Thai Chef is a little hole-in-the-wall dive without a liquor license or its own restroom, but it serves some of the strongest Thai food on the island, and offers an exceptional dining value.
Tables are crammed together and chair legs practically overlap each other, but patrons — many of whom have brought their own beer — don’t care at all once the friendly and enthusiastic servers bring the food. It’s super-fresh, well-prepared, and authentic. The menu covers everything you expect it to, including lots of vegetarian options.
We adore the pad Thai. This popular noodle dish is often the first one tasted by those new to the spicy, flavorful cuisine — which means it is often dumbed down: a bland pile of noodles with peanut bits dumped on top. Thai Chef treats it with great respect, making sure that the noodles are the perfect dense, scrumptious texture, the egg is tender, the protein (our favorite is pork) well-cooked, and the sauce … oh, this sauce. You might think “peanuts” when you think of this dish, and you would be correct, of course. But it’s not just peanuts. It’s also tamarind, and fish sauce, and rice wine vinegar, and scallions, garlic, cabbage, lime, red chili peppers … only the best things in life. Here you taste all of these in a perfect blend — sweet, spicy, sour, salty. The chopped peanut garnish isn’t just grit: it has a salty sweetness all to itself. We usually order Thai food “Hot” (and sometimes “Thai Hot”), but here we order this dish Medium. They are not afraid of insulting Western palates, and their Medium would be Hot at Thailand Cuisine, for example.
Another must-try is their snapper (opakapaka, or Hawaiian pink snapper, in season) with ginger sauce. The fish filet is steamed, skin left intact, until it is Perfectly Done. If you’ve never had this snapper, it’s a real treat — tender, moist, and delicate. In this sauce, it’s sublime. Fresh ginger, onions and carrots are slivered — toothpick-sized — and sautéed with spices and fish sauce to render a pungent, slightly sweet, fiery gravy. This one, we order Hot. Every time we eat this dish, we have the same thought: this same preparation could easily fetch three times the price if served at an upscale restaurant. It’s $13.95.
Other good choices include the larb: minced chicken, beef or pork (we like pork, again), grilled and combined with onions, bean sprouts, mint and cilantro with fish sauces and other spices. Lovely. The cabbage leaves are not decoration — eat them along with the meat to cool down the dish and add crunch and texture. We also like the curries, and the Evil Prince tofu. Vegetarians will l-o-v-e the clean flavors and super-fresh food, as well as the many vegetarian options.
We are not such huge fans of many of the appetizers. The crab and pork toast never works for us, and the spring rolls are greasy. But the fish cakes are nice, and the cucumber vinaigrette that comes with is light and flavorful. We also like the green papaya salad. Despite the occasional long wait for a table and the cramped seating, there’s a lot of love coming out of that tiny kitchen, and we’re happy there’s such good Thai in Lahaina. We also love that it’s BYOB.
Address: 878 Front St., Lahaina, West Maui
Location: In the Old Lahaina Centre near KFC
Meals: Lunch, Dinner
Hours: M-F 11am-2pm (lunch), M-Sa 5pm-9pm (dinner), closed Sunday
Parking: Lot (drive past the restaurant for spots that aren’t reserved)