Journey Into the Vast Menu at Tante’s Island Cuisine
By Vanessa Wolf
Tucked into the uber-crowded parking lot of the Maui Seaside Hotel in Kahului is Tante’s Island Cuisine, a breakfast, lunch and dinner joint that is something of a family-run Denny’s.
The sweeping menu is borderline-boundless and runs the gamut from steak and lobster to local food and even a couple Filipino classics.
We decided to sample a little of it all and started with the Build Your Own Loco Moco ($9.95) with katsu chicken.
Beyond the traditional hambuger patty, other choices include Spam, Vienna sausage, beef stew or chili; totally ignoring ratatouille, cassoulet and sloppy Joes.
We jest, but not about the size of this thing.
What arrived was a culinary beast.
Dozens of slices of panko breaded, crisply fried chicken thigh meat were heaped atop a giant mound of overcooked, mushy rice.
Although the eggs were perfectly prepared as requested, the undeniable weak link of the dish was the gravy, the aftertaste of which was strangely reminiscent of lipstick.
We recommend you ask for it on the side and make your own judgment.
Regardless – and whether your tastes buds discern Maybelline or M.A.C. – the katsu chicken alone is a good value and there is more than enough to go around.
Moving on to lunch, the Half Pound Angus Cheeseburger ($10.95) was well-seasoned and possessed a notable onion flavor. Although the texture was a bit meatloaf-y, it was cooked as requested and arrived on a soft sesame seed bun.
Accompanied by fresh and crisp French fries, this selection offers a predictable option for the less daring diners in your party.
The Half Dozen Chilled Fresh Oysters ($9.95) would no doubt constitute a memorably bold move, but we weren’t feeling quite that reckless.
Rather, we chose the Shrimp Sari Sari ($11.95).
Billed as Tante’s favorite, the rich, tomato-based broth teems with chunks of pumpkin, okra, broccoli, peas, garbanzo beans, eggplant and green beans. We’d never had pumpkin and okra together before this, and we look forward to getting some more.
Think of it as a Filipino minestrone soup, but better.
Tante must be a thin man as his main squeeze arrives garnished with a grand toto of three medium-sized shrimp.
Don’t expect get stuffed on this mostly vegetable-based offering, but do expect to enjoy it.
The Sari Sari was accompanied by a Molokai sweet potato salad.
Boiled purple sweet potatoes are tossed with mayonnaise and shredded carrot slices. It’s a clever idea, resulting in a visually striking, albeit sweeter-than-the-norm offering. If you’re a potato salad connoisseur, this version probably qualifies for some sort of bucket list.
We also ordered the restaurant’s Pupu Platter Sampler ($10.95), a veritable cornucopia of deep fried foodstuffs.
The crisp calamari rings and fried chicken wings were just that – battered and fried – whereas the fried wontons are not the “crab rangoon” cream cheese variants you might expect. Rather, they were chock-full of a peculiar shrimp cake filling.
We’d probably prefer either fried wonton strips or shrimp cakes if given the choice, but all told, it was a solid appetizer platter with a flavorful array in generous portion.
The Clam Chowder ($6.95), however?
If they’re making this in-house, we sincerely hope they consult the internet for a new recipe.
Gelatinous, garlicky and covered in powdered Parmesan cheese, the whole of New England shakes its head in bewildered confusion.
Move along. These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.
On the upside, service is friendly and welcoming, but can be a bit pokey when they’re crowded. We ran into such circumstances at breakfast, although we suspect the adjacent hotel had something to do with it.
Similarly, it’s probably also the inspiration behind the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink menu.
They say you can’t please everybody, but Tante appears to be trying.
Case in point, at our waiter’s behest, we sampled the Hawaiian Baby Back Ribs ($18.95 half rack, $29.95 full rack).
They arrived covered in a deluge of lilikoi BBQ sauce and topped with a single canned pineapple ring straight out of the1950s.
Betty Crocker would be proud.
Although the menu description sounded promising – “hand rubbed with our special house blend of spices, slow smoked until soft and tender” – the intensely sweet sauce dominated any potentially subtler flavors, including smoke.
And the hibiscus red color?
We have no idea.
It’s too bad, as we get the sense a lot of heart, soul and dedication goes into this restaurant.
Perhaps Tante’s Island Cuisine’s current role of serving the hotel guests is forcing them to stick with their vast and often odd menu.
For what it’s worth, Denny’s has already got the whole Denny’s thing covered.
We suggest you pass on the Oysters Rockefeller (topped, inexplicably, with hollandaise) and listen when Tante tells you something is his favorite. You’ll be glad you did.
Tante’s Island Cuisine is located at 100 West Kaahumanu Avenue in Kahului. They are open from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and again from 5 to 8:30 p.m. seven days a week.