Hawaii: 20 cheap eats under $20 on Maui

LA Times | Travel

Lahaina, Maui Everyone wants to score a first-rate deal on the road. But deals can be difficult to come by in a tourist zone -- especially one like Maui, where the cost of dining can be as breathtaking as the landscape. So we went to the people who know Maui best -- its residents -- and ask...

By Rosemary McClure // 04.05.08

Lahaina, Maui

Everyone wants to score a first-rate deal on the road. But deals can be difficult to come by in a tourist zone -- especially one like Maui, where the cost of dining can be as breathtaking as the landscape.

So we went to the people who know Maui best -- its residents -- and asked them for suggestions on how to eat well here on a budget.

Our local experts included Charmaine Tavares, the mayor of Maui; Bobby Santos, chef instructor of the Maui Culinary Academy; students at the academy; Bonnie Friedman, cookbook author; and Benita Brazier, of the Maui Office of Economic Development.

Their advice helped us develop this list of 20 great Maui meals for less than $20, our second in a series of occasional stories on getting the best value for your vacation dining dollar.

Bon appétit, or as they say in the islands: E mea ai maik'i.

(Note: Some of the restaurants take cash only, and some are hard to find; call first for hours and directions.)


Price: $7.95 to $9.95

Scoping it out: Only $10 to spend? Stop at CJ's Deli & Diner for what may be the best burger in Maui. For $9.95, our burger combo included half a pound of Angus beef (topped with caramelized Maui onions, cheese and bacon) a refillable soda and a heaping mound of wonderfully seasoned fries. The diner is cheerful and appealing and is just down the street from the über-expensive resorts at Kaanapali. "I opened this restaurant because I was tired of all the tourist traps," says owner Christian Jorgensen, formerly executive chef at the Westin Maui. His menu includes more than burgers: Jorgensen's comfort meals include entrees such as meatloaf ($8.50), pot roast ($9.95) and roast turkey ($8.95). And you can BYOB without a corkage fee. Other pluses: Order lunch to take on a picnic or the road to Hana, and CJ will lend you an ice chest.

We loved. . . everything, including CJ's wickedly wonderful sweets, such as Road to Hana brownies or macadamia nut Hana bars.

We didn't love. . . that the place is hard to find.

CJ's Deli & Diner, Kaanapali Fairway Shops, 2580 Kekaa Drive, No. 120 (just off Honoapiilani Road); (808) 667-0968, www.cjsmaui.com.


Price: $6.25 to $13.95

Scoping it out: Lahaina, once a whaling capital, is now a tourist hub with restaurants crowding Front Street, the main drag. Many are chain eateries with high prices -- hey, you might as well have stayed at home. So try something different: Aloha Mixed Plate. The funky ocean-side restaurant features plate lunches, an only-in-Hawaii cuisine that includes foods of many cultures. Typical dishes are teriyaki beef, kalua pork, poi, rice, macaroni salad and lomi lomi salmon, but finicky eaters can skip the local food and get a burger or salad. You'll dine outdoors on paper plates, but the view is worth a million dollars, especially at sunset: tiki torches, lush vegetation, crashing surf and a flotilla of sailboats riding at anchor. Come around 8 p.m. and you'll hear the music and dancing from the Old Lahaina Luau next door.

We loved. . . the location and setting.

We didn't love . . . the difficulty finding a parking space.

Aloha Mixed Plate, 1285 Front St., Lahaina (behind the Lahaina Cannery Mall); (808) 661-3322, www.alohamixedplate.com.


Price: $5.95 to $9.95

Scoping it out: Sunrise Cafe is a day brightener. Tucked away on a side street in busy Lahaina, the diner offers breakfast specials for $5.95 each. At a resort hotel, you'd pay as much as $28 a person. This tiny, family-run restaurant has only 13 tables but is charming, with two shady covered patios for dining and people watching. It's an easy stop on the way to the whale watching and snorkeling boats. Breakfast is served until 3 p.m., when the cafe closes for the day. After 11:30 a.m., appetizers, soups and sandwiches are added to the menu.

We loved . . . the eggs Benedict, the restaurant's specialty.

We didn't love . . . the cash-only policy. No credit cards.

Sunrise Cafe, 693 N. Front St., Lahaina (next to the Lahaina Library on Market Street); (808) 661-8558.


