We’re Crazy for Coconut’s Fish Café on Maui

I have a confession to make: I’m nuts about Coconut’s, a casual fish eatery in Kihei, Maui. In fact, Ken and I so loved the fish tacos that we ate them for dinner twice during our vacation.

Coconut's Fish Café, in Kihei, Maui, serves fresh fish in a casual setting. ©Laurel Kallenbach

With fresh-caught local fish and from-scratch cooking, Coconut’s Fish Café gets it right. The locals know it, and so do some tourists, so this restaurant in a strip mall on South Kihei Road is nearly always hopping. Not a problem: folks share the surfboard tables inside and the picnic tables outside.

Although Coconut’s legendary fish tacos aren’t the only thing on the menu—I was tempted by the fish and chips—they’re irresistible. Here’s why: you get two tacos (one per plate) served open rather than folded. On top of two corn tortillas are grilled chunks of mild-flavored mahi and ono, wedges of mango, grated cheddar, a special sauce concocted from 17 different herbs and spices, and a pile of shredded lettuce and tomato. The tacos are served with a wedge of lemon and your choice of hot sauces. The price: $12 (in November 2013).

Folks flock to Coconut's for fresh fish tacos. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Also on the menu are grilled fish burgers, fish plates (grilled the way you like it, including blackened, Asian, or Cajun), garlic ribeye steak sandwiches, veggie tacos, coconut shrimp and more.

Fast, Casual, Incredible

Coconut’s Fish Café (which is named for the owners’ white-and-black cat) has a motto: fresh, local, simple, reasonably priced. While some Maui visitors might pass it over for a fancier restaurant, we loved the shorts-and-flip-flops dress code and the surfer ambiance. And it’s relatively quick.

The restaurant is named for the owners' white-and-black cat, who loves fish. ©Laurel Kallenbach

You line up and order at the counter, then sip your local beer and watch vintage family surfer videos while you wait for your cooked-to-order food. This truly suited us: after a long day of snorkeling, we’d be ravenous by 6 p.m., and the thought of getting dressed up and driving to a restaurant where there might be a 20-minute wait to be seated was unbearable.

And don’t be deceived by Coconut’s casual setting: Zagat’s gives the café a rating of 27 (on a scale of 30), which classifies it as “Extraordinary to Perfection.” I don’t think it’s possible to get a better fish taco on the island.

I loved the fish tacos and the old-fashioned surfboard tables.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

P.S. Healthy & Earth-Friendly Too

There’s even more to love: Besides being locally owned and dedicated to serving homemade, mostly local food (with some gluten-free options), Coconut’s uses biodegradable to-go containers and cleans with earth-friendly products. Plus, all of its cooking oil is recycled into biofuel.




Wisconsin Fish Boil: Local Food with Local Flair

Door County's eco-friendly White Gull Inn serves a local fish boil on Fridays in winter.

Door County's eco-friendly White Gull Inn serves a local fish boil on Fridays in winter.

A local culinary tradition that stems from Door County’s Scandinavian settlers, a fish boil is a concoction of history and culture on a plate. Caught by local fishermen, the Lake Michigan whitefish is cooked outside over an open fire—and half the fun is watching it happen.

My friends and I attended the Friday night fish boil at the White Gull Inn in the town of Fish Creek. When we arrived, the whole red potatoes had already been boiling for a couple of hours over the fire right outside. However, soon they announced that it was time for the fish to go onto the fire, so I bundled up and braved the cold outside to watch. (Even though the flames are warm, the mercury on the thermometer hovered at 11 degrees the night of my fish boil dinner.)

Tom Christianson, the Masterboiler for White Gull Inn for 13 years, lowered a pot filled with chunks of whole fish into the boiling, salted water. Over the 10 minutes that the fish cooks, the fish oil rises to the top of the water. That’s the Masterboiler’s cue to splash kerosene on the fire, which causes the flames to soar (very dramatic on a dark, wintry night!). The super-hot flames make the pot of fish boil over so that the fish oil spills out, and the result is a less fishy taste for the remaining fish.

Curious note: Masterboiler Tom looks like Santa wearing civvies. Could he be moonlighting in Door County? He claims to live in Green Bay, Wisconsin—but can we be sure it’s not the North Pole?

Tom Christiansen throws kerosene on the fire to boil off the fish oils in the pots.

Tom Christianson throws kerosene on the fire to boil off the fish oils in the pots.

Chow Time

After Tom and helpers took dinner off the fire, it was time to go through the buffet line and fill my plate with fish, red potatoes, wintry cole slaw (super fresh, with tangy onion and crunchy cabbage) and lemon. Teapots with melted butter awaited at the table.

When I sat down, I looked in wonder at my fish dinner—the perfect locavore meal. (I was also drinking an Island Wheat beer, which is light in flavor and in its environmental footprint, as it’s made from wheat grown on Door County’s Washington Island.)

The White Gull Inn staff serves up the just-cooked potatoes and fish.

The White Gull Inn staff serves the just-cooked potatoes and fish.

