Even though it’s hidden up at the top of Lahaina’s industrial park, this tiny dining room is often packed for lunch and dinner. The hip, metropolitan ambience and the fresh, reasonably-priced cuisine attract plenty of locals, including us.
The kitchen staff took a research trip to New York City before crafting their menu, and they aspire to the greatness of legendary noodle houses like Momofuku and Wagamama. To some extent, they succeed.
We like to order several appetizers as a full meal, because they are both reasonably priced and generously portioned. We nearly always get the steamed pork belly buns, because they are just lovely, and nearly irresistible at $9. Served in a bamboo basket, the thick slabs of pork have a crunchy crust of seared fat — exactly the indulgence one looks for in a pork bun. The buns are soft and sweet, stuffed with Japanese cucumber and green onions.
Another under-$10 treat is the pan-roasted Brussels sprouts, with their perfectly charred outer leaves. Served with bacon and lick-the-plate kim chee puree, the appetizer portion is generous, though you and your companion might still fight over the last tender quarters.
The Vietnamese crepe is another standout, and big enough to serve as a satisfying, inexpensive ($10) meal. The crunchy folded crepe — which is more egg-y than pancake-y, to set your expectations if you’ve never had this classic dish — gives way to a medley of shrimp, pork, and bean sprouts. Add crisp butter lettuce, slivers of carrots and cilantro sprigs for even more flavor and texture.
The pohole fern salad is bright and crisp, perfectly dressed and mixed with onions, seaweed (kombu) and shrimp (ebi).
Most of the noodles are made in-house, as you would expect in a place that puts “noodle” in its name. They also make the several types of dashi (soup stock). Sadly, we’re not huge fans of the noodle bowls.
The Star Ramen should be the menu’s star, and its extra umami flavor certainly has its fans. The dashi’s smokiness comes honestly — it’s extracted from the pig bones that were smoke-roasted for long hours in the traditional imu from at Old Lahaina Luau. The result is a viscous and deeply flavorful stock, but that’s part of the problem: it’s too dense, it’s too rich. When the traditional egg is dropped in the bowl, it just gets more intense.
While the Hapa Ramen is a lovely thought: two broths ying-yanged in the same bowl that you mix yourself after admiring the presentation … it is similarly too heavy. Halve the richness and we’d be better able to evaluate the broths for their inherent flavor.
Some of the noodles dishes are downright confusing: the Look Funn noodles are tight little rolls arranged in a row besides a spattering of shrimp and scallops in black bean sauce. Neither element is powerful enough to survive the separation. The Lahaina Fried Soup isn’t soup at all — it’s a pile of thick noodles covered with crumbled pork on the dry-ish side.
The simpler noodle dishes fare better, particularly the garlic noodles. These feature both fresh and fried garlic and just enough (garlic) oil and soup stock to bring everything alive. We don’t even mind the candy-like bits that stick in our teeth.
Where this restaurant really excels is in the daily specials, so pay attention when the server goes over them. We particularly loved a delectable scallop dish topped with fried Brussels sprout leaves and served with kim chee mashed potatoes. The dusting of furikake (sushi seasoning) finished off this plate perfectly.
We’re never wowed by a malasada that isn’t scorch-your-mouth hot, but we admit the fried dough balls so named on the dessert menu are fun, and their accompanying dipping sauces are nice, too. We like the unique house-made sorbets and ice creams even better. Frosty spoonfuls of sumptuous sour cream or perfumed lychee are a lovely final note to a meal here.
Service is knowledgeable and efficient. There’s a full bar at the back of the room, and plenty of sakes and sake cocktails — even better — to try. We particularly like the Nigori cosmo and the berry sparkler (sparkling sake, lychee liqueur, and lemon). Prices are generally fair, making it easy to add a drink to an already reasonable bill.
On an island with plenty of sunset views and palm tree flourishes, it’s a relief to relax in this comfortable restaurant filled with modern lines, blond wood, river stones and slate tiles. The floor to ceiling windows bring in plenty of natural light and also offer a panoramic view of the faraway ocean (once you look past the parking lot and the industrial park). Several smaller tables line the window, but strangers don’t mind sliding in beside one another at the expansive twenty-seat communal table that dominates the center of the room. Charismatic screen prints by graffiti master Shepard Fairey complete the nod to the urban concept at work here.
What’s not-so-urban — and not-so-Maui-an, either — is the Absolutely Fabulous Bathrooms. Thank you, to whoever designed these chic oases — the pocket doors, barn-door latches, river stone walls and beautiful sinks are unexpected, and appreciated.
Address: 286 Kupuohi St., Lahaina, West Maui
Location: Turn from the highway onto Keawe St. and head up the hill away from Lahaina Cannery Mall. Turn right on Kupouhi (there’s no other option) and follow it up to the very top of the park. The restaurant is on your right.
Meals: Lunch, Dinner
Hours: Daily, 10:30am-10pm
Lot Phone: 808-667-5400