Price: $7.75 to $8.25

Scoping it out: This food court restaurant, with two locations in Maui (and 23 others in the state), may have an identity crisis. Is it Vietnamese, French or Hawaiian? It's a little of each, with various dishes to complement the cultures. Visit here for pho (a Vietnamese soup), hot or cold noodle dishes, saimin and lunch plates featuring short ribs, teriyaki chicken and pork. Sandwiches are served on French-style baguettes. Pastries and puddings round out the offerings.

We loved . . . the fast service.

We didn't love . . . the French bread, which was too hard.

4a: Ba-Le French Sandwiches & Bakery, 1221 Honoapiilani Road, Lahaina (in the Lahaina Cannery Mall); (808) 661-5566. Also, 4b: 270 Dairy Road, Kahului (in the Maui Marketplace); (808) 877-2400, www.ba-le.com.


Price: $3.25 to $6.25

Scoping it out: Selling ice cream is the best job in the world, says Scoops' owner Michael Martinelli, "because 99 out of 100 customers go away smiling." After tasting Lappert's Hawaii ice cream, we understand why. Lappert's Hawaii ice cream, a boutique brand from Kauai that's sold at Scoops, is creamy and delicious. Scoops, on the main drag in Lahaina, offers 32 flavors and is a granddaddy of ice cream stores: Martinelli has dished up frozen goodness almost every day for 22 years. His biggest seller is Kauai pie (Kona coffee ice cream laced with fudge and coconut) on a chocolate-dipped, nut-encrusted handmade waffle cone. Yes, we know, ice cream isn't a meal. But sometimes nothing else tastes as good.

We loved . . . luscious ice cream on a hot night.

We didn't love . . . the diminutive size of the scoop.

Scoops, 888 Front St., Lahaina; (808) 661-5632.


Price: $8.99 to $12.99

Scoping it out: It's easy to get hooked on the food at Fish Market Maui. If you want a great fish dinner without paying a fortune, this tiny shop in a West Maui strip mall makes it easy. Owners Jim and Tricia Patch buy from local fisherman and resell to the public. Plan a condo picnic or beach-side barbecue and pick up ready-to-grill varieties such as opakapaka (Hawaiian pink snapper), mahi mahi, ono, wild salmon and striped marlin. Or phone ahead and ask them to cook it for you. The market also has a to-go counter with sandwiches, fish tacos and pizzas, including crab and avocado. And there's a deli counter with delicacies such as lobster salad, poke (raw ahi salad) and smoked fish.

We loved . . . eating fish that just came off the boat.

We didn't love . . . the location, north of Kaanapali, which is too far for visitors staying in Kihei or Wailea.

Fish Market Maui, 3600 Lower Honoapiilani Road, Lahaina; (808) 665-9895.


Price: All less than $7

Scoping it out: Kapalua is a pretty tony address. This resort community at the far end of West Maui is home to the swanky Ritz-Carlton Kapalua and other pricey digs. But it's also home to the quaint Honolua Store, a fixture since 1929, when the area was part of a giant pineapple plantation. The store, which sells T-shirts and tourist necessities, has a new addition. In December, a deli was added; its takeout menu has quickly become so popular that locals and tourists line up outside before the 6 a.m. daily opening. Chef Romeo Arruiza, formerly of the Westin Kaanapali, offers a changing menu of lunch plates, pizzas and sandwiches. And you can walk out the door, with a beverage, for less than $10. Stop by for a picnic lunch if you go snorkeling at beautiful Kapalua Beach or drive the West Maui coast road. Or dine outside on the patio.

We loved . . . the fast, fresh, inexpensive local food.

We didn't love . . . getting lost on Kapalua's dead-end roads.

Honolua Store Deli, 502 Office Road, Lahaina; (808) 665-9109.


Price: $5 to $8.50

Scoping it out: Where on Maui do you find the best food for the lowest prices? The winner, hands down, is Maui Culinary Academy, which operates seven specialty kitchens and a high-end restaurant at Maui Community College. The restaurants are part of the school's food service program and offer a terrific place to eat breakfast or lunch if you're lucky enough to visit the island during the school season. Sushi, seafood, pasta, salads -- all beautifully prepared and presented -- are available in the Paina Food Court daily. (It's near the airport and is open 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.) "A lot of people think we aren't open to the public," says longtime chef instructor Bobby Santos. "We embrace the public. The busier we are, the more the students are going to learn."

