Kāko‘o Maui: Insider’s Guide to Eating Local on Maui
A Maui chef and food truck owner shouts out 16 small local food businesses worth visiting across the Valley Isle.
In the weeks since the fires, Kyle Kawakami, chef and owner of the food truck Maui Fresh Streatery, has been using his Instagram to spotlight struggling small local food businesses. He’s shouted out other restaurants, chefs and mom-and-pops donating meals and food. He’s organized a dinner and trampoline night for displaced keiki and their families. He’s given over his truck to Sheldon Simeon’s Tin Roof and Tiffany’s Maui to cook balatong and adobo for Lahaina residents living without electricity.
And he’s posted this standing offer: “If you have been affected by the Lahaina fires and been displace[d] because of a loss of home, lost a job, had hours cut because of economic downturn, or any other hardship, and you see us out serving food … please No Be Shame! Come up and let us know you would like a meal and we got you taken care of.”
A Kula boy, Kawakami taught culinary students at Maui Community College before opening Maui Fresh Streatery 10 years ago “not just as a livelihood and a way to sell food,” he told feedinghawaii.org, “but if there’s ever a hurricane or a tsunami, I have a big red disaster response vehicle that’s ready to go.” He kept his word during previous disasters including COVID-19, using his reach to partner with other businesses to feed those in need.
So when we asked Kawakami for his ground-level suggestions for vulnerable eateries that visitors can help support, “There’s so many places I could name,” he said, “but [for this list] I’m looking at how local they are, how small, what kind of impact they have on the local community, guys that support farming. Just small business. And I’m thinking of people that stepped up to feed people.”
Here’s his list of where to eat on Maui.
Kihei Food Oasis
Kawakami: “This is a conglomeration of mom-and-pop food trucks in the Kalama Park area. Couple of notable trucks are Wing Kings—a small operation with a whole bunch of different barbecue wings and a great chicken burger—Thai Mee Up and Kitoko Maui. Those are all small guys that are more tourism-based, so I know they’re kind of hurting.”
30 Alahele Pl., Kihei, @kiheifoodoasis
Three’s Bar & Grill and Fork & Salad
Kawakami: “They are huge on purchasing local. Big supporter of local produce and local farmers, and now we have less purchasing from the farmers. Fork & Salad’s wraps and salads are really good, their Thai green papaya salad is really good and their Buddha bowl. They have a Kumu Farms roasted eggplant wrap that I like a lot. I am not a vegetarian, but I do eat vegetarian when I go there.”
The restaurants share the same owners but are very different in concept. Three’s has sushi, salads, sandwiches, entrees and appetizers, and since Sept. 1, all-day happy hour for kama‘āina with Hawai‘i ID.
Fat Daddy’s Smokehouse
Kawakami: “The chef and owner, Chris Schobel, as soon as the disaster occurred, he partnered with Operation BBQ Relief from the mainland. He pretty much closed down his restaurant and they did barbecue plates for those in need. Their brisket burnt ends and cornbread are really good.”
Open Wednesday to Sunday from 4 to 8 p.m., 1913 S. Kihei Road, Kihei, (808) 879-8711, @fatdaddysmaui
Kawakami: “Tin Roof is definitely feeling the pinch. They’re close to the airport and got dominated so much by tourists that the locals had a hard time going. But Tin Roof and Sheldon [Simeon]’s humanitarian efforts have been notable. He was one of the very first chefs to step up to start doing meals at [Maui Community College] the day after the fires broke out. Tin Roof is known for their mochiko chicken.”
Plate Lunch Marketplace
Kawakami: “The food trucks in that lot depend really heavily on tourists. Thai Mee Up is popular—I love their Thai-style fried pork ribs and Plantation Plates. Havens for their smash burgers. Geste Shrimp, they’re the closest thing Maui has to Giovanni’s.”
591 Haleakalā Hwy, Kahului, @platelunch_marketplace
This mom-and-pop food truck was launched by a part-time teacher and a police officer who quit their jobs to spend more time with their growing family. Aside from its Hawaiian, local and Puerto Rican dishes, including empanadas, Pastele House is known for providing free meals to keiki every day the truck is open.
Kawakami: “Devin and Cristina Pagaduan have been in the food truck game for quite a while and are very actively involved in the community. When the fires hit, they took their food truck out there and provided free meals.”
