habibi on maui: middle eastern eats in a lush oasis

The first thing you notice about Habibi on Maui, located in the heart of Makawao Town, is the enticing aroma wafting out to the sidewalk: one whiff, and it’s impossible to resist stepping into this outdoor café offering the only Middle Eastern cuisine available on the island. Once inside, you feel as though you’ve encountered a lush oasis, where you can sit under capacious market umbrellas or in the inviting lighted cabana while sinking your teeth into luscious chicken or lamb that’s been seasoned and slow broiled on a vertical rotisserie. Habibi’s garden setting, complete with burbling water feature, makes you feel as though you’ve journeyed far beyond Maui, if just for a short while.

Habibi, an Arabic word that loosely translates as “my friend” or “my beloved,” is the brainchild of Michael Worrell, who grew up in Saudi Arabia. “My father worked for Saudi Aramco [a major oil company], and we lived in Dhahran for fifteen years,” he says. “My family and I survived the Sixth Sa’dah War, which took place in 2009-10.”

Growing up, Michael developed an interest in cooking, especially shawarmas—an Arabic rendering of Turkish çevirme, meaning “turning,” which refers to cooking the meat on a rotating spit. At Habibi, Michael has adapted traditional Middle Eastern recipes to create a fusion cuisine that’s more appealing to the American palate. But the sauces, which are all made from scratch, are totally authentic. “A friend I grew up with in Saudi recently tasted our food, and said it’s definitely more approachable [than pure Middle Eastern cuisine].”

Habibi’s origin was as a food truck. “Mostly we were parked at Maui Brewing Co., but we also came up here to Makawao each month for Third Friday,” Michael explains. “We found this space [where they are now] that was basically wasted and overgrown with bamboo. We approached the company that manages the property, and asked if we could do something with it. After selling the food truck, we ripped out all the bamboo, built the decks, and opened our doors in February of 2017.”

Michael’s partner at Habibi is Lindsay Hogan, who is also his life partner. In fact, they’re engaged to be married this coming August. They met when Lindsay came to work on the Habibi food truck.

Interestingly enough, Habibi is still technically a food truck. “Our kitchen is on wheels, and we have to take everything out at night, and bring it back every day,” Lindsay explains. Food prep takes place in a shared commercial kitchen near where they live in Ha‘iku.

And speaking of the food, it’s off the charts. From mezze (share) plates, to pizzas, salads, shawarmas, and popular sides like Spicy Imshi Fries (potato fries tossed in herbs, spices, and mozzarella cheese, and topped with tabbouleh, tahini, and sriracha—$6—“sort of like ‘hurricane fries,’” Michael explains), they’ve got it all covered. “All dishes can be prepared dairy and/or garlic free,” Lindsay points out. “And we’re very popular with vegetarian and vegan diners, thanks to social media.”

Habibi’s most popular mezze plate is the Al Souq ($16), so I decide to give it a try. Composed of falafel balls, lamb, chicken, fried cauliflower, hummus, and tabbouleh, all accompanied by toum (garlic sauce), tahini, mixed greens, feta cheese, saffron rice, and pita bread, it’s the perfect Middle Eastern cuisine sampler.

You’ll notice there’s no beef on the menu at Habibi, which is consistent with authentic Middle Eastern fare. Michael explains there’s not much beef in Saudi Arabia, being that it’s a desert country with little greenery and running water, and therefore not conducive to raising cattle.

In addition to the mezze plates and shawarmas, Michael and Lindsay say the pizzas at Habibi are also quite popular. “We make them flatbread style with paper-thin crusts,” Michael explains. In particular, they say the Chicken Sfiha ($13) is a big hit with their clientele. It’s prepared with house-made tomato sauce, slow-roasted chicken, feta, macadamia nuts, and garlic sauce, and topped with fresh parsley, cilantro, and mint. It sounds absolutely divine, and makes my must-try list for next time I dine at Habibi.

Dessert offerings are Baklava ($4) and Loukoumades (Greek honey donuts—$6). The baklava is composed of layers of flaky filo dough, with sliced almonds and macadamia nuts, with a rosewater honey glaze; while the loukoumades are sweet, fried dough fingers rolled in cinnamon, sugar, and a touch of nutmeg, with an orange blossom honey glaze. Definitely worth every calorie!

Daily specials, Shawarma Happy Hours, and beverages such as rosewater lemonade, orange blossom ginger beer, and sun tea, round out Habibi’s offerings.

Next time you’re in Makawao, walk by Habibi on Maui and see if you can resist stopping in for a meal or snack. I’ll bet you can’t.

–heidi pool

AT A GLANCE…

WHAT •

Habibi on Maui, serving Middle Eastern fusion cuisine in a tranquil outdoor garden setting covered with market umbrellas and shade sails.

WHERE •

3655 Baldwin Avenue, Makawao.

WHEN •

Habibi is open daily from 11am to 6pm. Additionally, Saturdays and Sundays Habibi is serving breakfast from 7-11am.

HOW •

Call 808-280-8551

Habibi on Facebook: facebook.com/HabibiMichaelz/

Instagram: @habibionmaui

 

 

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