Then I had to come to grips with one of my childhood phobias: fish bones. Nervously I eyed my plate, but just before I panicked, a very nice lady came to our group’s table and offered to de-bone the fish! I breathed a sigh of relief as she deftly peeled out the big bones. (In truth, a few tiny ones remained, so I did have to pick my way around those—but at least I was able to enjoy the flaky, sweet meat.)

To top off the meal: gooey and sweet/tart Door County cherry pie. Mmmm…

Eco-Kudos for White Gull Inn

Though I didn’t stay there, the White Gull Inn looks to be a quaint and comfy B&B, and it’s also earned high scores from Travel Green Wisconsin. Some of its environmentally conscious measures include:

  • Serves local and organic food products
  • Use of energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs
  • Recycling program
  • Dining room provides water on request only

Voice your opinion: What’s been your favorite local food tradition?

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance travel writer

Sleigh Bells Jingle in Door County, Wisconsin

John Mayberry's sleigh rides depart from the Orchard Country Winery.

John Mayberry's sleigh rides depart from the Orchard Country Winery.

One of the highlights of my trip to Door County, Wisconsin, was going dashing through the snow in a two-horse open sleigh. John Mayberry, owner of Mayberry’s Carriages gives sleigh rides through Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery near Fish Creek—and it’s a not-to-be-missed winter festivity.

The bracing cold air makes you feel alive as the massive Belgian horses whisk you past the red 100-year-old dairy barn, rows of grape vines, cherry and apple orchards, and into the woods. You can delve under lap blankets on the sleigh’s wooden benches to stay warm while John narrates the winery’s history, including the 1950s and ’60s heyday when Door County became known as “Cherryland USA” because it grew 95 percent of the tart cherries in the United States.

Bundled up, we're ready for the ride.

Bundled up, we're ready for the ride.

The beautiful snow and blue sky are accompanied by the ringing of sleigh bells, which just naturally makes you jolly. No wonder Santa laughs so much.

The Fruits of Summer—Enjoyed in Winter

After the sleigh ride, our group browsed in the Orchard Country Winery store, which sells just about every food you can think of that uses cherries: cherry wine, Montmorency cherry juice, cherry salsa, frozen and canned cherries, cherry honey-mustard pretzel dip, cherry jam, cherry vinaigrette, cherry raspberry pie filling, cherry chocolate topping (for ice cream), cherry barbecue sauce, cherry almond scone mix, cherry jalapeño spread—and even cherry popcorn.

Many of Orchard Country Winery's wines are decorated with awards they've won.

Many of Orchard Country Winery's wines are decorated with awards they've won.

I tasted six wines—everything from Cherry Chardonnay (a cherry/ grape blend that’s only faintly cherry flavored) to Cherry Blossom (100 percent cherries) with a rich cherry taste. The Winter Wine—an estate-grown Montmorency cherry wine spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves—was one of my favorites, especially after being outside in the cold.

Because one of the joys of traveling is carrying home some of the local foods or beverages as souvenirs, I brought home a bottle of Winter Wine for my family to celebrate with on Christmas.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Feel free to share your most treasured memories of flavors from your travels.

I love the naked architecture of trees and the quaint barns in Door County. This red one belongs to Orchard County Winery.

Organic Christmas Cookies and More

Lunch at the Bluefront Café in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, equals yum! This cheery, brightly colored café makes the most out of banks of lovely windows and its clean modern décor. (It also displays an energetic print of Renoir’s painting “The Oarsmen’s Breakfast”—a tip of the hat to the lake-faring folk of Door County.)

All but one of Susan Guthrie’s festive cherry cookies was snatched up by my friends before I could get my camera out to take this photo.

All but one of Susan Guthrie’s festive cherry cookies was snatched up by my friends before I could get my camera out to take this photo.

The Bluefront was the perfect dining spot—with local and organic food on the menu and local artists’ work on the walls.

I sampled the tasty, tangy Asian chicken wrap—a rollup of fresh cabbage, veggies, cashews and chicken with a sesame-ginger dipping sauce. One of my travel companions swooned over the fresh spinach salad with pecans, Neuske Wisconsin smokehouse bacon and goat cheese. And the fish tacos—featuring local Lake Michigan whitefish—are apparently the most requested item on the menu.

Chef/owner Susan Guthrie wholeheartedly supports sustainable business, dreams of installing solar panels on the restaurant’s roof, lovingly renovated an old building to create the restaurant, and buys about 50 percent of her ingredients from organic producers (more in summer months when it’s readily available.) She even offers earth-friendly straws for sipping your iced tea or natural soda.

Despite the wonderful lunch entrees, the highlight of the dining experience, I must admit, was the plate of Christmas cookies Susan set on our table. We all reveled in shortbread cookies with chunks of Door County tart cherries baked in, melt-in-your-mouth molasses cookies sprinkled with powdered sugar, and a chocolate-peppermint cookie that will forever set the standard for me. The cookie had an almost-but-not-quite-brownie texture and contained the ideal peppermint-to-chocolate ratio. Sheer Christmas heaven!!!

Weigh in (pun intended) on your favorite Christmas dessert by leaving a comment below.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

The Bluefront is located in a historic building in downtown Sturgeon Bay.

The Bluefront is located in a historic building in downtown Sturgeon Bay.