Before farm to table, Mama’s Fish House pioneered sea to table.
Located on the north shore of Maui, Hawaii, the iconic destination restaurant created its own fishing fleeting to bring in the freshest catch imaginable: mahi-mahi, opah, ahi, marlin, opakapaka, and other exotic species.
Set on the north shore of Maui in a grove of coconut palms, Mama’s Fish House epitomizes the romance of the South Pacific. Surf crashes in the background. Dugout canoes line the white sand beach. Birdsong fills the air. Visitors enter through the drooping roots of a banyan tree. Waitresses in floral print dresses seat guests at wicker chairs among carved sandalwood pillars, hanging fishing floats, and World War II memorabilia.
The pandemic has limited capacity to 50 percent, so reservations are scarce at the ever-popular destination, which according to Open Table, was the second most popular restaurant in the U.S.
“We have reduced capacity,” says vice-president Karen Christenson, daughter of owners Floyd and Doris Christenson. “We have to have customers out by 10 p.m., but people are having a wonderful time. There’s some normalcy back.”
In the early stages of the pandemic, the restaurant closed. Now that it’s reopened, customers quickly returned.
“We have made some adaptions,” says Christenson. “It’s [a] smaller menu, smaller wine list. We have a different business model, but it’s going well. We’re really happy with it. It’s a delightful experience.”
The restaurant features some of the freshest and most imaginative preparations of fish anywhere, many of them adapted from Polynesian recipes. The cornucopia of exotic species—ono, marlin, Onaga, lehi, and uku —are cooked in various ways—raw, seared, sautéed, steamed, broiled, roasted, and marinated.
The preparations are the result of the experimentations and peregrinations of founders Floyd and Doris Christenson. Shortly after marrying in the late 50s, they bought a 38-foot ketch. They sailed through the Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia, and New Zealand, delighting in the culture and cuisines of the Pacific Islands. By 1963, practical matters intervened. They sold the boat, settled on Maui, put the kids in school, worked in local restaurants, and dreamed of owning their own. In 1973, they bought the land where Mama’s is now located and made their dreams a reality.
Their emphasis on the island’s fish prepared Polynesian style immediately caught on with the locals, allowing the restaurant to survive its early years when bad roads made it difficult for tourists to drive to Mama’s beautiful but remote location. When dining out meant going to a steak house, Mama’s pioneered the concept of a fish restaurant.
Because of the remote location, they bought directly from fishers, getting the freshest and choicest catch. Long before most chefs thought of buying from local producers, Mama’s built its network of fishers and farmers and printed their names and locations on the daily menus. As Maui’s tourist trade grew, so did the fame of Mama’s, which became known as the premier fish restaurant of Hawaii.
“It’s great to have our wild Hawaiian fish,” says Christenson. “And when there’s bad weather, we have other sustainable resources: trout raised in Kula, kampachi from the ocean off the big island of Hawaii, salmon from New Zealand and Alaska.”
During the pandemic, all this shut down, making things difficult for the fishermen who relied on Mama’s and other local restaurants for their living.
“I’m just thrilled to get some of the fishermen back,” she says. “It’s such a direct connection to the community. Some of them are fourth-generation fishermen. Chef Perry [Bateman] loves to talk with them about the catch of the day. Those are some of the things that excite us about reopening.”
Featured Photo Credit: Tony Clifford Novak