mai tai, daiquiri, Hula Girl, and Lahaina Lemonade I sampled. (I decided right away to try a different drink every day, for research. The best was a mai tai made with fresh juices at a tony upcountry restaurant, and that Haupia, the only drink I felt compelled to repeat; the worst were the acrid, chemical-tasting piña coladas and mai tais served at the luau we felt obliged to attend. For research.)

I ate some extraordinarily good food in Maui, and that's not the rum talking (in fact, at a couple of the best -- and cheapest -- places, rum wasn't even a possibility). The exalted reputations of two related restaurants -- the charming Hali'maile General Store, way inland, a destination restaurant if there ever was one, and the airy, treehouselike Joe's Bar and Grill in Wailea -- are well deserved. At the General Store, we feasted on a generous lobster-and-edamame cocktail and a warm goat cheese tart with curried crab salad, followed by onion-crusted hapu, a local white-fleshed fish, with tender rock shrimp in a coconut butter sauce over shiitake mushroom mashed potatoes, plus a luscious stew of a variety of fish in a green curry made with coconut milk devised by chef Bev Gannon. At her husband Joe's place, we marveled at the creamy crab-and-asparagus soup; sugar snap pea and prosciutto salad dressed with lemon, olive oil, and mint; roasted quail on a bed of peppery greens; and thick pork chop served with spicy stewed fruit. The only disappointment was a stab at surf 'n' turf: The filet mignon was dryish, the Pacific lobster tail overcooked, even on the kitchen's gracious second try.

Lei Abouts: Tita's Hale'aina doesn't have a 
view of the sea, but it's authentically 
Hawaiian.
Anthony Pidgeon
Lei Abouts: Tita's Hale'aina doesn't have a view of the sea, but it's authentically Hawaiian.

Details

Roy's

Ahi poketini $14

Chocolate soufflé $9

Tita's Hale'aina

King Kamehameha combo $14.95

Teriyaki beef $10.95

Teriyaki meatloaf $8.95

Malasadas $3.75

Tita's Delite $4.50

Roy's, 101 Second St. (at Mission), 777-0277. Open Monday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday until 10 p.m.; and Saturday from 5:30 to 10 p.m., Sunday until 9 p.m. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 10, 15, 76. Noise level: moderate.

Tita's Hale'aina, 3870 17th St. (at Noe), 626-2477. Open Tuesday through Friday from 5 to 10 p.m., with a Friday lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Saturday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Monday. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: fairly easy. Muni: 24, 33, 37, F, K, L, M. Noise level: low.

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These were pricey places. The legend on the menu of Wailea's Cheeseburger, Mai Tais, and Rock 'n' Roll -- an offshoot of the Cheeseburgers in Paradise chain -- said that it was founded by two refugees from Orange County who got tired of Hawaii's "nightly $21.95 fresh fish special." In our experience, it was the $32 fresh fish special. (And the cheeseburgers, alas, were overcooked and therefore juiceless, and the mai tais were weak.)

Except at our two favorite bargain finds. The first, the iconic Aloha Mixed Plate in Lahaina, where you'd be hard pressed to spend more than $10 a person (unless you spring for the $12.95 Ali'i Plate: slow-cooked kalua pig and cabbage, lau lau [pork and chicken steamed in taro leaves], lomi lomi salmon, poi, macaroni and cheese, "two scoops rice" on a paper plate -- oh, and haupia pudding thrown in for dessert) for tasty fare (Chinese roast duck redolent of five-spice powder, grilled chicken heady with lime and chile) consumed on a lanai right on the beach, the prettiest setting for a tropical restaurant imaginable. And the other was my dream beach-town restaurant, Alexander's Fish and Chips in Kihei, where you order at a counter your choice of fresh mahi, ono, ahi, clams, shrimp, calamari, oysters, or chicken, deep-fried in a crunchy, lightly herbed tempura batter, or broiled. You get fries with that, plus a little paper cup of coleslaw. That's pretty much it. And it's pretty much perfection, too, at a top price of $9.95 for a combo. I told Wendy I wished it were closer. "Probably better this way," she said, eyeing the completely denuded paper plates in front of us.

We weren't always lucky. I remembered chef Roy Yamaguchi's experiments with fusion cooking in Los Angeles in the mid-'80s; he moved to Hawaii and began opening his numerous Roy's restaurants there in 1988. We had a rather dismal meal at the Roy's in Kahana, set well back from the sea in a shopping mall, where our table afforded us a splendid view of McDonald's. When I sent back a supposedly sesame-seed-encrusted opakapaka because it bore no trace of either sesame seeds or the wasabi mirin butter it was supposed to come with (and was overcooked to boot), the roasted sea bass in a creamy bacon-blue cheese sauce I ordered in its place was brought to our table by a surly manager, who stood over me in a faintly menacing fashion until I took a bite and pronounced it good. (My sister fared much better with her kaffir lime and lemongrass seared swordfish, in an oyster cream sauce.)

We skipped the Roy's in Kihei, whose similar shopping-mall location, set even farther back from the sea, featured fine views of Safeway. Location, location, location, Roy! (I note that his Web site peddles Roy's Fusion Cookware, now available on the Home Shopping Network. He clearly has Wolfgang Puck disease: no reason why a clever chef shouldn't get rich, but not at the expense of my palate.)

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