Where to Eat on Maui if You're Not a Top Chef
In tonight's penultimate episode of Top Chef Season 11, the final three Cheftestants say goodbye to the Big Easy and arrive on the Hawaiian island of Maui. There they'll slice, sauté and serve their way to the final, which airs February 5 at 10 p.m. ET on Bravo.
While on the Valley Isle, the chefs will be living the luxe life in the villas at the new Andaz Maui at Wailea. The hotel, on Maui's South Shore, overlooks Mokapu Beach, which you can see in the background of this "Last Chance Kitchen" episode. The competitors also will be rubbing shoulders with Hawaiian culinary royalty: Sam Choy and Peter Merriman, two of the founders of Hawaii Regional Cuisine, and chef/owners at some of Hawaii's most recognized restaurants. (Merriman runs Merriman's Kapalua, and while Choy currently doesn't have an outpost on Maui, rumor has it he's considering a Kaanapali location.)
Following the chefs' footsteps on Maui is easy and delicious -- if you have the bank account to support it. But if you're traveling here without a Top Chef-caliber budget or palate, and just want some ono grinds (aka yummy food), here are some must-try Maui foods, and where to eat them:
You won't go hungry with this Hawaiian staple, nor will it hurt your wallet. Plate lunch dishes are often served on a paper plate or take-out container and are heaped with two scoops of white rice, a scoop of mac salad and a protein, like chicken katsu (fried chicken), lomi lomi salmon (fish rubbed with seasoning) or the loco moco (a burger topped with an egg and gravy).
Da Kitchen serves one of the island's most popular plate lunches -- its chefs were even invited to cook at President Barack Obama's inaugural luau in Washington, DC. There are two locations, in Kahului and Kihei, and plate lunches cost around $14. In Lahaina, Aloha Mixed Plate is another solid option, with the added bonus of beachfront dining (plate lunch dishes here range from $8 to $17). Oh, and just because it's called a lunch doesn't mean this filling meal isn't a great dinner choice.
Don't call it "shaved ice," and don't expect a snow cone. This fluffy ice treat is flavored with sugary syrups and is the best way to cool off after a day at the beach. You'll find the usual flavor suspects at most shave ice vendors, but we suggest trying something local, like pineapple, mango or li hing mui.
Many people add vanilla ice cream, sweet azuki beans or shaved coconut to their shave ice too. Stands are plentiful, but our favorite is Ululani's (locations in Lahaina, Kihei and Kahului), which has more than 50 flavors, including sugar-free options. Prices range from around $4 to $6.
It may sound like a funny Top Chef challenge, but cooking with SPAM is an integral part of Hawaii cuisine. SPAM musubi is the most popular version -- it looks a bit like a SPAM sushi roll, with a fried piece of meat laid on a small block of rice and rolled with nori (seaweed). The snack is everywhere -- restaurants, convenient stores -- but one of the best places to try it is at the Foodland grocery store in Lahaina.
Over the years, waves of immigrants from Japan, China, the Philippines and elsewhere have settled in Hawaii. Thanks to this rich mix of cultures, dishes from one country meet flavors from another and make delicious culinary babies here. A great place to taste this fusion is in Hawaii's noodle dishes, which blur the lines between Asian, Pacific Rim and local styles.
One Maui must-try is Sam Sato's dry mein noodles, which combines saimin noodle soup with char siu pork, green onions and bean sprouts to produce a comfort-food dish with roots in Japanese, Chinese and Hawaiian traditions. The Wailuku eatery serves the noodles by the size; dishes range from around $5 to $8. In a Lahaina industrial park, Star Noodles also shines, with a menu of noodle dishes ranging from Pad Thai to Udon and Local Saimin. All noodle dishes cost $15 or less.
You could eat seafood at every meal on Maui and still leave without trying everything that's available here. From dishes like mahi mahi and lomi lomi salmon to poke (chunks of seasoned raw seafood like ahi tuna or octopus), seafood offerings run the price gamut. But some of best bets are also the cheapest options, such as the poke at Foodland in Lahaina. If you're driving the windy route along the Hana Highway, stop at Paia Fish Market. It's down the road from the famed Mama's Fish House, but the prices are far lower (most entrees are under $20) and the atmosphere is casual.
Create Your Own Top Chef Experience
You don't need Padma telling you who should pack their knives and head home. Be your own judge at the annual Kapalua Wine & Food Festival, held in June. Or, check out the work of young chefs at the Maui Culinary Academy at the community college -- there's a food court that's open to the public and is an island secret for delicious affordable lunches.
MORE: Maui, Hawaii Travel Guide>>