Though based in Wailuku and Kahului, they still drive out to West Maui with free hot meals and bentos.
(808) 283-9817, @pastele_house
Maui Specialty Chocolates
Kawakami: “We did an event where we served 400 meals and opened up a jumping house for displaced people. Maui Specialty Chocolates donated 300 individually packaged mochi, so 300 meals got a little dessert treat from them. Tony [Jones], the guy that owns it, he’s also involved in taiko so we had Zenshin Daiko performing there as well.
“I like the Kona coffee dark chocolate, individual pieces of chocolate that’s mixed in with Kona coffee. Of course their number 1 best seller is the chocolate peanut butter mochi. They definitely depend on people traveling from neighbor islands that pick up omiyage to take home.”
Kawakami: “S&J Bakery has been a partner of mine. Two generations of the Koga family, they donate pies. When we were doing Thanksgiving meals for seniors, they donated so many pumpkin and custard pies. Whenever we do charitable work, they are always there to support us. They do not have a retail store, but you can find their manju and pies at places like Island Grocery Depot and Pukalani Superette. My personal favorite of their pies? Chocolate haupia.”
401 Ho‘okahi St., Wailuku, (808) 244-7547
Kawakami: “They are a small little sushi spot-slash-kinda izakaya, one of the only places that’s actually open at night in Wailuku. [Chef-owner Jayse Sato] does Japanese-inspired cuisine but he throws his own flair in it. Everybody knows you, when you walk in everybody says hi. Every time I go, I know at least four or five people that are eating in there.
“They just hosted a huge fundraiser for Isaac [Bancaco, executive chef of Pacific’o, which was lost to the fires]. La Birria tacos from O‘ahu came to Maui for a two-day fundraising event at Umi Sushi. I heard they sold something like 4,000 tacos with all the proceeds going to Chef Isaac.”
Kalei’s Lunch Box
Started in Lahaina as a food truck, Kalei’s now has two brick-and-mortar locations. It continues to match donations to support relief efforts and has long offered a daily $5 Cheap Eats meal.
Kawakami: “They did quite a bit of meals for displaced people in Upcountry Maui. They’re directly across the street from the [Hannibal Tavares] Community Center, which served as the shelter. As soon as it opened, they just started delivering food right there. If you’re looking for a good local plate lunch, the breaded beef teriyaki is my favorite. Their menu is can’t go wrong, it’s just local classics.”
Kawakami: “You know it’s old school when they call it a lunch wagon and not a food truck. Jason Lee is a one-man show. Drove out to Lahaina and distributed bunch of chicken hekka plates and fresh fruits to the Lahaina communities when they didn’t have power. Chicken katsu, luau stew, pastele stew. All old school.”
55 Kiopa‘a St., Pukalani, text orders to (808) 385-6889, @leekamlunchwagon
‘Ulupalakua Ranch Store
Kawakami: “They have some of the best burgers on the island—Maui beef, Maui lamb or Maui elk burgers. Super good.”
Free-range, grass-fed, all-beef burgers here can’t get any more farm to table—because all of it comes from Triple L Ranch, founded by Louis De Ponte Sr. in 1950 and still run by his family. Aside from raising cattle for beef, the farm offers Upcountry horseback tours. Bully’s menu has a pay-it-forward section for those who want to donate burger meals to struggling keiki, kūpuna or ‘ohana, all of it discounted 10%.
Kawakami: “They’re a little stand that’s part of the family ranch in ‘Ulupalakua—a grill, a sink and a refrigerator with outside seating, some of which is literally saddles. I recommend the mushroom Swiss burger. It’s way off the grid. No power, barely anybody lives out there.”
Kawakami: “They’re your quintessential surf town cuisine, margaritas and Mexican food. Really good burritos and burgers and happy hour cocktails. They’ve been there a long time, locally owned, a single outlet.”
Only ‘Ono BBQ
Kawakami: “They’re a husband-and-wife operation that opens two days a week—a Saturday lunchtime dim sum menu where you have to make reservations and you pull up your car and they bring it out to your car and a Sunday night market. Keith Apana, he just does whatever he feels like doing for his dim sum menu. He has the best roast pork on the island. Hands down. Comparable to any roast pork on O‘ahu. Crispy skin, chop up the meat kine roast pork, not the kind with gravy.”