The scent of slow-cooked pork mingled with the heady aroma of grilled meat signals you’ve arrived at a Hawaiian restaurant. The heart of Hawaiian fare is in the meat. Huli huli chicken, barbecued beef and short ribs among the grilled selections; kalua and lau lau pork are slow-cooked offerings.
Huli huli chicken nearly always is made from dark thigh meat, pounded thin and tenderized with marinades or flavored with rubs, then grilled and slathered with a soy-based sauce sweetened with brown sugar and flavored with ginger and garlic. Barbecued beef is usually sinewy pieces of chuck roll, or a similar cut, marinated in soy and tenderized, then sliced thin and grilled until crispy around the edges. Ribbons of fattiness tug at the corners. Short ribs are cooked the same way, and have that same chewiness as the barbecued beef.
Those fatty meats might bother some American palates. “Hawaiian people don’t eat healthy,” joked Leianna Landon, who owns Pac Island Grill in Federal Way with her sister Raeleen Smith.
Landon said the hallmark of Hawaiian-style cooking – low and slow – requires fattier cuts of meat. Using a lean cut of pork then steaming it for 10 hours – which is how she prepares her pork lau lau – would result in a dried out dish, Landon said.
Fat equals flavor, agreed Sing Li, who opened Puyallup’s Aloha Hawaiian Grill in August 2008. “All the flavor comes from the fat, and the moisture, especially the pork. It won’t taste right without it,” he said.
Indeed, it wouldn’t.
Hawaiian cuisine is a fascinating intersection of myriad Asian cultures – the flavors of many cuisines infuse every bite.
“Hawaiian food is a combination of Chinese, Japanese, Korean and American, so it’s all kinds of flavor blended together and we call it Hawaiian food,” Li said. “In Hawaii, we have … all nationalities, Japanese people, Korean people, all over the Asian world, people have immigrated there … and you can taste it in the food.”
Add to that the Filipino, Portuguese and American influences, Li said, and diners will discover a mottled hodgepodge of eclectic eating.
At a single Hawaiian restaurant, diners might find katsu (Japanese), lumpia (Filipino), kalbi (Korean), kimchee (Korean), macaroni salad (American), linguisa (Portuguese) and adobo (Filipino) all sharing space on the menu. There’s something for everyone.
A report on Hawaiian food wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Spam. The canned meat plays heavily in Hawaiian cuisine. You’ll see it in musubi (Spam and teriyaki sauce rolled up inside rice and nori, like a sushi roll), in saimin soup, over eggs and rice, and in a handful of other dishes.
Here’s a look at the Hawaiian offerings at three South Sound restaurants. Have a favorite Hawaiian restaurant not listed here? Comment below.
Pac Island Grill
Where: 2012 S. 320th St., Federal Way
Info: 253-529-8667 or www.hawaiian stylebbq.net
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Sundays-Mondays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 11:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays.
The scene: Hawaiian barbecue dining in a breezy, welcoming atmosphere that starts with a friendly mahalo and instructions to seat yourself for table service.
The menu is classic Hawaiian, all the way down to the house-made haupia coconut pudding, Spam musubi and beer from Kona Brewing. The eclectic interior belies its strip mall locale – floor-to-ceiling windows sport soaring, willowy drapery. Vibrant green and orange walls adorned with kitschy surf boards contrast with mellow green cushy booths topped with vases of live bamboo and silk orchids. Unlike most order-at-the-counter Hawaiian restaurants sampled for this report, Pac Island Grill offers a full dining sit-down service, a notch above the competition.
Pac Island Grill was opened in 2005 by sisters Leianna Landon and Raeleen Smith with their husbands, David Landon and Jim Smith. Leianna and Raeleen’s father, known to play ukelele at the restaurant on weekends, was born on the island of Kauai and raised on Oahu.
Family recipes for lau lau and kalua pork pepper the menu. This is a true family operation – from the sisters and spouses who run the restaurant, to the father who shuttles dishes and the cousins who take table orders.
Dishes sampled: The Hawaiian BBQ Special combo plate ($12.99) is the costliest item on the well-priced menu, but turned into a bargain thanks to the hefty mound of pork, beef and chicken. The combo plate’s barbecued beef was tender and juicy with just a twinge of fat around the crispy charcoal grilled edges; it was savory-sweet from a sticky marinade fragrant with garlic. Loli Loli chicken – the restaurant’s version of huli huli chicken – tasted as sweet as the family story about why the restaurant calls its chicken Loli Loli: It was the childhood nickname for the daughter of Leianna and David Landon.
Kalua pork – a dish traditionally made from pork shoulder wrapped in banana leaves and slow cooked – was tender and salty, with just a lick of smoke. Entreés came with scoops of rice, and a choice of macaroni salad or island slaw. Mac salad was dressed with mayo with a light lemony pucker, dotted with carrots and onions. Island slaw crunched crisp with pieces of carrot and was sweetened with a light drizzle of miso-honey mayo dressing.
