Last week in this column, I wrote about the award-winning Mexican food and ambience at Salt Lake’s beloved Red Iguana. This week, I thought I’d turn my attention to a Mexican eatery whose origins are also south of the border. In this case though, I mean way south. For about as long as I’ve known of the Red Iguana, I’ve also been hearing reports about Maui Tacos. Beginning in the mid-90s, I’d get intermittent accounts from visitors to Hawaii and friends with property in Maui about a unique place there serving Mexican food with a Hawaiian flare. Almost all of them came to pretty much the same conclusion: “When you’re in Maui, you’ve got to try Maui Tacos! It’s cheap and a nice change from the usual stuff.” One particular Maui Tacos customer/fan sent an e-mail saying, “It’s not a trip to Maui without a trip to Maui Tacos!” I suppose my reaction was to file the information away but also wonder why anyone would want to eat tacos in Maui?
As the name implies, Maui Tacos is a Hawaiian Island creation. The brief history of Maui Tacos begins in 1988 when Mark Ellman, a California chef, moved to Hawaii and opened Avalon restaurant in Lahaina, Maui. Chef Ellman’s Avalon featured Pacific Rim cuisine and, from all reports, was a critical and financial success. But, as with most of us who’ve lived and eaten in the West and Southwest of the United States—in his case, California, Mark Ellman found himself craving the killer Mexican food he’d taken for granted in the Golden State. “I lived in Los Angeles where authentic Mexican food was always just around the corner,” says Ellman. I can certainly relate, as I had to wean myself from burritos and tacos upon moving from Colorado to New York City in the 1980s.
Where Chef Ellman differs from me, however, is that he tackled his Mexican-food jones head-on by taking matters into his own hands and opening the first Maui taco shop, in Napili on Maui. In a sense, Ellman created a new fusion cuisine, although not the one we might normally think of. “I set out to create a restaurant fusing traditional Mexican fare with the exotic flavors from the islands. The result was Maui Tacos.”
The success of Maui Tacos in Napili was quickly followed by new locations on Maui, the Big Island and Oahu, after which Ellman decided to take his Hawaiian-style taco enterprise north to the mainland. Today, there are about 20 Maui Tacos stores (led by President/CEO Bill Hoppe) operating in Hawaii, but also ranging from Alabama to Idaho and from New Jersey to Minnesota, with about twice that many new restaurants planned to open in the next few years. The newest Maui Tacos location is in Sugar House on 2100 South.
The interior of Maui Tacos is predictable—think CafÃ© Rio, but with slightly more of a surf theme. It’s light on kitsch, though, which is a good thing. And although the young, good-spirited kids working behind the counter probably get sick of listening to it, I get a real kick from the Hawaiian music that plays continuously at Maui Tacos. Again, not kitschy, but where else are you going to hear the Pahinui Brothers in Zion?
It’s a colorful fast-food-style franchise restaurant with a few tables and seats along a counter—nothing special about that. But what is special is the quality of the fast food at Maui Tacos. Everything I’ve eaten there has tasted very fresh, but especially the signature fish tacos and burritos. The Hookipa burrito ($5.99) in particular, stuffed with chunks of grilled fresh island fish, rice, black beans and a dab of sour cream is terrific. I’d recommend springing for an extra 79 cents, though, to have your burrito smothered in Maui Tacos’ unique enchilada-style sauce. Or, just douse it with any of the half-dozen or so free fresh salsas from Maui Tacos salsa bar. My favorites are the tangy Hula Heat red chile salsa made from arbol chiles, the smoky Maui Firedancer chipotle chile salsa, and the zippy and acidic tomatillo-based green salsa called Maui Mex. On the other hand, I found the Pineapple Passion to be a bit watery and the Hola Aloha salsa to be only a slight step up from ketchup.
There are a handful of vegetarian burritos and tacos offered at Maui Tacos, most featuring black beans, potatoes, rice, cheese, tomato and lettuce in one or another combination. But abiding vegetarians at Maui Tacos will unfortunately miss out on the best flavor of all, which is anything (burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas and soft or hard tacos) made with Chef Ellman’s signature slow-cooked Hawaiian barbecued pork. The shredded pork is moist and tender, with a wonderful blend of sweetness, spice and smoke flavors. It’s especially good atop the huge taco salad ($5.49) at Maui Tacos, a salad that will probably get you through both lunch and dinner. You’ll need to be content with water and soft drinks at Maui Tacos though; no Mai Tai cocktails or Mexican beers are served at this surf shop.
But then, there’s no Don Ho to endure either.
MAUI TACOS 790 E. 2100 South, 486-2313. Open daily for lunch and dinner
Congratulation to the folks at Simon’s Restaurant at the Homestead Resort in the Heber Valley and to Deer Valley’s Goldener Hirsch Inn restaurant for winning their first Four Diamond rating by the American Automobile Association (AAA). Winners of Four Diamond awards must meet strict criteria for consideration, which takes into account everything from cuisine and wine lists to the charger plates used during service. According to the Homestead’s food and beverage director Don Heidel, “Our new menu is much more refined, with better variety and a focus on offering true American cuisine. The honor of being awarded the Four Diamond ranking is a tribute to our staff and their dedication to the overall experience at Simon’s.” Last month’s first-time winners Simon’s Restaurant and The Goldener Hirsch join the other six AAA Four Diamond winners in Utah: The Glitretind, The Tree Room, La Caille, Log Haven, Metropolitan and Blue Boar Inn.
The new all-mayo diet? Each week in my City Weekly inbox, I get a pile of food-related stuff from public-relations and marketing firms around the country. Most of it goes directly into the trash, for which I sometimes feel guilty. But now and then a particular product catches my attention. This week it was the huge “Big Mouth” jar of “Real” Mayo from Kraft. What the folks at Kraft would like you to know about their new mayonnaise packaging is that A. the new wide mouth is 100 percent larger than its traditional mayo jar; B. it has a “convenient snap-top lid with flavor fresh seal”; C. the “new package dimensions allow for more versatile storage in the pantry and refrigerator”; and so on. But what really caught my attention was the big fat content of Kraft’s new Big Mouth Jar of mayo. Each 100-calorie tablespoon of Kraft Real Mayonnaise contains a whopping 11 grams of fat, accounting for 17 percent of the recommended daily fat in a 2,000 calorie-per-day diet. Yikes! On the other hand, I suppose anyone wishing to follow the simplest of diets could just eat six 1-tablespoon servings of Kraft Mayo daily.
Quote of the week: There is no finer investment for any community than putting milk into babies.—Winston Churchill
Send Food Matters information to email@example.com. Hear Ted over the airwaves on Sound Bites, Thursdays on KSL NewsRadio 1160.