The sight of Diamond Head at the end of Waikiki Beach is one of the world’s most recognized images. Stay long enough, though, and you discover that Waikiki is not really Hawaii. The only locals there are serving you, and the Hawaiian restaurants you encounter are decorated with tiki torches and generic Polynesian items, where Braddah Iz’s ukulele-led “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” plays a few times an hour.
In the Hawaiian plate-lunch joints of Honolulu, the feel is different: a picture or two on the wall, tables and chairs that seem to have wandered in from a Cleveland coffee shop. This is where locals eat.
The Aloha Grill has decided to avoid the Waikiki experience, with surprisingly authentic results. You can still get the tourist-inspired macadamia-nut-crusted anything, but what distinguishes the Aloha Grill are the basic dishes of Hawaii.
Basic doesn’t mean simple. Even the contradictions of Hawaiian cuisine are present. The Aloha Grill serves an excellent lomi lomi salmon, which resembles ceviche, primary ingredients being tomatoes and the non-tropical fish. In other words, a staple of genuine Hawaiian food is comprised of ingredients that aren’t found in Hawaii. Nobody bats an eye at this.
The service is pure aloha spirit. The staff seems genuinely happy see you. They will talk with you about the menu and that time you went to Hawaii with disarming sincerity.
Some surprises: their katsu chicken is surprisingly tender — more so than many places in Honolulu. Macaroni salad is standard fare. Try theirs with a dash of shoyu (soy sauce) if it seems too bland, and it will come alive.
Their variations on southern food are less successful. The coconut-creamed corn isn’t terribly flavorful, and the garlic green beans are simply unnoticeable. Texas-Pacific Fusion isn’t going to take the nation by storm anytime soon.
The Aloha Grill does best when it presents truly “local” food such as lau lau or loco moco. Lau lau is a low-carb fantasy of fatty pork steamed in a ti leaf, and loco moco consists of a hamburger patty served with brown gravy over rice topped with fried eggs. Both will get your attention.
Interestingly, Spam musubi — Spam served sushi style — isn’t found in most Hawaiian sit-down restaurants, but it’s the tastiest thing you’ll ever get at a 7-Eleven. At the Aloha Grill, it’s presented with added furikake (shredded spiced seaweed) mixed in with the rice. That’s kind of like putting saffron on a cheeseburger. If you’re ordering the musabi, you’re not that into fine spices at the moment. It’s Spam. Come on.
Ultimately, if you don’t know Hawaiian plate-lunch fare, you’ll get a better sampling of it at the Aloha Grill than you would in almost anyplace in Waikiki; if you do know it, you’ll refresh your memories nicely. And yes, if you stay long enough, you’ll hear Braddah Iz on the sound system. By the time you leave, you’ll have forgiven them for that. •
The Aloha Grill
1511 Harry Wurzbach Rd
The Skinny: Hawaiian fare that works best when it sticks to the basics.
Best Bets: Katsu chicken. Poi with lomi lomi salmon. Coconut cake.
Hours: Lunch: 11am-2pm Mon-Fri; Dinner: 5pm-8pm Tues-Sat
Prices: Lunch $7.99-$9.99; Dinner $9.99-$14.99***************************
LOMI LOMI SALMON
The name reflects the massaging technique used to blend the ingredients. A bit acidic, but excellent when blended with Poi.
Pounded root of the taro plant (think elephant ears on steroids). You either love it or can’t understand why people would ever put it in their mouths. Varieties range from “elementary school paste” to “so sour I think I’m going to spend three days on Pepto.” Aloha Grill serves a mild poi that mixes well with tasty ingredients.
HULI HULI CHICKEN
Literally “turn turn” chicken. Not to be confused with Hula. Hawaiians believe their rotisserie chicken is the best in the world. They are wrong. But it’s generally very tender, if a bit too salty. Aloha Grill’s is no exception. Add some rice on the fork as you eat it and you’ll understand why Hawaiians love it so much.
This is perhaps the biggest secret of all things culinary in the 50th state. A mayonnaise-based macaroni salad that rivals any in the world (sorry, Tia Maria). It is broke da mouth.
BROKE DA MOUTH
Pidgin English, commonly spoken in Hawaii, for “ono.”
Hawaiian for “delicious,” which describes most of Aloha Grill’s menu items when they stick with classic plate-lunch fare.