Hawaii Eats: Waicoco at the Westin Maui Resort, Maui
Lahaina, Maui, HI — It’s been nearly four years since I last stepped foot inside a plane. (Yeah, thanks a heap, Covid.) But with a gracious invitation to stay and dine this year at the Westin Maui Resort & Spa as its guest, Hawaii proved the perfect destination to take to the skies once again.
With its low infection rate and year-round balmy weather that makes outdoor or open-air dining possible year-round, Hawaii was one of the first prime destinations that travelers headed to in droves once the pandemic began to subside. That proved both unnerving — since Maui, for instance, only has two hospitals — and a boon, because Hawaii’s main industry of tourism bounced back more quickly than anticipated.
Save for mask wearing at times indoors by some workers, locals and yours truly, you’d never know anything had ever been amiss because crowds of visitors were definitely back in force when I visited the Westin Maui last month.
Once checked in, many of those tourists probably never left the grounds, either, as this sprawling beachfront resort has everything one could need.
We’re talking six pools, including one with a water slide; outdoor massage cabanas; a large gym; a waterfall; real flamingos; talking parrots in decorative cages; an outdoor luau show; a grab-and-go market; Starbucks; a lively outdoor bar; and of course, the signature restaurant, Waicoco, by chef-owners and friends, Chris Kajioka and Mourad Lahlou (of San Francisco’s Aziza and Mourad).
The resort’s recently renovated Hokupa’a Tower is where my husband and I stayed in an airy room that afforded a view of the beach from the balcony. There are no room keys, per se. Instead, you’re given a wrist band that activates the sensor in your door to unlock it.
If you stay in the tower, the wristband also gets you access to other perks, including to the beautiful lanai, complete with a private bar, infinity-edge shallow pool to rest your weary feet in, and entertainment by musicians, chef demos, and lei-making lessons.
Each day, guests of the Hokupa’a Tower also can start the day with breakfast bites on the lanai, which can include pastries, mini quiches, pancakes squiggled with Nutella, fresh fruit, and all the POG (passion, orange, and guava) juice you can drink.
In the evening on the lanai, there are pu pus to enjoy before dinner. And in between, ice cream bars and packaged snacks like Hawaiian taro chips there for the taking.
Of course, I was saving every inch of stomach room for Waicoco, which is a good thing because many of the dishes there are sizeable.
Steps from Ka’anapali Beach, the restaurant is an ideal setting to catch the sunset, especially if you snag an outside table like we did.
Perhaps it was wishful thinking, but I couldn’t help but order the cocktail with the perfect name of “Permanent Vacation” ($18). Smoky with mezcal, heady with Maraschino liqueur, and with a subtle bitter edge from Amaro, it’s just the drink to kick back with after a long flight.
Warm Hawaiian rolls (four for $13) are an absolute must-order. Glossy from a brushing of melted butter, the golden rolls are squishy and fragrantly sweet, and served with whipped butter flecked with Aleppo pepper. They’re so wonderfully pillowy, I just wanted to lay my head on one if I hadn’t inhaled it instead.
The Waicoco Crudo that day was hamachi, cut into thin slices and served with a citrusy, creamy sauce. The sea asparagus salad garnish by itself is pretty salty, so just be warned that you’ll want to enjoy it with the fish to balance things out.
The kitchen also sent out a sample of its Crispy Adobo Pork Belly ($45 for a full entree size) that’s marinated for 18 hours. Pure crunchiness on the top and total juicy lusciousness within, it’s pork nirvana with sweetness and tang.
The entree of seared ahi ($45) is massive. I expected maybe a modest five slices fanned out on the plate, as is usually the case. What I got was the largest slab of seared ahi I’ve ever had — about the size of a steak. With its rich, meaty texture, it ate like a beef steak, too — in the best of ways. Dusted in “volcano spice” that’s like furikake, the fish lay atop a pool of tahini buerre blanc, and was dolloped with salsa verde. Peppery tasting, it almost mimicked steak au poivre but with fish instead. Ginger white rice and a mix of sweet-and-sour vegetables such as green beans, cauliflower and kabocha completed this dish, as they did with most of the entrees.
The Kimchi Fried Rice with Crispy Kaarage Chicken ($31) is another he-man-sized dish with a platter mounded with sweet-spicy fried rice enriched with green beans, peas and diced piquillo peppers that got extra heat from drizzles of spicy bonito mayo. The rice was crowned with batter-fried, boneless chicken that was super juicy. The fluffy rice may have lacked crispy bits, probably because it was made with fresh rather than day-old rice, but it’s so delicious you might not care.
My husband who apparently was ravenous after our flight earlier that day from California actually decided to order a third entree. However, we were sure glad that Waicoco’s director of operations, Gabriel Frieberg, former beverage director for San Francisco’s Delfina, recommended the Salmon Belly Bake ($34).
A take on an old-school locals’ favorite, as he described it, the dish features what is the fattiest part of the salmon, baked in a own cast-iron pan with more ginger rice and sweet-and-sour vegetables, plus cherry tomatoes, garlic oil, and coins of lap cheong (sweet Chinese sausage). The fish is incredibly succulent and really does pretty much melt in your mouth. This dish is total Asian comfort food.
For another can’t-miss homey taste, I went with the warm mango bread ($12) for dessert. Fluffy and moist, and cinnamon-spiced, it has a taste a little like persimmon bread. It’s served a la mode with Lappert’s vanilla ice cream on top.
After a feast like that, you’ll definitely want to go for a walk. You’re in luck, as one of the most lovely jaunts beckons just beyond your table.