We loved. . . the choice, the taste, the prices.

We didn't love. . . that it's not open for dinner.

Maui Culinary Academy, Maui Community College, 310 W. Kaahumanu Ave., Kahului; (808) 984-3225, www.mauiculinary.com.


Price: $6.75 to $13.95

Scoping it out: Ask a Maui resident about his or her favorite budget restaurant and the name that keeps popping up is Da Kitchen, which has two strip mall locations. (The main cafe is in Central Maui near the airport; an express version is in Kihei.) Da Kitchen is known for its plate lunches. It's also known for huge portions. The teriyaki chicken plate has about 1 1/2 pounds of chicken, the kalua pork has about a pound of meat. "And at least 75% of our customers have no problem eating it all," says Mariah Brown, who owns the cafes with Les Tomita. "He's a big guy who likes to eat," says Mariah of her business partner, "and he thinks we should serve big food." That's why their motto is "Home of da world's biggest plate lunch."

We loved. . . the tempura mahi mahi.

We didn't love. . . the 30- to 40-minute wait in line for lunch or dinner at the Central Maui location.

Da Kitchen, Triangle Square, 425 Koloa St., No. 104, Kahului; (808) 871-7782, www.da-kitchen.com. Da Kitchen Express, Rainbow Mall, 2439 S. Kihei Road, No. A107, Kihei; (808) 875-7782.


Price: $7.50 to $17.50

Scoping it out: In some ways, this 11-table strip mall restaurant is amazing. Given the low prices, it's amazing that the restaurant has cloth napkins, colorful sari tablecloths and bright tapestries on the wall. And there's amazing food too. In fact, that's the dish you should try: "The Amazing, your choice of chicken, beef or pork simmered in peanut curry sauce and coconut milk and served over steamed veggies" ($10.50). We loved it. Visit Bangkok Cuisine on the way to or from the airport or bound for Kmart or Costco.

We loved. . . the speedy service and eye appeal of the food.

We didn't love. . . long lines on weekends.

Bangkok Cuisine, 395 Dairy Road, Kahului; (808) 893-0026.


Price: $5.45 to $12.45

Scoping it out: Planning a trip to beautiful Iao Valley? Stillwell's is an easy stop for pastries and sandwiches. If the cream horns and macadamia nut muffins don't tempt you, nothing will. Roy Stillwell's Bakery & Cafe has a pastry case chock-full of wonderfully excessive treats. No surprise: He was once a pastry chef. Arrive early for the best variety of pastries; everything sells out fast. (He makes and sells about 200 cream horns a day.) Not into sweets? Try his sandwiches; the breads are 100% homemade, and some people swear the tuna sandwich is the best they've ever tasted. "Unique, fresh, fast and reasonable" is how Stillwell describes his restaurant. We agree.

We loved. . . the sweets and the Reuben sandwiches.

We didn't love . . . that the restaurant closes at 3 p.m.

Stillwell's Bakery & Cafe, 1740 Kaahumanu Ave., Wailuku; (808) 243-2243.


Price: $5 to $14.50

Scoping it out: A grainy black-and-white photo of John F. Kennedy hangs in Tokyo Tei. It was taken when he visited the restaurant in 1959. This Maui institution -- about 75 years old and counting -- is off the tourist routes, but well worth the trip if you'd like to hobnob with locals and try Japanese food with a Maui flair. Tokyo Tei opened in 1934 and has been a local favorite ever since, although during World War II the owners were forced to rename it Rainbow Inn for a time. The matriarch of the family, Betsy Cardoza, 83, still comes to work every day, but daughter Eunice Kitagawa does the heavy lifting now. Order the teriyaki steak ($14.50) or the ahi sashimi ($10).

We loved. . . that customers feel like part of the family.

We didn't love. . . that it's very hard to find. Call for directions.

Tokyo Tei, 1063 E. Lower Main St., Wailuku; (808) 242-9630.


