I have a habit of stopping for a sweet detour on my way to the airport – Humphrey Slocombe in San Francisco and Salt & Straw in Portland. My visit to Maui was no exception. Kahului, where the airport is located, is the biggest city on the island, but not exactly scenic, so I didn’t spend much time there during my stay in Hawaii.
There was one spot in Kahului that I wanted to try though – Maui Specialty Chocolates. It came highly recommended by a local gentleman on my inter-island flight from Honolulu the previous week and was on my list of hole-in-the-wall spots to check out. Thanks to a cheerful red awning above the entrance, it’s not too hard to find, although it is located in a large warehouse-like industrial building and the shop itself is not much to look at. Basic shelving and a table with simply packaged bags of chocolate and other sweet treats don’t exactly scream haute chocolatier.
The name – Maui Specialty Chocolates – is a little misleading too. They make some great chocolate, certainly. Try the gritty 100 percent pure Kona coffee dark chocolate for a kick of caffeine. However, the real star is their mochi. If you’ve only ever had mochi as a frozen yogurt topping, you cannot even begin to fathom how good handmade mochi is. So much softer than the commercially made stuff, and the natural sweetness from the rice comes through beautifully.
Here, the sticky sweet glutinous rice cakes are pounded fresh from mochiko daily, and the crowd of locals in the store on a Monday afternoon and trays upon trays of stuffed mochi balls sitting in nondescript brown bags behind the counter waiting to be picked up are a testament to the quality. This little store has been open since 1992 and is still going strong.
“The timing of the cooking of the mochiko is a secret,” says co-owner Anthony Jones. “We have our own way of cooking it. But we do make it fresh every morning and we only sell it fresh, on the day we make it. Yes, we get up early. Except when we get up earlier.” Thank goodness they are early risers so we can reap the rewards.
The smooth, chewy rice undulates across your tongue as you bite down on any of their three flavors – azuki red bean paste for traditionalists, peanut butter milk chocolate and dark chocolate truffle. The peanut butter milk chocolate is an American-Japanese revelation and the best-selling flavor. Sweet and salty crunchy peanut butter filling cut with just a hint of milk chocolate for sweetness captured within a pillowy rice cake cloud.
Then there’s dark chocolate truffle, which looks like a chocolate fudge crinkle cookie and is equally intensely chocolate, but with a softer, more delicate texture. Unless you really love chocolate, this one is too rich to handle.
A liberal coating of potato starch is meant to keep your fingers clean, but in my case, after eating mochi like the barbarian I am, it just looked like I’d been doing lines of cocaine on my laptop. Notice how it’s still sticking to my finger in the photos? That pliability is an indicator of freshness.
They do not ship or deliver, so you’ll have to get your butt on a plane to Maui to try these bad boys.
Pro tip: Place your order at least a day ahead. “Many people are disappointed when then come in and find out that the mochi is sold out – sometimes within minutes of us opening,” Jones says. “All the people that don’t order in advance come in or call at 10 am when we open and sometimes that mad rush cleans us out quickly.”