The High Life: Mai Tai Maui Madness

It’s been a long time since my Maui trip report series, and a long time since I’ve contributed anything to The High Life. Similar to Points, Miles, & Martini’s Happy Hour, The High Life is a series on food and drink that I come across during my travels or simply inspired by travel. I took a lot of pictures of food and drink while Megan and I were in Hawaii, and I’m planning now to give an overview of the best the island has to offer in two installments. Today, of course, will be Mai Tais.

For the rest of the trip report, check out the links below:

Most people know what a Mai Tai is, but there is a huge range in quality. The ones you get on an airplane are among the worst. A few readers were impressed that I could drink not one but two of the Trader Vic’s Mai Tais on our flight. But gosh-darn-it, I was going to enjoy Hawaii whether my stomach liked it or not! On the other end of the spectrum, I think the prize for best Mai Tai goes to Chef Chu’s in Los Altos, California. This Chinese restaurant knows its way around a bar, and I think that’s part of the plan to keep its customers ordering more food. Too bad my parents are moving away from Cupertino in a few months. :(

I don’t mean to bash the Trader Vic’s name too much, however. It’s just one of the few remaining pieces of a once great brand. Depending on who you ask, the first Mai Tai was either invented at one of the old Trader Vic’s restaurants in Oakland in 1944 or at Don the Beachcomber in 1933. The official version today includes white and dark rum, orange curaçao, Orgeat syrup, and lime juice. Fittingly, the word Mai Tai comes from the Polynesian “Maita’i” which means “good.” When made well, they can be very, very good.

Kimo’s (Lahaina)

picture of Scott holding a Mai TaiKimo’s Mai Tai was my parents’ standard, and I was expecting it to become my standard (this was my first time to Hawaii since turning 21). While it would be nice to compare it to a more recent experience at Chef Chu’s, it was still awfully good. However, what really sets Kimo’s apart from other options is the venue. They’re right on the shore, with a great view of the water, lots of dark wood, and friendly staff. The whole place is well maintained and never changes between visits–in a good way. This was also the only place that carded us during our vacation, which was annoying because we forgot our IDs on our second visit and were planning to watch the sunset. Virgin strawberry daiquiris aren’t quite the same. :(

The easiest comparison is with Cheeseburger in Paradise down the street, which is more crowded and doesn’t have as good a view. But why would you go to a chain while on vacation? (Kimo’s has the same corporate parents as Hula Grill and Leilani’s on the Beach, plus a few others, but most of these restaurants are in Hawaii.) Mai Tais are only $5.50 during Aloha Hour from 3-5 PM daily.

picture of a Mai Tai

The clear winner.

Hyatt Regency Maui (Kaanapali)

picture of trays of Mai TaisWe had Mai Tais by the pool, at Umalu (where the pool staff get them), and at the luau. They were all pretty much the same and tasted good without being particularly special. They’re smaller than most and overpriced during normal hours in my opinion, but they also have a happy hour (3-5 PM?) when Mai Tais and a few other things are only $5. We showed up around 4:45 at the pool and each bought two to nurse until dinner. At the luau, Mai Tais are included and unlimited, and you’ll see trays and trays of them premade and waiting for the servers to distribute. However, if you go up to the bar yourself (in an alcove to the left of the stage) one of the locals taught me to ask for a “special” Mai Tai that comes with some extra coconut rum. It really makes a difference.

picture of Scott and Megan with Mai Tais

I really like this photo (and I rock that Hawaiian shirt!) so it’s too bad my head is cut off.

Hula Grill (Whalers Village, Kaapanali)

picture of Mai TaiIf you want a cocktail, I think of Kimo’s as a bar with food. Hula Grill and Leilani’s are owned by the same company as Kimo’s, but they are more restaurants with bars. Both Hula Grill and Leilani’s offer separate outdoor seating close to the boardwalk with casual dining options (although the actual restaurants inside are mostly open-air). What I like about Hula Grill is the live music in the evenings and the fact that their outdoor seating is in a sand pit, so it’s almost like dining on the beach. This was our first Mai Tai on the island, and while it was good, I think Kimo’s has the better atmosphere if all you want is a drink, and this may be why I think they make theirs better. Hula Grill and Leilani’s also tend to be swamped with people from the nearby hotels each evening looking for dinner.

United Airlines (“Somewhere, over the rainbow…” You will hear that song a thousand times on the island.)

The Trader Vic’s Mai Tais are much like the margaritas you can get on domestic flights. However, while a margarita can be improved significantly with a floater of Grand Marnier, I’m not sure what can be done with the Mai Tais. They need some dark rum, or maybe Malibu, to get rid of the artificial saccharine taste. It’s unfortunate that United doesn’t stock some just for that purpose. It was pretty obvious that most people don’t order these on the plane, as the flight attendant gave me a weird look on the outbound journey (it was 10 AM…) and on the return flight she wasn’t even sure they had any (there’s no excuse for that). In first class, expect to get a barely edible pineapple garnish. In economy, you’ll get a swizzle stick. What for, I’m not sure. Drink it, celebrate the fact you’re going to Hawaii, and then switch to something else.

I’m sure I had a picture of this, but alas, I cannot find it. Just imagine one of United’s Margaritas. It really does look almost identical. Does anyone else have a photo of this abomination? Readers, what are your favorite places to get a Mai Tai on the islands? I don’t think Kimo’s is a choice likely to offend anyone, but I’m sure I’ve overlooked a few.

Scott created Travel Codex after learning how to travel better on a budget during grad school. He now flies over 150,000 miles every year.
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  • Tim

    You should have tried Monkeypod Kitchen in Wailea. They have the only true craft cocktail menu that I could find on Maui. They serve the classic, with the only twist of a honey-lilikoi foam on top. Superb, but beaten by the Pod Thai (lemongrass, kaffir, cardamom, coconut), although (Maui) vodka based the No Ka Oi was my favorite. Most craft cocktails are only $8 during their extensive happy hours, and otherwise $9-12, cheaper than most of LA.
    http://www.monkeypodkitchen.com/cocktail-list
    Sadly I didn’t try many others, as all the restaurants that have decent drinks weren’t in the budget.
    I’m writing this while my home made orgeat is cooling…..we’re making ~50 Mai Tai’s tomorrow, and they’ll be extra-Hawaiian with Koloa light and dark rum, as well as some lilikoi from the garden.

  • wise2u

    sunset beach bar and grill in Kihei (sp?) just before you get to wailea on the sw side. They sell mai tai’s in a wine caraffe, the price has gone up every year we go back, but was last at $6 during happy hour. They use a classic cheap recipe Hana Bay dark rum (made in puerto rico, not Hana Maui) you can buy this inexpensive rum in the islands at any convienence store…mix it 1/3 with 1/3 orange juice and 1/3 pineapple juice…this is the rough recipe, sometimes they add a little grenadine to sweeten it, sometimes the ratios are tuned to your taste….but all in all your low price maui mai tai…..not for those who must have a little umbrella and fruit salad on a squewer complete with a plumeria blossom to make their maitai complete.

  • Dad

    Maybe I’ll go to Chef Chu’s tonight in your honor and drink Mai Tais.

  • MyVyoo

    Duke’s Beach house are worth a taste!