Maui no ka ‘ai
They call Maui the Valley Isle. I call it home, the place where I grew up. But it is also, as is every place I’ve ever been, a groaning board, a grazing table.
My frequent visits always include a set menu: noshing on made-by-Lola (“Grandma”) Filipino treats at the Maui Swap Meet; driving up winding Omaopio Road to see the goats and stock up on cheese and an incongruous lime pickle they make (and maybe a light lunch) at Surfing Goat Dairy and at least one plate lunch at a cheap, old-style local favorite: Tokyo Tei, Archie’s, Sam Sato’s, Da Kitchen, one of those.
As to destination spots, I could fill half this issue with suggestions. More to come another day — particularly Alan Wong’s new Amasia.
Leoda’s Kitchen and Pie Shop
in Olowalu is about as unlikely a spot as you could imagine. Olowalu is a turn-your-head-and-you-miss-it spot halfway between the busy isthmus of Kahului-Wailuku-Kihei-Wailea and touristy Lahaina-Kaanapali-Kapalua. It consists of one tiny strip mall now home to the most recent opening by a savvy company that operates several respected Maui establishments, Hoaloha Na Eha.
But Leoda’s, named for a real Grandma and with a cozy, kitchen feel, is perfect for its rural location. On a chalkboard, there are not only the specials of the day, but a quote from the tiny village’s most famous citizen, athlete Wally Yonamine: “Olowalu makes me humble.”
Nothing humble about Leoda’s food, especially the pies, both sweet and savory mini-pies, as well as breads and the amazing sandwiches they make from them. Chef Sheldon Simeon does some crazy things that really work, such as a Reuben lumpia special I had once ($8.25), corned beef, sauerkraut, provolone in a lumpia wrapper, deep fried. Deep sigh. It was all the crunchy, porky, tart, nutty things it should have been. Also try “pork, pork . . . pork” ($12.75), which brings together prosciutto, ham, bacon and salami on housemade butter white bread with Swiss cheese and grainy mustard. Deep sigh, again. And then order whatever fresh fruit pie they’re featuring, or the banana cream, which really will make you think of Grandma.
another Hoaloha Na Eha restaurant, rather reminds me of Sam Choy’s original Kaloko location. You snake off the main highway in an industrial area, turn right, turn left, are sure you’re lost and then discover one of the most innovative restaurants in the Islands (also one of the busiest; be willing to wait). What they can do with otherwise familiar mostly Asian ingredients — housemade noodles, pork buns, Vietnamese crepes! I can’t tell you what to order because a) there are too many must-haves, and b) there’s always something new. I recall with delight a sort of Asian burrito: marinated pork belly with brown rice and pickled vegetables. Star Noodle has been called “Momofuku meets Maui” and I love everything about it: the servers who really engage with you and all look like people whose stories you’d liked to hear; the contemporary Asian decor that is somehow comfortable, not cold; the palate-pleasing squeeze-bottle sauces that come with some dishes. Share plates, average $7-$15; noodles, average $10-$12.
Colleen’s at the Cannery
is another who’d-a-thunk-it. It’s in a strip mall up the road from Pa’ia; kind of a “Cheers” sort of spot where more than half the customers are regulars; there’s a well-stocked New Yorkish tavern-style bar; excellent pizza and burgers and no need to dress up. My measure of a chef’s prowess is a sneaky one: Order the simplest things on the menu, something like a salad and a roast chicken. At Colleen’s, those two dishes knocked me out. The salad married fresh pear slices, local goat cheese, sunflower sprouts and greens and the roast chicken was perfection: crisp outside, juicy inside. And even the higher-end items on the menu are reasonably priced (considering you’re on Maui; we spent $70 for two first courses, two entrees, a cocktail and a soft drink).
MALA and Honu
Lahaina to me means Mark Ellman. I met him there more than 20 years ago when his storied Avalon was attracting the likes of Yoko Ono, and the Hawaii Regional Cuisine group of which he is a founding member wasn’t born yet. Now, he’s got two-side-by-side, right-on-the-water spots, MALA, An Ocean Tavern, and the newer Honu. I’ve eaten at both but since my visit to Honu was a flying stop-in for a single salad pupu (an unforgettable kale-date-pomegranate-lemon melange), I’ll report on that later. As to MALA, it’s a crowded, lively, odd little spot with a sports bar inside and tables where you’re so close to the water that you might get splashed (and see anything from turtles to spinner dolphins). I’m nuts for their flatbreads. But there was a whole fish one time that even I, not a fish fancier, can’t forget. I like it best with two couples, an outside table and a whole evening ahead of you but it’s also a great, sit-at-the-bar, stop-in spot, too. Spendy: Apps,$15 up; entrees $30s, up.