By Paige Herrin
If “nalu” means “wave” in Hawaiian and as slang means “go with the flow,” then people are definitely catching the wave at Nalu’s South Side Grill in Kihei.
Centrally located at Azeka’s Makai Shopping Center is a new restaurant making big waves. At nine months old, Nalu’s has already received the 2016 Aipono Award for best new restaurant and has a large social media presence. They currently have 4.5 out of 5 stars on TripAdvisor and Yelp!, both of which are notorious for having some of the roughest critics ever. It only takes one visit to understand why they have gained such a strong and loyal customer base.
When driving up, Nalu’s appears to be a restaurant in the corner of a strip mall parking lot but the owners have done such an amazing job of creating a pleasant and inviting atmosphere that once you walk through the wide front entrance, you easily forget the outside world.
A large restored Koa canoe hangs from the ceiling and the layout of the floor plan is wide and open. The bar, counter where you order food, the seating and the small stage for live music or a comedy show are arranged in such a logical way that everything fits well without feeling overcrowded. Artwork by Sherrie Austin, a fairly famous local photographer, is displayed all throughout the restaurant. Long wood plank tables are available for larger parties or to share with other customers. There are also smaller, more intimate tables as well as an outdoor patio bar top style seating. The outdoor seating has long rectangular herb planters that partially block the view of the hardware store across the parking lot. The herbs show evidence of being recently clipped here and there as the chefs take fresh what they need.
Along one wall is a service station with three large dispensers of herb and fruit infused waters. One has oranges and lemons, another with strawberries and pineapple and the third with cucumber and mint leaves. The infused water was refreshing and heavenly but don’t fill up waiting for your meal or you might miss out on the best attribute of the restaurant; the food.
The service appears casual at first. You order your food at a counter, pay for your meal and find the table of your choice but after that your food and drinks are brought directly to you by the wait staff. From there on, it’s full service all the way. The staff are friendly and attentive, even bringing you a carafe of ice-cold flavor infused water and keeping it full throughout your meal.
The elements of live music, stimulating ambiance and excellent service are but small-kine breakers compared to the totally tubular grinds available at Nalu’s. We ordered the poke bowl of the day, an Ahi club sandwich, a Kalbi chicken salad wrap, crab cakes and greens and Nalu’s raw salad. The sandwiches are served on wood planks with homemade potato chips that were cooked to golden perfection. The aioli for the sandwich was a flawless combination of flavors in a wasabi base that had just the right amount of spiciness; not too hot, not too bland. The Ahi is fresh, bought from local fishermen and seared every so lightly on the outside. The texture of the fish practically melts in your mouth like butter. The crab cakes were moist, warm and had all kinds of goodies tucked inside like kale, carrots, onions and sprouts and are served over a plate of fresh local greens. The portions are a decent size. Depending on your appetite, you may have left overs to take home, but it seemed most people finished their portions and had happy full bellies. There just simply isn’t better tasting food anywhere on Maui.
The food is amazing and one reason why lies in owner, Ron Panzo’s, decision to forgo saving a few bucks. Nalu’s buys nearly all of the produce they use from local upcountry farmers as they feel supporting the local markets is better than buying bulk mainland produce and meat. They also get much of the beef they use from ranchers on Maui and Kauai in addition to purchasing fish fresh from local fishermen. This has also helped boost the public opinion of Nalu’s. Mauians love to support one another and most would be willing to pay a little more to ensure their neighbor farmers and ranchers are thriving in a tough industry.
Supporting the locals of Maui is not the only contribution that Nalu’s makes. They have been making a lot of noise as philanthropists also. Last November, Nalu’s used their restaurant to participate in making a mile-long lei after collecting thousands of ti leaves that was sent to France in support of the recent bombing in Paris. They also host charity fundraisers at their location and make financial contributions to local schools and organizations like the boy scouts.
There is no decent way to accurately describe how or why Nalu’s is the best restaurant on Maui despite the thousands of positive comments you could read about them online. The only way to fully appreciate or understand how a start-up restaurant, in a very tough market like Kihei, gained a tsunami of support is to go experience it firsthand. I recommend the Ahi sandwich and the strawberry-pineapple infused water.
My rating: 5/5 stars.
Nalu’s South Side Grill is located at 1280 South Kihei Rd. and is open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.; there is live music nightly at 7 p.m.. For more information, call (808) 891-8650.