CRADLED in WEST MAUI
Article and photos by Virginia Miller
Nestled in the cove of Napili Bay, swimming with the sea turtles and gazing out at the islands of Molokai and Lanai, Napili Kai Beach Resort was my favorite stay in Maui. First driving up to the resort off a winding neighborhood road, the appearance is dated: like a weathered 1980’s resort well past its prime. But I needn’t have feared: our corner room in one of the many buildings lining the coast was modern and lovely, with expansive windows gazing out at the sea and neighboring islands.
Lounging on our deck, we beheld more than one rainbow each morning, reveled in sunsets and were lulled to sleep by the sound of waves. The peaceful resort features a restaurant (see Sea House below) with an unexpectedly different, delicious brunch. The resort is decidedly unhip or flashy and is, instead, what I would hope for in Hawaii: a retreat, an escape, a restorative place.
For music lovers, Napili Kai offers a rare treat: a humble, open air concert hall featuring slack key guitar shows hosted by George Kahumoku, Jr. We were lucky enough to be there when the great Ledward Kaapana played a show, mesmerized by his Hendrix-level-of-greatness guitar stylings. As a gentle backdrop to his tunes, rainstorms passed over, the air full with moisture, leaving a soft dewiness in its wake.
Cradled in Napili Bay and our quiet room facing the sea, I already dreamed of returning.
LEODA’S KITCHEN & PIE SHOP, Olowalu
Just south of the town of Lahaina is my top West Maui meal: Leoda’s Kitchen & Pie Shop. The shop is run by a former Californian Rosie Robbins, Cali clearly being an influence on farm fresh ingredients and modern, gourmet aesthetic – she talked of gathering inspiration and ideas for Leoda’s in San Francisco. Reminiscent of home, local farms featured in the menu are listed on a chalkboard near the register.
Local cuisine is highlighted in the likes of dreamy cream pies (macadamia chocolate praline!) and a rare, sashimi-grade ahi tuna sandwich ($15) on grilled rye bread, layered with avocado, caramelized Kula onions, Jarlsberg cheese, basil pesto, garlic aioli and watercress.
Playfulness shows in appetizers like rueben lumpia ($8.25): corned beef, sauerkraut and provolone cheese fried and crispy, dipped in 1000 Island dressing. Reclaimed woods and farmhouse accents make the bright dining room inviting, but it’s also an easy roadside stop (being order-at-the-counter) to grab food to take back to one’s hotel or for a beach picnic, as you drive along the West Maui coast.
STAR NOODLE, Lahaina
Up the hill from downtown Lahaina, Star Noodle is the hip, fun kind of noodle restaurant one finds in big cities: ultra fresh fish, festive drink menu and a modern aesthetic. Chef Sheldon Simeon is a James Beard nominated chef and Top Chef star, churning out an all-around pleasing menu downed with flights of sake and Stargaritas ($10-12), margaritas lively with fresh citrus like calamansi lime, lemon and orange.
Highlights include ahi avo, essentially a raw ahi tuna poke (market price), brightly tossed in lemon-pressed olive oil with a hint of heat from sambal chili sauce, or the common-but-nonetheless-satisfying Momofuku imitator of steamed pork buns ($10) dotted with hoisin sauce, shiitake mushrooms and cucumber. It’s hard to find a bad dish in the lot.
TOUR DA FOOD, Maui – Bonnie Friedman
True foodies would do well to schedule a tour with opinionated, informed local food writer and chef, Bonnie Friedman. During her intimate food tours, Tour Da Food, she leads you through completely under-the-radar food treasures. As a NY native, her no-nonsense, frank nature offers a unique perspective on Maui, while her nearly thirty years on the island means selections will be thoughtful and unusual.
She might begin the tour in the shadow of lush, green mountains in Kepaniwai Park’s Heritage Gardens. Having studied up on Hawaiian cuisine and history during each of my visits to four Hawaiian islands, I’ve seen no better snapshot of the range of cultures that formed its unique cuisine in one place. A Chinese pagoda, Japanese lake, Portuguese gardens and Spanish fountain coexist next to Hawaiian plantation structures and signs of Filipino influence – a few of the countries that collided here, forming Hawaiian cuisine. There’s a sacred spirit in the gardens, the right place to catch a bit of Friedman’s passion about for local food.
