He’s back! Since gracing us with his awesome Foodie’s Guide to Tokyo and Kyoto (and before travel came to a screeching halt thanks to the coronavirus pandemic), Jeff Gibbard took a “babymoon” with his wife, Erica, to Hawaii. He came back raving about the island of Maui and all the yummy dishes they ate there, so I knew I had to interview him again to talk about all things Maui food for Full Life, Full Passport.
For those of you meeting Jeff for the first time, he is a self-proclaimed foodie and former personal chef who revels in good food and new culinary experiences. Luckily, his lovely wife Erica shares his enthusiasm for foodie adventures. (Follow their home cooking on Instagram at your own risk – my mouth waters every time a new post comes up on my feed.) Jeff and Erica love to travel together, and often that travel revolves around trying new dishes and exploring new flavor profiles. Whether grabbing cheap eats from a food truck or hawker stall or indulging in world-class fine dining, it seems like they’re always finding something delicious to try.
That, plus the fact that I just love talking with Jeff and hearing about his adventures, is why he’s quickly becoming Full Life, Full Passport’s unofficial international food correspondent. Check out the interview below to learn all about the best things to eat on Maui, but fair warning – you might want to grab a snack first!
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Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me again! Let’s start off with the structure of your trip. Where all did you go in Hawaii?
We spent the majority of our time in Maui, but we also took a day trip to Honolulu. Southwest now flies to and between the different islands, and I had a companion pass and a pretty decent number of points, so basically we flew to Hawaii for like $200 roundtrip. All of Erica’s flights were free on the companion pass and all of mine were booked on points. I just paid the $25 bucks a flight to upgrade us to early boarding.
Since we had those perks, we basically just decided one morning to go to Honolulu and booked it on points.
What made you choose Hawaii in the first place?
The timing of it was really weird, actually. We knew that we both wanted to go to Hawaii at some point before we got pregnant – or before we had a baby, that is. We had already applied for the Southwest companion pass when I found out they had started flying to Hawaii, so I immediately asked Erica if she wanted to go. She had just gotten pregnant, so we were like, “All right, babymoon!” We basically booked the flights and the hotels in one day. After that, we were like, “All right, we don’t know what else we’re going to do but we know we’re going to Hawaii!”
Basically, if you were to leave us to our own devices, Erica and I would probably always pick somewhere that’s Asian. (Vietnam, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Japan are some of the favorite trips we’ve ever taken.) We wanted to go somewhere different, and we didn’t really think that Europe would be an ideal place for a babymoon. I’m also not really a beach person, but Hawaii was the one tropical-y place that we could agree on because it’s not stupid hot. (I don’t do stupid hot.) So it just kind of worked out when the companion pass made Maui an option.
What was exciting to you about Hawaii and Hawaiian cuisine that made you want to visit, even though you’re not a big beach guy?
So first let me say that the beaches are incredible. I’m not a beach guy at all but one of my favorite things about being in Hawaii was literally just sitting on the beach. It’s the first time in my life I’ve ever understood the appeal, and in fact I don’t know if I ever will understand it anywhere else but Maui. It’s simply the most beautiful, scenic, calm, perfect place that I think I’ve ever been in my life. We were three days in and I was like, “I want to retire here.”
You came back and said, “By the way, we’re retiring to Maui.” Basically you were like, “We live here now.”
And I’m not being hyperbolic. It was the same as when I left Japan and told myself, “I’ll be back, and I will always come back. I love this country so much.” Hawaii was the same thing for me. I’m in love with it. I’m in love with every aspect of that place. The weather is beautiful, the people are laid back and nice, and the food… it’s all fresh seafood. Everywhere you look it’s like, “This was caught this morning!” It’s completely over the top. I would say that it’s one of my favorite places that I’ve eaten just because everything was so fresh and delicious. We had amazing poke that came from a liquor store, of all places.
How do you feel that Hawaiian cuisine differs from other parts of the United States – such as California – that also have lots of fresh produce and seafood and fusions of different culinary cultures? How is it distinct?
It has been my observation that generally in America it can be very difficult to eat healthy as a standard way of being. The thing about Hawaii, though, and the reason why I think I liked it better, is that it just seems to be easier to eat healthily all the time. Like, the fish comes right out of the ocean, there’s tons of produce, and they just eat what they have. Other places might lean heavily on different preparations of something that you can get anywhere, whereas Hawaii emphasizes the local ingredients. In addition to the fish, there are a lot of macadamia nuts and tons of coconut.
