The most popular casual restaurant on Maui is ready to franchise in California. Coconut's Fish Cafe, currently the #1 ranked Maui restaurant on Yelp and Tripadvisor, has been packing them in since its 2009 founding. They've won praise from Travel & Leisure Magazine, listing it among "the best seafood restaurants around the world," and CNN.com, "Go straight to Coconut's Fish Cafe for amazingly fresh fish under $12."
With California franchising approval on the books, the South Maui institution will test the waters in the larger, and certainly more crowded market, where they must contend with a well-established fish taco scene that includes Rubio's, Wahoo, and Baja Fresh.
The café's approach to fast-casual seafood is unique - their most beloved dish - fish tacos, praised by Zagat as "the perfect fish tacos," reflect the focus of their health-conscious menu - the fish is grilled, not deep-fried.
Polished surfboard tables and Hawaiian prints in the dining room lend to the island spirit.
“Aloha isn’t just a greeting at Coconut’s, it’s a spirit of love and welcome that is essential to the Hawaiian Islands," says founder Michael Phillips.
How will grilled fish tacos swim on the mainland where the catch is usually beer-battered and fried - the standard in most California taquerias and cantinas? Can an island-themed café thriving on tourist and resort-heavy South Maui break through in a region where classic Baja-style fish tacos prevail?
The origin of the traditional Baja fish tacos served in Southern California can be traced to the coastal cities of Ensenada (on the Pacific coast) and San Felipe (on the Sea of Cortez) - both towns were dishing up fish tacos as early as the 1950's. In the 70's, San Diego State student Ralph Rubio, after numerous journeys to Mexico to surf and relax, fell in love with the fish taco while enjoying a seaside taqueria.
He thought, "The college kids in San Diego would love these things!" Five years later Ralph was selling the tacos to swim-suited Americans at a walk-up counter in Pacific Beach, San Diego. Today, two hundred franchises dot the Southwest.
The grilled fish tacos at Coconut's are touted as gluten-free and low-cal. They're served with "17 unique ingredients," featuring a sweet and spicy island mango salsa, and cole slaw tossed with coconut milk instead of mayo.
As mentioned, the classic Baja fish tacos are shamelessly hearty - fish dipped in a well-seasoned batter, deep-fried in pork fat, piled high inside a twin layer of steamed corn tortillas, dressed with shredded cabbage, some mayo-sour crema, salsa, and a squeeze of lime. Why are they deep-fried? Some say it's a result of sizable Japanese immigration to Baja during the 1920's and 30's, when they arrived to work in farming and fishing, and introduced the tempura-style frying batter for preparing fish and vegetables.
Grilled fish tacos in California is not revolutionary of course - seems that many "upscale Southwest" restaurants lean in favor of the unfried versions. If a menu offers fish tacos for $18 or more, expect them to come grilled. Also, the farther one travels norte from El Territorio de Baja California, the more likely your fish taco will be unfried. Venture way above the Golden State's Mason-Dixon Line, as far as San Francisco, and authentic Baja fish tacos (or any Mexican restaurants) are non-existent outside the Mission District - a neighborhood where, with the exception of the abuelita vieja kitchens, the cooking is principally Tex-Mex.
Coconut's Fish Cafe is targeting both Northern and Southern California for franchise development, beginning in 2015. Info at coconutsfishcafe.com