Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Ten Great Things to Eat in Maui

While starting to mull over potential destinations for the upcoming summer, it occurred to me that I never really reported back on last summer's trip to Hawaii. Though this was not a trip centered around dining, we do always look to eat well, and it was actually just a bit of a challenge in Hawaii. Not for lack of good food; but as someone who lives in Miami Beach, I know from experience that when you're in an overwhelmingly tourist-driven destination, it can be tough not to eat like a tourist.

Honolulu seems to be the epicenter of interesting dining in the Hawaiian islands - crazily ambitious projects like Vintage Cave, refined tasting menus like Chef Mavro, pop-ups like The Pig and the Lady. That's not a surprise, given that it's the most populated city. But for non-culinary reasons, we elected to skip Oahu entirely in favor of Maui and Big Island.

The good news was that locavorism seems to run strong on all the islands. It ought to: Hawaii has ready access to a fantastic variety of fresh fish straight from the ocean, as well as great locally grown fruits and vegetables. And over the past couple decades, there's been an increasingly concerted push to incorporate those ingredients into the restaurant repertoire, instead of relying on flown-in products.

Still, there's a huge gulf between the resort restaurants catering to the "haole" (foreigners), and the local joints with their loco moco and spam musubi (which we ate, and which was good, but there's only so much of that my Crestor can handle), and it's not always so easy to find the middle. But that's what we were looking for; here's what we found:

1. Fried Saimin at Star Noodle (Lahaina). Star Noodle was exactly the kind of place we were seeking out. Located in a business park well off the main drag, it felt more like a locals' hangout than a tourist trap. The menu, from Chef Sheldon Simeon (yes, the guy who was always wearing the "Where's Waldo?" hat on last season's Top Chef, and who also was a 2011 James Beard semi-finalist for Rising Star Chef and Best New Restaurant) was a happy hodge-podge of pan-Asian noodle dishes and other items, done with some contemporary flair.

From what I've read, saimin is arguably the "national dish of Hawaii" - ramen-style wheat noodles, either in a broth or pan-fried, often coupled with that other Hawaiian staple, Spam, as the main protein. Star Noodle's Fried Saimin hewed pretty close to tradition, the chewy noodles tossed with slices of Spam and kamoboko (fish cake), thin ribbons of cooked egg, bean sprouts and green onions. They were the best of the noodle dishes we tried there.[1] An assortment of pickled vegetables, seaweed salad, kimchi, and Momofuku-style pork buns rounded out the meal.

Star Noodle
286 Kupuohi St., Lahaina Maui

Star Noodle on Urbanspoon

2. Ahi Poke Shoyu at Safeway (Lahaina). Safeway? Really? Yes. As unlikely as it sounds, a Chowhound thread tipped me off that the Safeway in downtown Lahaina has a remarkably good selection of pokes. And sure enough, in the seafood market they had about a dozen different varieties of the Hawaiian marinated fish dish. Though most were made with frozen, thawed fish or octopus, a couple were made with fresh ahi tuna, including this one laced with soy sauce and sesame oil, chiles, onions, scallions and masago.

3. Reuben Sandwich at Leoda's Kitchen and Pie Shop (Lahaina). Maybe it was that we'd just spent the morning kayaking and snorkeling off the coast in Olowalu Village, and were starving. But in the moment, anyway, I've found few sandwiches as satisfying as the Reuben I had at Leoda's Kitchen, another place opened by Sheldon Simeon. Layers of shaved corned beef, oozy Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and thousand island dressing piled onto thickly sliced, griddled rye bread - what's not to like? The single-serve macnut-chocolate praline pie was a winner too.

Leoda's Kitchen and Pie Shop
820 Olowalu Village Road, Lahaina Maui

Leoda's Kitchen and Pie Shop on Urbanspoon

4. Shave Ice at Ululani's Hawaiian Shave Ice (Lahaina). You can get shave ice all over the islands - and we did - but the best we had was at Ululani's Shave Ice in downtown Lahaina. Unlike the typical, treacly day-glo syrups that look and taste like nothing from the natural world, Ululani's flavors its powdery, freshly shaved ice with all natural syrups made in-house, many from the plethora of tropical fruits that are available locally. Little Miss F opted here for green tea and lychee. I was partial to mango with li hing mui powder (salted dried plum), which became something of an obsession for me during our time in Hawaii.[2]

Ululani's Hawaiian Shave Ice
790 Front St., Lahaina Maui

Ululani's Hawaiian Shave Ice on Urbanspoon

(continued ...)

5. Grilled Octopus at Honu (Lahaina). The combination of casual setting, fantastic views and great food is a rare trifecta. Honu hit all three. An open, airy dining room that literally backs right up onto the rocks of the Lahaina coast, Honu bills itself as a "Seafood and Pizza" place, which kind of sells it short. It was probably my favorite meal during our stay on Maui's northwest coast: great ingredients, prepared well, with some creative and well-tuned flavors. I liked the crispy pig ears with lavender and a Korean-spiced aioli, and the salt and pepper Dungeness crab, but the best dish we had there was an appetizer of grilled octopus, served over a verdant edamame hummus, generously drizzled with a mojo verde and good olive oil, with crusty, earthy flax seed toast for dipping.

