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.
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.)
Back in the Bay Area and hungry for a little aloha, I took my goddaughter Nora to our local Roy's, finding its SOMA location less incongruous in the city than the concreted-in ones on a supposedly tropical isle. In fact, the high-ceilinged room was quite soothing and elegant, though I was disconcerted by the strong whiff of truffle oil and the bright headlights that swept the room from cars turning onto Mission from Anthony Street. Nora tried the bargain-priced ($30) three-course Hawaiian Fusion Sampler: shrimp stick, Sichuan baby back rib, kalua pork lumpia; roasted macadamia whitefish in lobster butter sauce; chocolate soufflé. I ordered a poketini, massive chunks of spiced deep-red raw ahi with a dab of sour cream and caviar; misoyaki butterfish in soy vinaigrette; and a tiny raspberry chocolate tart with raspberry Bavarian cream. The food was competent but not convincing, the sauces sweet and sticky. We most enjoyed the Frenchy desserts -- and seeing the excitement in the bar when Barry Bonds hit his 661st homer. "He just passed his godfather," I said. "Pass your godmother the salt."
A night later and Nora and I find ourselves in Tita's Hale'aina. The menu looks a lot like Aloha Mixed Plate's (though we have a view of 17th Street, not the sea, yet nicely framed with flowers and a palm tree planted on the sidewalk, and it's raining), but we are delighted when our King Kamehameha combo is even more knowingly cooked than the Ali'i Plate. "This kalua pig," we tell our waitress, "is better than any we had in Hawaii." "That's because it's cooked with love," she says. It is smoky and succulent, with fresh green curls of cabbage. And it rests next to a nice chicken thigh cooked adobo style with vinegar and garlic, a charbroiled Korean-style pork rib, a sturdy chunk of fish, lovely lomi lomi (kind of a salmon ceviche), excellent macaroni salad, and two scoops rice. Nora is surprised to get teriyaki beef when she'd asked for teriyaki meatloaf, but the thin-sliced tri-tip is chewy and satisfying -- and our server gets us a big taste of the tangy meatloaf and doesn't charge us for it, once she hears that Nora has never tasted meatloaf in her otherwise eventful 14 years.
We're very happy with our dinner. Even more so when we finish with malasadas, yeasty Portuguese doughnuts that look like beignets, cooked to order, and a pie called Tita's Delite, our favorite haupia pudding gilded with macadamia nuts and plopped down in a chocolate coconut crust. "I'm going to eat here again for sure," I tell Nora, "on my own money."
We walk out to that marvelous fresh scent you get right after the first rain. "That's called 'petrichor,'" I tell Nora, "which I just learned from my Word-a-Day e-mail." "I love it," she says, feelingly, and I hear a well-fed sound in her voice.