Price: $7.75 to $8.25

Scoping it out: Tofuand organic food fans, this is your place.Down to Earth, a Honolulu company, has two outposts in Maui; the main store is in Kahului on Dairy Road, near the airport, and a satellite store is Upcountry in Makawao. If you forgot to pack your ginseng, you can pick up some in the wellness center, which is packed with vitamins and elixirs. Or score lunch or dinner at the salad and food bars or the deli counter. (Try the Greek salad or the blackened tofu, both $7.59 a pound.) Other pluses: pastries, lots of fresh produce, ethnic foods and plenty of legumes, nuts and grains.

We loved. . . having healthy vegetarian choices.

We didn't love. . . the staff's lack of aloha spirit.

Down to Earth, 305 Dairy Road, Kahului; (808) 877-2661, or 1169 Makawao Ave., Makawao; (808) 572-1488, www.downtoearth.org.

14. Cafe O'Lei

Price: Lunch $6.95 to $12.95; dinner $14.95 to $38.95

Scoping it out: Many of our under-$20 restaurants are modest. Diners order at a walk-up counter, and the food comes in Styrofoam containers. That doesn't mean the fare isn't tasty, just that the surroundings and amenities are simple. Cafe O'Lei Steak & Seafood is a pleasant exception. It's a real restaurant, with cloth napkins, white tablecloths, fresh flower arrangements and candles burning on the table. It has martini and sushi bars to add to the setting. The food is more expensive, but more than half the dinner entrees make our under-$20 cut, and the artfully prepared dishes and enjoyable ambience make it worth the price. We overheard a fellow diner call it "a terrific value." We agree.

We loved . . . baked Maui onion soup en croûte ($6.95) and macadamia nut-crusted breast of chicken ($17.95).

We didn't love . . . a $5.95 charge to split a meal.

Cafe O'Lei, 2439 S. Kihei Road (upstairs at Rainbow Mall), Kihei, (808) 891-1368; or 1333 Maui Lani Parkway, Kahului, (808) 877-0073; www.cafeoleirestaurants.com.


Price: $6.35 to $25.95

Scoping it out: Maui is one of the last places you might look for a good slice of New York-style pizza, but this open-air pizzeria in Kihei has the recipe. For 18 years, Shaka has dished up hoagies, hot and cold sandwiches, cheese steaks, calzone, Stromboli and New York- and Sicilian-style pizzas. Magazines, local newspapers and guidebooks (including Frommer's) have listed it as having the best pizza in Maui. We liked it too. The crust is light, and the toppings are generous. Try the Maui pineapple and ham or the white cheese and spinach varieties.

We loved . . . pizza by the slice for $2.97.

We didn't love . . . the traffic noise from busy Kihei Road, which can be daunting.

Shaka Sandwich & Pizza Inc., 1770 S. Kihei Road, Kihei; (808) 874-0331.


Price: $6.75 to $12.95

Scoping it out: Baja-style tacos go Hawaiian here. Jawz is a strip-mall cafe in Kihei (also operating two taco trucks at Big Beach daily) that will help satisfy your need for a Mexican beer, chips and a good jolt of salsa. Diners order fast-food-style at a counter, but the dining room has an appealing tropical ambience, with floral tablecloths, beach murals and plants. The salsa bay is one of the most interesting we've seen, with roasted jalapeño, serrano, habanero, corn and chipotle salsas. The menu runs the Mexican food gamut, including fajitas, burritos, quesadillas and fish and meat tacos. But don't expect California-style Mexican food or you'll be disappointed. This has its own very different style.

We loved. . . the enchilada pie and the many varieties of salsa.

We didn't love . . . the mounds of salad and paucity of protein on the tacos.

Jawz Tacos, Azeka Mall, 1279 S. Kihei Road, Kihei; (808) 874-TACO (874-8226), www.jawzfishtacos.com


Price: $7.95 to $13.95

Scoping it out: Chickens graze in the breezeway at Alexander's Famous Fish Co., a rustic highway stand on the main drag in Kihei. Nearby, patrons sit at resin tables, wolfing down fish and chips. A mural of a hula dancer decorates the walls. Alexander's doesn't offer much in the way of ambience, but the fish is fresh and perfectly cooked, not dry or mushy. The takeout stand specializes in local fish: ahi, ono and mahi. Order it fried or grilled. There are also fish tacos, sandwiches, salads, shrimp, fried chicken and ribs. Most people take the food to go, but some eat it there. Just don't be surprised if a chicken hops by looking for a handout.

We loved . . . the simple menu and fast service.