1295 Front St., Lahaina Maui

Honu Seafood and Pizza on Urbanspoon

6. Tomatoes with Taro Hummus at Merriman's (Kapalua). Peter Merriman was one of the pioneers of the local food movement in Hawaii, who more than 20 years ago started nurturing relationships with local farmers instead of flying in all of his product. He's parlayed that movement into great success, and now has restaurants on Big Island, Maui and Kauai. His Maui restaurant is part of the upscale Kapalua Resort, and was the most resort-y of the restaurants we tried. The venue was postcard perfect, especially at sunset. The food was - well, kind of touristy and stuck in the 90's: salads with strawberries, macadamia nut crusted fish. But still good, especially the raw ingredients. The best example were the sweet, intense, locally grown cherry tomatoes that were served along with some other vegetable crudités and a cold smoked taro hummus. If I could have just a bowl of those while watching the sun go down over the ocean, I could be very happy.

1 Bay Club Place, Lahaina Maui

Merriman's on Urbanspoon

7. Mopsy's Kalua Pork Pizza & Pele Pesto Pizza at Flatbread Company (Paia). Paia is on the opposite side of the island from Lahaina, up on the north coast, a funky surfing town that also serves as the sort of unofficial gateway of the Road to Hana. The most well-known restaurant in Paia is probably Mama's Fish House, but we had some driving ahead of us and were looking for something more casual. At Flatbread Company, pizzas are baked in a massive wood-burning oven in the very center of the restaurant, and topped with combinations of mostly locally-sourced ingredients.

We went half-and-half. One side was Hawaiian style (something I consider sacrilegious unless I'm Hawaii), topped with kiawe wood smoked pork shoulder, Maui pineapple, mango barbecue sauce, red onions, local goat cheese, and mozzarella; the other half was garnished with a macadamia and basil pesto, local goat cheese, mozzarella, basil, tomatoes and kalamata olives. It turned out to be one of those unexpected pleasant surprises, an unheralded place that was much better than anticipated.

Flatbread Company
89 Hana Highway, Paia Maui

Flatbread on Urbanspoon

8. Mahi Mahi with Green Curry at Nutcharee's Authentic Thai Food (Hana). Most people do the Road to Hana as a day trip, with brief stop-offs. The town of Hana and the surrounding area are gorgeous, but somewhat isolated and still pretty undeveloped. We elected to spend a few days there. It turns out there were basically only two actual restaurants in town: the one restaurant in the one (smallish) resort in town, the Travaasa Hana; and the rather uninspiring Hana Ranch Restaurant. The other options are all basically roadside stands - which provided some of the best meals we had the whole trip.

Nutcharee's operates out of a tarp-covered space along Uakea Road, next door to the Luana Spa Retreat and across the street from Ball Park. They're only there certain days of the week, and like most of these places, only during daytime hours. The special of the day -green curry with mahi - was fantastic. Fresh, local fish, the brightness of fresh vegetables (eggplant, green beans, peppers), the zing of curry spice - all served up on a paper plate.

Nutcharee's Authentic Thai Food
5050 Uakea Road, Hana Maui

9. Drunken Opakapaka at Thai Food by Pranee. On days that Nutcharee's isn't there, Pranee takes over the same space. I'd be hard pressed to pick a favorite. This "drunken" (a/k/a "kee mao") opakapaka (a/k/a pink snapper), served with long beans and crispy basil leaves, was every bit as good as Nutcharee's green curry mahi, maybe even better. Definitely worth going back to do your own compare and contrast.

Thai Food by Pranee
5050 Uakea Road, Hana Maui

10. Potesto Pizza at Clay Oven Pizza. We rented a house while in Hana, anticipating we'd be mostly cooking in at night. But we were also happy to discover that a couple nights a week, some folks set up shop, fire up a wood-burning outdoor clay oven, and make pizzas in a field near Mile Marker 31 along the Hana Highway, just a bit up the road from the turn-off for Wai-anapanapa State Park. Bring your own beer, and make yourself comfortable on a picnic table nestled in among all the tropical vegetation.

They offered nearly a dozen different combinations of toppings, many with locally-grown ingredients, and of those we tried my favorite was the "Potesto" pizza, topped with thin-sliced potatoes, roasted garlic cloves, caramelized onions, pesto, bechamel and parmesan cheese. With its bubble-pocked, charred-in-spots crust, it would have pleased any pizza aficionado. To find it in the midst of one of the most beautiful places on earth - well, that was a real treat.

Clay Oven Pizza
Hana Highway Mile Marker 31, Hana Maui

[1] The rest, actually, were somewhat disappointing. The Hapa Ramen came in a murky, greyish-purple broth with no distinct flavor, and the Star Udon with roast pork were bland. We picked up take-out, so perhaps the travel was part of the cause.

[2] Nearly every convenience store in Maui had dried mango strips dusted with this li hing mui powder - if anyone knows where I can score some of the stuff locally, please speak up.


  1. I recently had breakfast at Sarentos On The Beach in Maui. The food was great, and of course the view was also amazing. From your picture, Honu looks like a great place to spend an evening.

  2. A great list, nice! If you're interested, check out our list of top must try Hawaii foods: https://lookintohawaii.com/hawaii/48454/top-must-try-hawaii-foods-information-all-islands-hi