Bring your appetite. You might begin with rich butter mochi from over 50 year old Home Maid Bakery, a local interpretation of Japanese mochi made with (you guessed it) butter. Then you’ll move on to out-of-the-way spots for a series of bites: markets, chemical and paper plant (true), even gas stations.
Friedman leads a tour solely on gas station eats for those seeking the truly unusual. A mayo-rich casserole of Hawaiian opakapaka fish at a Chevron was a highlight of the tour, a special the owner only bakes on certain Fridays. These are the tips Friedman has in her deep knowledge of Maui food. Exploring the town of Wailuku, the one well-known stop we made was lunch at Sam Sato’s for dry mein (the non-broth version of classic Hawaiian noodle soup, saimin), teriyaki meat sticks (skewers of jerky-like, grilled beef), and warm pineapple or coconut turnovers.
SEA HOUSE RESTAURANT at NAPILI KAI BEACH RESORT, Lahaina
Napili Kai’s Sea House open-air setting is a dreamy beachside respite (7-11am daily), and easily the best breakfast I had in Maui. Unusual dishes are even artful, like a fluffy Molokai sweet potato egg frittata ($10), dramatic with local purple potatoes, laced with spinach, caramelized Maui onions, and cheese in a spiced hollandaise and vegetable ragout.
Da Kitchen Sink fried rice ($10) is jasmine fried rice mixed with “da kitchen sink” catch-all of this and that: Portuguese sausage, onions, carrot, water chestnuts, pineapple and rock shrimp topped with two fried eggs over reprints of a vintage Honolulu newspaper. Sipping champagne (sparkling wine) and fresh guava juice, breakfast here is leisurely, soothing, truly a vacation.
ONO TACOS, Lahaina
Rather than the Hawaiian-style ahi tacos one finds throughout Hawaiian islands, roadside taco stand, Ono Tacos, transported me straight back to California with Sonoran-style tacos and authentic Mexican street food, even what is ubiquitous in SF: bacon-wrapped hot dogs.
LAHAINA GRILL, Lahaina
In the center of the bustling, touristy yet engaging little town of Lahiana is Lahaina Grill, locals and tourists’ favorite night out. It’s pricey, in keeping with $30-40’s entrees one typically sees around Hawaii, especially for what is a comfortable, not fine dining, setting.
Packed since 1990, Lahaina Grill is fiercely local, showcasing some of the best interpretations of Maui cuisine. $23 is outrageous for a tomato salad, but it’s a beauty of layers of local Olowalu tomatoes, bufala mozzarella and Maui onions doused in shaved basil, truffle oil, aged balsamic vinaigrette, olive oil and black Kilauea sea salt.
Their most popular starter is The Cake Walk ($24), a trio of mini seafood cakes: Maine lobster crab cake, Pacific Northwest white rock shrimp cake and seared ahi cake. Though each wasn’t quite as complex and interesting in flavor as I hoped, presentation was impressive.
I fared best with generously portioned entrees, like hefty, seared California lion paw scallops ($41) over a celery root-herb mash. The dish is decadent in a relish of roasted Kula corn, sweet, grilled tomatoes, a lobster champagne sauce and crisp pancetta chips.
MALA OCEAN TAVERN, Lahaina
The patio of beloved, tiny Mala Ocean Tavern was an ideal afternoon respite for watching sea turtles hovering along the shore just below the restaurant.
But I was let down by each dish and cocktail, including a flavorless ahi burger ($18.50), a thin, dry patty on a whole wheat bun… the one disappointing meal from my heavily researched Maui list of go-tos.
Gelato, Shave Ice, Guri-Guri, Cookies
ONO GELATO, Lahaina
With two locations (Lahaina and Paia), Ono Gelato is top quality, local Maui gelato. Luxurious with heavy cream and whole milk, their flavors delight, from refreshing lemon thyme Chardonnay or cool cucumber mint to bracing chocolate stout or bacon doughnut. As a peanut butter fanatic, I am nuts about the Sandy Beach flavor. Peanut butter gelato, fortified with sea salt, graham cracker crumbs (the sandy part) and coconut crumble? Beautiful.