We didn't love . . . that it may be a little too plain and laid-back.

Alexander's Famous Fish Co., 1913 S. Kihei Road, Kihei; (808) 874-0788.


Price: $6.75 to $17.25

Scoping it out: What's a nice New Jersey family doing in Upcountry Maui, tossing pizza dough, layering lasagna noodles and cooking up tennis-ball-sized meatballs? Serpico's Pizzeria & Restaurant, a 10-table Italian eatery in Pukalani, offers a fine, low-cost family stop on the way home from Haleakala National Park. This is a plain-wrap kind of place, where the chairs and tables are mismatched, but the food is big-city Italian. Owner Charles Clark was in the pizzeria biz for 32 years before visiting Maui on vacation with the kids. (He and wife Miriam have six.) No one wanted to go home, so he opened Serpico's.

We loved. . . the meatballs and the pizza, which is hand-tossed, East Coast-style.

We didn't love. . . the decor. Serpico's needs a little ambience.

Serpico's, 7 Aewa Place, Pukalani; (808) 572-8498, www.serpico


Price: $8.50 to $17.95

Scoping it out: This is a popular place in a popular town. Paia, a one-time sugar plantation town turned New Age settlement, is one of the last stops on the North Shore road to Hana, so things can get hectic, especially on weekends. Seafood, of course, is the specialty at Paia Fish Market. Order at a counter; you have your choice of various seafoods prepared as a steak, in a sandwich or a taco, and you can have it fried, charbroiled, sautéed in butter with garlic and lemon, or blackened Cajun-style. (Burgers are also available.) Eat at a picnic table or take the food to go. This low-key diner is a tourist favorite; when we visited late on a Saturday afternoon, 16 people were in line ahead of us. But the fish is well-prepared and very fresh.

We loved. . . the ahi and the mahi-mahi.

We didn't love. . . waiting in line and jockeying for a table.

Paia Fish Market, 100 Hana Highway, Paia; (808) 579-8030.

20. FOR A SPLURGE . . .

Price: $20 or less

Scoping it out: The bartender smiled when I asked him about drink prices. "Maui isn't the place to visit if you're on a budget," he said, shaking his head, "and the Grand Wailea especially isn't the place to visit if you're on a budget."

He's right, of course. The Grand Wailea, Maui's top-tier resort palace, is priced for kings and landed gentry, not commoners.

But if you keep a tight rein on your wallet, you too can live like the moneyed class that stops here. The Grand Wailea is one of three beachfront resorts we're lumping together as our 20th entry. The others are in West Maui: the Westin Maui in Kaanapali and Napili Kai Beach Resort near Kapalua. Each offers spectacular surroundings or scenery that is worth a little splurge. Just don't splurge too much. Have a drink and an appetizer and enjoy the vibe as long as possible.

At the Grand Wailea, the draw is the hotel's massive open-air lobby. Stroll through the grounds and watch the sunset from the beach or the lobby for the price of a drink (mai tai, $12.50) or order a beer ($6.50) and an appetizer (a heaping plate of onion rings for $11).

The Westin grounds are also impressive, with wandering pools, slides, great sunset views of the beach and a flock of flamingos to watch. I had lunch poolside at the Ono Bar & Grill, where my grilled chicken ciabatta sandwich came with portabello mushrooms, Asiago cheese and a side of French fries for $14. I could have ordered chicken noodle and wonton soup; a big bowl with veggies costs $9.50. And there's a bonus here: Children dine free at the Westin when accompanied by an adult who orders an entree.

At the far end of Maui, my favorite stop is the Sea House Restaurant at Napili Kai Beach Resort, with stunning views of Napili Bay and Molokai. Walk through the resort grounds, play in the water or snorkel at beautiful Kapalua Bay on the opposite side of the hotel, then have lunch or appetizers on the outdoor patio. (An order of coconut macadamia nut shrimp is $11; a crab cake sandwich $12.) It's a great way to spend a day in paradise.

20a: Grand Wailea, 3850 Wailea Alanui Drive, Wailea; (800) 888-6100, www.grandwailea.com.

20b: Westin Maui, 2365 Kaanapali Parkway, Lahaina; (866) 500-8313, www.westinmaui.com.

20c: Napili Kai, 5900 Lower Honoapiilani Road, Lahaina; (808) 669-6271, www.napilikai.com.