Popular Maui Seafood Restaurant Reels in Three Hale ‘Aina Awards
The next time you’re on Maui, make a stop at Mama’s Fish House.
2016 Hale ‘Aina Awards: Best Seafood and Best Place to Take Visitors, Gold, Best Maui Restaurant, Silver — Mama’s Fish House
IN 1984, HONOLULU MAGAZINE ESTABLISHED ITS HALE ‘AINA AWARDS AS THE ISLANDS’ FIRST LOCAL RESTAURANT AWARDS. OVER THE PAST 32 YEARS, THE HALE 'AINA AWARDS ARE THE MOST PRIZED DINING AWARDS IN THE ISLANDS. CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE.
Mama’s macadamia-nut ono.
Photo: tony novak, courtesy of mama’s fish house
Long before the locavore movement caught on nationwide, Floyd and Doris Christenson forged relationships with the fishers and farmers working within 200 miles of their restaurant in Kū‘au. For the past 43 years, Mama’s Fish House has showcased Hawai‘i’s most delicious natural resources—particularly the fresh fish culled from Island waters.
“It’s our middle name,” quips executive chef Perry Bateman. Impeccably fresh fish is what made Mama’s famous, and what keeps locals and visitors hooked. It’s also what garnered the restaurant gold Hale ‘Aina Awards for Best Seafood and Best Place to Take Visitors, plus a silver award for Best Maui Restaurant. The menu, which changes daily, lists who caught which fish and where. Preparations emphasize simplicity, letting each fish’s distinct flavor shine through. Bateman’s onaga, for example, is steamed with Hāna ginger—a spartan recipe that only works with delicate fillets at the peak of freshness.
The “Papa’s Sashimi” appetizer spotlights an especially flavorful trio: Slivers of ruby red ‘ahi are lightly spiked with ponzu sauce and kukui nuts. Soft chunks of papaya lend sweetness to lemongrass-scented ono sprinkled with green chili and pink Moloka‘i sea salt. A smear of savory fig jam accentuates the meaty Kona kampachi, paired with tart tamarind and sweet Maui onion.
“Every dish supports at least one fisherman and four or five local farmers,” says Bateman. “Hopefully that adds more flavor to the dish.”
Some local farms don’t need any other accounts; Mama’s buys everything they grow. Others make seasonal appearances. This past autumn, Hashimoto Farm’s glossy orange persimmons accented several dishes: ‘ahi grilled in fragrant ti leaf with persimmon and mango, and a salad studded with the crunchy Kula fruits, heart of palm, goat cheese and macadamia nuts.
“We’re just a mom-and-pop restaurant,” says Bateman. “We’re nothing compared to a hotel, but we do make an impact.”
Ono with calamansi and pink ala‘e sea salt in Papa’s Sashimi Trio.
Photo: Epes Sargent, Courtesy of Mama’s Fish House
As one of the state’s most sought-after restaurants, Mama’s feeds as many as 1,000 a day. How does the kitchen keep its commitment to sourcing locally?
Bateman credits his top-class crew. “When you have a menu dependent on what’s available, local and in season, you need an experienced team to successfully put it out.” Many of the 300-plus employees have logged three decades at Mama’s. They’re familiar with the restaurant’s storehouse of recipes and can respond without missing a beat when fishermen knock on the back door with glistening tako caught early that morning.
“Our staff can change the menu on a dime. For instance, we might run out of ginger-crusted ‘ahi, but, later in the day, it’s back on the menu because we just got more fish.”
Not long ago, the Christensons funded two deep-water buoys to attract pelagic species, making it easier for both commercial and subsistence fishers to find their catch. Mama’s pays top dollar for good quality—which means local fishermen don’t have to empty the reefs to make a living. They’re encouraged to report what they catch through a form on the Mama’s website. This allows wildlife managers to monitor the health of the state’s fisheries.
“We depend on our resources. We mālama (care for) them because, without them, we wouldn’t be successful,” says Bateman. “It’s not just the fishermen, it’s the growers, ranchers and everyone in between.”
Over the years, Bateman has watched local farm production increase due to demand. Every day, his kitchen staff turns steamed taro into 30 to 40 pounds of poi, far sweeter than the days-old sour poi sold in supermarkets. Taro is just one of many traditional Hawaiian ingredients on the menu: There’s also wild boar, breadfruit and pohole fern, all grown nearby.
“By dining out, guests are really helping Hawai‘i become more self-sufficient,” says Bateman. “That’s what it’s all about when you’re on a little island.”