Steamed Pork Buns made with pork, hoisin, shiitake and cucumber.

Steamed Pork Buns made with pork, hoisin, shiitake and cucumber.

Lahaina’s ultra-trendy noodle bar shines on.

Heeding the ramen phenomenon that swept through the nation in recent years, Star Noodle opened its doors to a curiously hungry public in 2010 and kept them craving ever since.

Its legend began with a research trip to New York, where the opening team dove into bowls upon bowls of ramen from noodle meccas such as Ippudo and Momofuku. Star Noodle’s first and soon-to-be celebrity chef, Sheldon Simeon, was tasked to decode the beguiling flavors and translate the inspiration to suit local harvests and entice discerning palates—and that, he certainly did. The house-made noodles and smoky pork broth quickly drew a following, and the lone restaurant amid Lahaina’s industrial plaza instantly became a Maui hot spot. Following the opening, there were lofty accolades from James Beard Foundation and, of course, Simeon’s epic turn on Top Chef propelled the restaurant’s appeal to stratospheric heights. Star Noodle was on a roll.

But behind all the hype is a menu that packs some heat. Indeed, the restaurant’s vibe, concept and pork buns stand on the shoulders of big-city innovators, but the dishes that made the pass show a keen sense of locality. While David Chang’s bacon dashi proved to be Momofuku’s game-changer, Star Noodle’s broth is simmered from kalua pig luau bones supplied by the restaurant’s sister outlet, Old Lahaina Luau. The hearty Hapa ramen is a yin and yang nuanced swirl of pork dashi and mayu—essentially sesame oil and blackened garlic—and served with kamaboko or fish cake, aka or spicy red miso, bamboo shoots and a velvety poached egg.

The restaurant's popular Garlic Noodles; open for lunch and dinner, Star Noodle prides itself on its freshly made offerings.

The restaurant’s popular Garlic Noodles; open for lunch and dinner, Star Noodle prides itself on its freshly made offerings.

When you get there, chances are a server will come through the kitchen doors with a hot cast iron plate trailing a cloud of fish sauce with just a tinge of vinegar. That deep umami scent comes from Filipino bacon and eggs, a play on sisig and lechon kawali, and the unsung hero of the menu. In place of traditional grilled and diced pig ears, cubes of pork belly are served sizzling with onions and a sous vide egg. The server might recommend mixing the egg around, but I prefer the egg luscious and yolky with each unctuous bite of pork belly.

The sweet and salty pohole fern salad is assembled with dried shrimp, kombu or kelp, Maui onions, tomatoes and sesame oil. Fiery sambal gives ample edge to the lovely mix of tuna and buttery avocado tossed in lemon-pressed olive oil and mild usukuchi shoyu. Excellent seared scallop shots get some heat from ginger while bathing in fish sauce, wafu dashi and green onion pureé. A folded, crispy Vietnamese crepe of ground pork and shrimp cooked in coconut milk, fresh herbs and nuoc cham comes with butter lettuce, Thai basil, cilantro and mint. Fermented pohole ferns and radish add brightness in between bites. More pickled offerings are grown on the restaurant farm. While the farm mainly harvests mana ‘ulu or yellow taro for the lu’au, a recently built garden now yields various herbs, shishito peppers, eggplants, tomatoes and cucumbers.

The restaurant’s peculiar location is part of its charm. Perched near Lahaina’s recently built bypass, it overlooks a sprawling neighborhood of business centers and condos, eschewing the typical meticulously manicured landscaping or tourist-filled Front Street locale. You can see neighboring Lanai and just a sliver of ocean. As you walk up to the entrance, thumping bass echoes from a CrossFit box across the road. Prepare for it to be busy. Waiting more than an hour is not uncommon during dinner rush. Lunch is a little less hectic. But once you’re seated, the energetic staff swiftly gets you taken care of.

The space displays a modern Asian polish punctuated with artwork by iconic street artist Shepard Fairey. A communal table splits the room and an open nook behind the bar gives a peek inside the kitchen. The bar keeps diners buzzy with a list of sake cocktails and other well-crafted libations, like fresh Thai basil lemonade with Momokawa sake and Tombo shochu, or a margarita spiced up with house-made jalapeño shrub.

The restaurant's popular Garlic Noodles; open for lunch and dinner, Star Noodle prides itself on its freshly made offerings.

The restaurant’s popular Garlic Noodles; open for lunch and dinner, Star Noodle prides itself on its freshly made offerings.

After Simeon left the company for a brief hiatus before launching Migrant restaurant in Wailea, the coveted gig was up for grabs. It was an intimidating undertaking, but Chef Ivan Pahk was up for the challenge. Having run Sansei Sushi Bar and Restaurant for 14 years, Pahk is no stranger to a high-volume venue. Honolulu born and raised, the half-Japanese, half-Korean chef got his start when he signed up with the Marines as a cook. After his service during the first Gulf War, he emerged a confident chef and moved to Maui in 1997. Pahk joined Na Hoaloha `Ekolu restaurant group as executive chef in May 2014, and splits his time among the company’s multiple kitchens including Aloha Mixed Plate, Leoda’s Kitchen and Pie Shop, and the aforementioned lu`au. At press time, chef Dylan Montano, formerly of Frida’s Mexican Beach House, was tapped to lead the Star Noodle kitchen.

While most chefs might be concerned about putting their personal stamp on a menu, Pahk functions more as a technician who fine-tunes the recipes at hand. “We want a nice place for the community to get great noodles and some awesome sides,” he shared. “We don’t really mess around so much.”

So what sets the noodles apart? “The noodles are made with high-gluten flour to get a high-protein percentage, and potassium carbonate for better elasticity,” explains Pahk. Diversity is key when it comes to these coveted bowls. Fried saimin is vividly flavored with Spam, egg, kamaboko and bean sprouts. The savory chow fun is cut thick and chewy, and stir-fried with choi sum, chili oil and black bean sauce. The hot ‘n’ sour soup is a twangy version of spicy pho in wafu dashi and sambal, with a nice acidic pop from lime juice. The intense kim chee ramen is beautifully offset with silky tamago egg, bean sprouts and shredded pork.

For dessert, try the classic sugarcoated malasadas on a stick served alongside chocolate and butterscotch caramel sauces, and crushed peanuts for dipping. Or indulge in a trio of house-made ice cream.

Star Noodle, 286 Kupuohi St., Lahaina, (808) 667-5400 or starnoodle.com

All photos courtesy Star Noodle