Loco moco ($9.25), the Hawaiian signature classic of a hamburger patty over rice with gravy and eggs, was a chewy half-pound hamburger steak – dry more than juicy – atop a copious mound of rice covered with a timid gravy mildly flavored with roast beef drippings and thickened with flour. I requested my eggs over easy and was rewarded with a yolky ooze that enriched the silky gravy.
Orange chicken with coconut prawns ($10.89) was crispy sweet with breaded pieces of tender chicken thigh, lightly fried and drizzled with a sticky, sunny orange-sesame sauce. Six succulent shrimp crackled crisp from a panko-coconut breading jacket, a delicious vessel for the sweet, creamy honey-miso mayo sauce, the same that’s on the island slaw.
Pork lau lau ($9.25) was a fatty piece of pork, wrapped in taro leaves and slow steamed for 10 hours. A slippery slice of butterfish melts and bathes the pork during the long cooking process, leaving behind a barely noticeable kiss of oily fish flavor.
Aloha Hawaiian Grill
Where: 4227 S. Meridian Ave., Puyallup; also a location in Kent
Info: 253-445-8008 or www.alohahawaiiangrill.com
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays and 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sundays
The scene: Aloha Hawaiian Grill opened in Puyallup in August 2008. Owner Sing Li, a native of Hawaii, opened the first outpost of Aloha Hawaiian Grill in Kent in 2007. Art Trinidad runs the kitchen at both restaurants. Li and his Chinese-born father operated a restaurant for 20 years in Oahu. The recipes from that restaurant are still in play at Aloha. The scene at Aloha is relaxed and fast-food takeout style.
Dishes sampled: Loco moco ($5.25 small/$7.25 large) yielded the tastiest hamburger patty sampled for this report. Two heavily seasoned hand-formed burger patties swam in a watery gravy that needed more beefy clout.
All entrees come with rice and mac salad. Regulars will notice that Aloha has changed its macaroni salad recipe. Surimi fish (otherwise known as imitation crab) once lent an unctuous, chewy texture, but the recipe now is a flat-tasting mayo-based mac salad specked with shreds of carrots instead of the fish.
One touch I appreciate at Aloha is the macaroni salad comes in a side container – the spillover heat from the meat and rice turns the pasta salad sickly and warm at other Hawaiian take-out restaurants.
The Island BBQ combo ($8.25) is the dish to order for an overall sample of the restaurant’s grilled meats menu: barbecued beef, chicken and short ribs. The barbecued beef, made from chuck roll, chewed stringy and fatty, and the ribs suffered similarly. The chicken thighs were pounded thin, wonderfully tender, and finished with a sweet ginger-soy glaze that was sticky on the succulent meat.
Kalua pork ($8.25, with or without cabbage) was smoky-salty; a copious pile of slow-cooked pork shredded into tender strings. It was a touch dry on one visit, juicy and perfect on another.
Mahi mahi ($5.65 small/$7.65 large), a meaty white fish, was scantily breaded and barely kissed by the fryers. The pale golden pieces flaked apart, releasing steam with every bite. I’m sold on Hawaii’s version of fried fish and carbs.
Ali’i & Sumo’s Hawaiian Grill
Where: 14125 Pacific Ave. S., Tacoma
Hours: 11 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sundays
The scene: Ali’i and Sumo’s Hawaiian Grill opened in Freighthouse Square in 2008, and moved to its current location on Pacific Avenue South in April 2009. The space is sectioned into two parts – one selling Hawaiian trinkets, the other offering seating.
This is the first restaurant for Bert and Valerie Dollente. Bert formerly lived in Honolulu, Valerie is from Oahu’s North Shore. They started small with catering the Taste of Tacoma. Their menus are a combination of family hand-downs and dishes they’ve created together.
Dishes sampled: The Sumo combo ($10.50) seemed like something straight out of the food television show, “Man Vs. Food.” The mound of meat stacked 6 inches tall and included sweetened soy-kissed tender huli huli chicken; smoky-salty shredded kalua pork; a slice of grilled Portuguese sausage; a pile of thinly sliced sinewy barbecue beef that pulled too chewy; and a slab of barbecue beef ribs heavy on fatty ribbons, light on the meat.
Entreés come with rice and a mac salad that could have used a squeeze of citrus or a shot of vinegar to brighten the timid mayo dressing.
Miya’s bento ($8.75) was like the Hawaiian version of surf and turf: barbecued beef, breaded and golden-fried chicken katsu paired with breaded and fried mahi mahi. Rice was topped with a piece of fried Spam and an over-easy fried egg. Like the Sumo, it was an enormous portion of food.
Crispy chicken ($6.95) came with way too much crisp – the pieces were stuck together in a hard, chewy tangle that tasted something like an overcooked chicken fritter. Katsu moco ($7.50) was a breaded chicken spin on the classic meat-rice-gravy dish topped with an egg.