1764 Wili Pa Loop in the Millyard Wailuku
Open Mon.-Sat., 10am-9:30pm & Sunday 10am-8:30pm
I didn’t expect to find exceptional Vietnamese food in the Wailuku Millyard area, but often the best discoveries in life are unexpected. Although Wili Pa Loop is home to Sam Sato’s, it was definitely a surprise to find another great restaurant hidden up there among the printing businesses, union offices and dentists.
Asian Star is open for lunch and dinner. Their menu is extensive, with more than 90 individual items. They also have a bar, and wine and beer lists at the tables. The decor is sparse. A wide-open dining room plays instrumental cover songs, and is decked out subtly with Chinatown-style wood art, with mother of pearl inlays displaying traditional themes here and there on the walls. There is an oddly placed podium, stage and dance floor, which must be for private parties because I couldn’t find an entertainment schedule.
The first few things that jumped out at me on the menu were the “steak house” options, including a New York steak. They have Vietnamese fondue (Nhung Dam), and Vietnamese burritos. When you think Vietnamese you may think veggie-centric, but here it looks like beef lovers can rejoice. I started with a noodle bowl with fried spring rolls and grilled beef (Bun Cha Gio Thit Nuong, or number 37 if you’re not into the whole pronouncing thing). Vietnamese cuisine is known for its use of fresh herbs like mint and basil, and for combining those with lettuce, bean sprouts, pickled carrots, cucumber and daikon. As a result there are a lot of salad dishes with hearty elements.
My husband ordered the Vietnamese burrito, Banh Hoi, with the boneless chicken breast with garlic (number 47), considered a house specialty. The ingredients are brought out on a plate, and you get rice paper and hot water to roll your own “burrito.”
The spring roll and grilled beef noodle bowl came with generous portions of vegetables and the grilled beef was incredible. Thinly sliced and expertly marinated, it had flavors of ginger and lemon and sweet teriyaki. Each bite is different, but the combination of crunch, savory and fresh herbs jumps out to greet your taste buds. A dish of sweet and sour Nuoc Mam sauce accompanies the bowl and you pour it over the whole business before you get down to business.
Our roll-your-own experience was excellent as well. The rice paper is surprisingly not that difficult to negotiate. Dip it in the hot water for 10-30 seconds, pull it out and lay it on your plate. Lay the lettuce, mint, bean sprouts, daikon, carrot and cucumber in there and top it with a piece of chicken breast, and stretch one side of the rice paper over to the other to form a roll. Dip in the sauce and enjoy.
My return trip to Asian Star was for dinner. I was interested in the fondue. My young daughter loves shrimp and won’t eat anything spicy, so my server recommended the shrimp vegetables, Tom Xao Thap Cam (number 74). We also got summer rolls with shrimp, Goi Cuon Tom (number 1), along with the fondue, Tom Muc & Bo Nhung Dam (number 53). The shrimp dish was perfect, tender broccoli and cabbage in an extremely mild sauce with tail-on shrimps mixed in. My daughter is a pro with shrimp, gripping them by the tail and taking them down leaving only the crusty shell behind. Their summer rolls are just as you would expect, though the peanut sauce is a little milder then I am used to. But the fondue was the real party at this dinner.
Asian fondue is generally bowls of seasoned broth that you dip meats into. This one was no different. The broth came on a plate with a heat source underneath that allows it to boil at your table. The broth had lots of onion and pineapple and tomato in it. The surprise here was that this was just like the Vietnamese burrito in presentation, except you’re cooking your own filling this time. The beef was very thinly sliced and cooked the fastest; the shrimp and calamari also took very little time. You just grab it with the chopsticks and drop it into the broth, meanwhile preparing your rice paper because you’re going to wrap the cooked proteins up with veggies and noodles.
In all, Asian Star is a stellar dining experience, with a fun do-it-yourself element. But it’s the fresh ingredients and creative dishes that set this hidden gem apart.