I also feel like the weather plays a factor because you don’t want to eat a bunch of heavy food. There’s something about the climate and the place that makes you want to eat a nice piece of fish rather than something heavy like short ribs.
Oh, and I absolutely loved the mai thais. I know a lot of tropical destinations have their standard drink, but mai thais are really freaking fantastic. My favorite was at a place called Monkeypod.
Along the same lines, was there anything that surprised you? I know you guys do a ton of pre-trip research.
We had done some research, but one thing that I think really shaped how we ended up doing things was our conversations with locals. Wherever we went, we would ask people where we should go, what we should eat, and what we should do. Certain places kept coming up time and time again, and it was funny because we’d look them up on Yelp and the pictures wouldn’t look all that promising. But they were unfailingly amazing. One in particular was called Aloha Mixed Plate*. It seemed like every local we talked to said, “You should really go to Aloha Mixed Plate. That’s where all of us eat.” So we did, and it was really, really good.
I’ll tell you one dish that surprised me was poi. Poi is taro root that is ground down to make a pudding-like food that’s got a really interesting texture. It’s like a sticky, creamy, thick pudding. Some people don’t like it – it doesn’t really have much of a flavor – but it’s extremely nutrient-dense and a very typical Hawaiian food. We ate a bunch of it and I actually was really impressed by how tasty it is.
Were there any specific dishes that you thought were particularly outstanding?
The Asian influence in Hawaii is palpable, so there were a lot of great Japanese-inspired dishes. We had an amazing chicken katsu thing at a food truck called Sparky’s Food Company. I also had a really, really good piece of fish – it might have been an opa? – at Hula Grill. One of the best meals we had was at a place called Japengo.
Erica will tell you that one of her favorite things was a shaved ice. That’s very important – she actually just texted me to make sure that I tell you that.
That sounds like a great pregnant woman snack. Very refreshing.
Absolutely. Generally, the fish and anything with coconut was really good. We also had a really amazing mushroom pizza at Monkeypod, fantastic sushi at the Four Seasons, awesome fish tacos at The Fish Market Maui, and lots of great stuff at a place called Star Noodle. We even had great poke from a supermarket. Finally, Mama’s Fish House was one of those places where the food was just so freaking good it was mind-blowing. They had a crab luau soup that was absolutely out of this world – one of the best soups I have ever had in my entire life. The restaurant is right near the airport, so I recommend having it once when you arrive and once before you leave, a lunch and a dinner if you can.
Was there anything you didn’t like? Anything that was disappointing?
Honestly, the only disappointing part about eating on Maui is that everything is really, really expensive. I don’t know how people actually live there. I mean, I guess they’re not eating $40 entrees on a regular basis but still.
I will say that there were times I felt like it would be nice to have a little bit more variety in the food. I’m not saying that I wanted to go to Maui and eat a burger, but there just seems to be a very specific flavor profile and a standard deviation of how far out places are going to go from that. For instance, we went to a pancake place, and they had Hawaiian-style pancakes with a coconut syrup and macadamia nuts and whatnot. It was interesting, but kind of indicative of how everything has a little bit of a Hawaiian flair to it. At that point, I was like, “Regular pancakes are probably better.” Again, the food is awesome, it can just be hard to find good, standard American fare.
I get what you’re saying. Regardless of how good the food is or how much you like a particular cuisine, eating the same flavor profile for two to three meals a day for multiple days in a row can make you want something different. I’ve definitely experienced that in different places.
Yeah, it kind of reminded me a little bit of Germany. German food can be really good, like schnitzel and sauerkraut and potatoes, but after day four you’re like, “Come on, people, let’s mix this up. Let’s do a little something different.”
Exactly. Argentina was like that for me. Argentinian cuisine is really delicious, but by the end of three weeks in Argentina we were tired of beef and Italian food, even though it was all done so well. Granted, we were on a backpacker budget and therefore somewhat limited in our options, but we were still really happy to get into Brazil and eat something different.
Exactly. Just to switch things up.
Do you have any foodie tips for first-timers to Hawaii or any pitfalls that people should avoid as they’re looking to eat on Maui?
Man, that’s a tough one. Honestly, I don’t know if there is anywhere that I wouldn’t eat again because just about everything was good. If anything, I might pick a couple of dishes differently.