Worth a stop on its own, their coffee is the best I had on Maui from local roasters, the one place I found espressos and cappuccinos prepared with a European, even third wave, precision.
ULULANI’S HAWAIIAN SHAVE ICE, Lahaina
With three Maui locations, including a window tucked off the waterfront in Lahaina, Ululani’s is simply the best shave ice I’ve ever had on any of the islands. Akin to what Hansen’s Sno-Bliz does for sno-balls in New Orleans, Ululani’s steps up typically sugary, neon-colored flavorings and syrups with quality ingredients and a purer, fresher taste than you’ll find elsewhere. Special combos call out from a daily specials board, like a banana, lilikoi (passion fruit) and li hing mui (dried salted plum) winning me over with tart, tropical coolness. Add on traditional, creamy condensed milk and it’s perfection.
TASAKA GURI-GURI, Kahului
In a humble, dated strip mall in commercial Kahului (near the airport), Tasaka Guri-Guri is a classic Maui shop serving merely two flavors of guri guri: strawberry and pineapple. With Japanese roots, the beloved treat of Hawaiian children is like a creamy sherbet, mixing juices and condensed milk in a secret family recipe. Candy sweet strawberry didn’t appeal to me but pineapple was lively and palate-cleansing. Around (moving locations) for nearly 100 years, it’s a Hawaiian institution worth visiting.
OLOWALU GENERAL STORE, Olowalu
Where many drinks or shave ice versions of li hing mui (dried salted plum) around the islands are far sweeter than they should be (the best li hing mui-flavored items contrast salty and sweet) this shop does it right, blending a killer li hing mui ice, a salty-sweet refresher I’d stop by for any time on the road to Lahaina.
TOM’s MINI-MART, Wailuku
One of the stops during my tour with Bonnie Friedman (Tour Da Food), Tom’s Mini-Mart, serves giant shave ice with house made syrups from sweet staff who’ve been perfecting shave ice in this liquor mart for years. Powdery ice is best with condensed milk added over vivid tropical flavors.
BROKE DA MOUTH COOKIES, Kahului
Though a recent change in ownership at this cookie shop near the airport means I have no comparison to its earlier incarnation, Broke Da Mouth Cookies still seems to remain quite popular with locals. Everything is blessedly cheap, but I was disappointed in cinnamon rolls and dry cookies in general, but for a coffee mac nut shortbread, flecked with espresso bean flakes. Thankfully, they offer samples of all their shortbreads and cookies so you can decide on your favorite.
OLD LAHAINA LUAU, Lahaina
From the owners of Leoda’s, Star Noodle and neighboring Aloha Mixed Plate (where one can dine on the food served at the luau), Old Lahaina Luau is known for serving above-average food from the majority of luaus available to travelers. Despite the kitschy nature of a touristy luau, I’ve always wanted to go once (even better, get invited to a locals’ luau). After the quality of their other restaurants, I knew this was the one.
The food is a step above for buffet style food served to hundreds of people, even if not a destination for on its own merit. It’s traditional fare like sweet potato, he’e poke (octopus), island crab salad, fried rice, lomilomi salmon, kalua pua’a pork, and the best: taro (poi) salad, lush in creamy coconut milk.
Despite sickly sweet, juice-heavy Mai Tais (better to stick with Maui Brewing Co. beer) and herds of tourist families and couples, Old Lahaina Luau manages to capture that unique-to-Hawaii magic in its idyllic, seaside setting. Set to live music pre-show, attendees wander around getting their photos taken, drinking coconut water from coconuts cracked on rustic tools, watching demos of basket weaving and other local traditions.
After a spectacular sunset, wandering amidst palms, monkeypod trees, tiki torches and statues, tables are released one-by-one (like being at a wedding) to a massive, orchestrated buffet dinner. After dusk, lights go out and a slick but engaging show of dance, music and Hawaii’s history plays out, mesmerizing and well worth seeing once in a visit to Hawaii.