In 2008, after nearly a decade with the Fairmont Kea Lani Resort, Executive Chef Tylun Pang had the opportunity to open a brand new restaurant concept. He decided that it should be a place where locals and visitors alike would enjoy the food traditions of Maui. His approach was groundbreaking, cooking local recipes intact, only adding presentation and the gourmet touches that you would expect at a resort dining experience. Ko was born.
This simple idea grew in popularity, and the casual outdoor space that Ko occupied near the Caffe Ciao Deli was outgrown. In 2011, a major remodel was launched to fit the space with its menu. Chef Pang’s menu honors each of Maui’s melting pot cultures: Filipino, Portuguese, Korean, Chinese, Japanese and Hawaiian dishes appear in gorgeous form, often sourced from old island recipes.
“It started with us wanting to share our local food traditions,” says Chef Pang. “We wanted to share it with the guests and show it off at a level not really seen before. It’s the kind of food you would get in a hole in the wall. The pancit is super popular and the soba stir fry is flying out of the kitchen.”
The menu takes you on a tour of plantation food traditions with fresh fish, noodles, grilled meats, greens and fried goodies. Chef Pang sources extensively from local frames and fisherman and says that “90 percent of our fridge is stocked locally right now.”
“Citrus and melon are the hardest part,” he says. ” It’s not practical for us to go farm to farm daily, but that is the part of farm-to-table we need to work on. We don’t harvest citrus like they do in Florida.”
One of their newest concepts at the restaurant is the ohana-style dishes that are served on share platters family style. Their most popular appetizer is the interactive “Ahi on the Rock–You Sear It.” Chef Pang shows that his traditional dishes can come with a little fun. The dish is served with a sizzling hot smooth rock and cute bite-sized cubes of shichimi speckled ahi. You hold it with a toothpick and sear to your satisfaction, before dipping it in the orange ginger miso sauce.
Other starters that are island favorites are the Portuguese bean soup and tofu salad, but we really enjoyed the Pohole fern and Kula greens in their Mauka Harvest Salad. The passion fruit vinaigrette is so good you’ll want to take it home. The plantation traditions carry on into the evening menu’s fresh catch where you can get five different preparations from black bean to steamed ti leaf to mac nut crust. The Kare Kare is Chef Aris’ family recipe, and the lobster tempura is a decadent Japanese seafood display.
The restaurant has a wonderful kama’aina program that offers 50 percent off food from 11:30am to 2:30pm and again from 5-6pm and 8-9pm. And now, if you eat at the bar you can get 50 percent off food and 25 percent off drinks anytime. Chef Pang says it’s been great seeing more locals enjoying his restaurant.
“I call our food ‘paparazzi food’ because everyone takes out their camera when it’s served,” he says. “The portion sizes are generous because the island style is not small portions of fu fu foods. It’s a shame if you run out! It’s so great for me to see the kama’aina coming here, sharing the food, enjoying the value.”
Chef Pang has a companion book named What Maui Likes to Eat that deconstructs his local recipes and serves as an amazing background to the restaurant Ko. All proceeds from his book go to the Maui Culinary Academy, where Chef Pang sits on the advisory board. He is a true community advocate for the Maui Culinary Academy, and every year the Kea Lani hosts their gala Noble Chef (this year’s takes place on Oct. 27). Save the date for Maui’s Premier food and wine event that benefits culinary education and supports the academy.