One thing I will say is that I was typically more impressed by the standard or low-cost cuisine than some of the fancier stuff we ate. (And I love fancy cuisine; you put truffles on something, I’m totally jazzed.) The thing is, as good as Mama’s Fish House and Japengo were – and they were both freaking awesome – when you consider the cost of those places versus that cost of, say, the food truck or supermarket poke, the basic stuff is fantastic. When I think back and miss Hawaii, that’s the stuff I miss eating. I just want to eat fish tacos, sit on the beach, and drink a mai tai. It’s not that you shouldn’t go out and eat all the nice food, it’s that I don’t think that’s what you need in Hawaii to have a really great Hawaiian experience.
Also, don’t not do something just because it’s the “tourist” thing to do. We did a luau, and it was a totally worthwhile experience. They did a traditional style pig roast where they bury it underground, and it was real cool. That said, also don’t eat a bunch of things that you can easily eat at home. Eat the local food – get something that just came out of the ocean – because that’s what you’re going to miss most. When I came back, what I really craved was caught-this-morning fish.
Oh, and Dole Whip. It’s a dairy-free ice cream-type product made from pineapples and banana. It may seem touristy, but it’s so good.
You just answered part of my next question, which was what have you been craving since you returned?
If I could teleport right now back to Maui, I would get in an Uber and go right back to Hula Grill. I would sit outside, and I would dig my feet in the sand, and I would order whatever delicious fish dish that they had – something interesting like a pan-seared opa or a snapper or something like that. I would drink mai thais until I felt sleepy and then I’d go home.
Stepping away from the food side of things for a minute, what were some of your favorite things you did on Maui? If somebody was going to Maui, what you would recommend they do other than eat?
It’s definitely a good place to do things other than eat. The best things to do depend on who you are, though, right? Like, there’s a lot of like water stuff that you can do. You can surf, you can paddleboard – I saw somebody on this wacky-ass surfboard like a hydroplane that brings you up out of the water. Me, I don’t want to go out into the water. I’ll go up to my chest, maybe, but only if I’m pretty sure there’s no sharks out there. Because I’m not going out that way. That’s not how Jeff goes out.
I would say that anything scenic is worth doing. It’s just so beautiful. Do the Road to Hana, go up Haleakalā. Sunrise at the top of the Haleakalā volcano blew me away. Find a black sand beach, because those are really cool. There’s one on the Road to Hana that was gorgeous.
I recommend not driving on the Road to Hana. Take a tour. It’s not an easy drive, and I don’t think you can enjoy the scenery if you also have to worry about not falling off of a freaking cliff. I also had concerns about what we would do if we had a breakdown out there in the middle of nowhere with no cell reception.
(Note: While I’m not discounting Jeff’s advice here, it should be said that he is a city guy who doesn’t do much driving in his normal life. I have had friends and vacation planning clients drive the road and highly recommend it for the flexibility, so decide what’s best for you based on your own driving comfort level and what you want out of the experience!)
A somewhat unusual thing we ended up doing was a comedic magic dinner show called Warren and Annabelle’s. It’s campy and fun and funny, and they do a good job of blending comedy and magic.
The best thing to do on Maui is just nothing. Just sit there and do nothing and take in the beauty of existence. There’s a silence, an introspection, and a calmness that comes from just being there, and very few places have inspired that same sort of feeling in me. I didn’t read a single word of any of the books I brought, which is not like me. I would sit down on a beach, open my book, look up, and just close my book and put it down because my surroundings were just so beautiful. Also, sitting on the beach at night was just as cool as being there during the day. And there’s nothing like sitting at an outdoor restaurant with your feet in the sand watching the sun set.
We also like to do a photo shoot whenever we travel, and we did a great one on this beautiful beach with waves crashing on the rocks in the background. Erica especially really loves photos and likes to have these times in our lives captured. It’s like her favorite souvenir. It’s expensive, but for us it’s worth it, especially on a trip like a babymoon.
Is there anything that you feel that we did not discuss about Hawaiian cuisine or activities that you want to make sure is included in the interview?
I mean, honestly, I think we’ve covered it all. Big highlights include Mama’s Fish House with that soup, Monkeypod with the pizza and the mai tais, Tamura’s liquor store had really good poke, Japengo was one of our best all-around meals, and Hula Grill was my favorite for sitting outside and putting my feet in the sand. Go see the magic show at Warren and Annabelle’s – it’s funny and entertaining – and do the Old Lahaina Luau. It’s cooler than you think it’s going to be, for sure. Make sure to book that one in advance.
Thanks so much, Jeff!
*At the time of posting this article, it appears that Aloha Mixed Plate may have permanently closed. Their sister restaurant, Star Noodle, is taking over the space.
This interview has been heavily condensed thanks to our (ok, Jeff’s) tendency toward tangents and effusive descriptions of food. All photos provided by Jeff.
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