With the days getting shorter and the temperature crisper, I start thinking about winter getaways – especially Hawaii.
I read that in the Maori culture in the South Pacific, Tiki was the first man, created by the deity Tumatauenga or Tane. Reflecting that mythology, tiki (lower case) is a wooden or stone carving in humanoid form.
And here I thought it was simply a cocktail vessel – a forgivable error, perhaps, for those of us who came of age in the 1950s, the heyday of Polynesian restaurants, with their fun-loving, wretched excess of flaming torches, rum punches and rattan furniture. I’m convinced that tiki culture, as most Americans know it, was born in the restaurant industry.
Polynesian restaurants sprang up all over the country after World War II. Those of you with parents from Minneapolis: If they were dating each other in the 1950s, go to your family photo albums. Odds are you’ll find the happy couple memorialized in a shot taken by the house photographer at the Waikiki Room (in the long-since-demolished Hotel Nicollet).
Every city of significant size had a tiki-themed restaurant. Chicago alone had Kon Tiki Ports, The Polynesian Village and Cirals’ House of Tiki, plus outposts of the national Tiki concepts. (Today they’re all gone, but at least one new place has emerged: Three Dogs and a Dash, a tiki-themed cocktail bar on North Clark Street.)
Some folks say that the tiki movement was inspired by World War II vets that served in the South Pacific. Others credit the movement to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s hit musical, SOUTH PACIFIC.
As far as I’m concerned, the real credit for the Polynesian restaurant phenomenon in America belongs to the men who recognized and capitalized on the public’s fascination with the tropical: Vic Bergeron, who started TRADER VIC’S (signature cocktail: the rum-loaded NAVY GROG) and Donn Beach, who birthed DON THE BEACHCOMBER (home of the equally boozy FOG CUTTER). Both men went on to build restaurants across America.
Incidentally, both men also quarreled to their death over which one invented the MAI TAI, the mother of all tropical cocktails.
Over the years, the popularity of tiki restaurants has ebbed and flowed. Trader Vic’s and Don the Beachcomber expanded aggressively from their birthplaces in California. Some locations took, others didn’t. (Today there are many more Trader Vic’s in foreign countries than in the United States). One thing we know for sure: Diners LOVED being transported for a couple of hours to Hawaii and the South Pacific. The tropical music, exotic cocktails garnished with tiny umbrellas and gardenias…
And then there was the food: Pu-pu platters…rumaki (deep-fried bacon-wrapped pieces of chicken liver with water chestnuts)…Crab Rangoon (deep-fried wontons stuffed with cream cheese and crab)…fried rice…baby barbecue ribs (often sickeningly sweet, and irresistibly so)…chicken chow mein (a WTF dish if ever there were one)…and of course Sweet and Sour Pork.
Over time, the food fell out of favor, mostly because it got so bad. Was it greed that did it in? Maybe. Crab Rangoon, for example, eventually lost the crab and became just deep fried wontons stuffed with cream cheese. Finally, in the last days of Polynesian cuisine, buffets were introduced masquerading as luaus.
But tiki restaurants still endure – though not that many of them…
Enter MAMA’S FISH HOUSE!!
Situated on the north shore of Maui, MAMA’S is, in my opinion, one of the two best restaurants in all of Hawaii (along with Alan Wong’s).
Tropical breezes waft into Mama’s “open to the water” dining rooms overlooking a secluded bay near the town of Paia. It’s beautiful, serene and… bursting with over-the-top tiki tchotchkes.
But guess what? The food is so well-prepared, so fresh and artfully plated, that Mama’s demands to be taken seriously. Here the seafood on your plate was most likely swimming just a few hours before. Mama’s, in fact, has a small fleet of seasoned fishermen who supply her. And she celebrates each of them on her menu with descriptions like, “ONO, caught by Shawn Conners trolling in the Alenuihaha Channel.”
Reserve well in advance of your visit, and try to snag a window table (a tip: you’ll probably fare better if you have your hotel concierge book it for you – and if you can be flexible on the time).
Of course, you’ll start with a Mai Tai or two. For apps, consider the a trio of sashimi, lobster guacamole, ahi tuna, and ono ceviche in a coconut.
Mains could include grilled whole fish (the catch of the day), grilled mahi-mahi,, panko-crusted ahi tuna, Tristan Island lobster, a variety of Penang curries, grilled calamari steak and stuffed shrimp, as well as opakapaka (pink snapper) and onaga (long-tail red snapper) depending on the day’s catch. Check out the attached images….
Finally, dessert: a coconut/macadamia nut ice cream sundae, Kuau chocolate pie, coconut chiffon cake, and Mama’s signature, THE BLACK PEARL – decadent chocolate mousse resting on passion fruit cream, encased in a pastry clam shell.
MAMA’S FISH HOUSE
799 Poho Place
Paia, HI 96779