COOK'EM DANO

Scenic Mirage is tucked so far back in a Tempe shopping mall that you need the instincts of Livingstone and the perseverance of Stanley to find it. Maybe that's why so few booths were occupied during our visit. But if you're curious about island fare, it's worth an expedition.

Hawaiian Wave Cafe, 10237 North 35th Avenue, Phoenix, 548-9202. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday 1 p.m. to 1 a.m.

As in Scenic Mirage, the decor at the new Hawaiian Wave Cafe makes it clear that you aren't in Kansas, or even on the mainland, anymore.

The blue plaster booths, a bit cozy for four, sport painted waves cresting over the top. In the corner, a minivolcano unleashes red neon strips of lava. The ductwork is artistically done up to resemble coral or sea serpents, although you may have to be on LSD to get the full effect. Huge portholes overlook the parking lot. And a surfboard sticks up from a fiber-glass wave by the bar, where most of the seats are occupied on a weekday night.

The menu presents itself as Hawaiian, but a closer inspection reveals lots of familiar food gussied up with pineapple.

Take the Hawaiian kebab appetizer. It's two skewers of alternating beef and pineapple chunks, in a very salty marinade. The meat, strangely, was hit-and-miss: On the same skewer, some pieces were tender enough to gum, while others were unchewable.

I'm not sure what "Hawaiian battered" onion rings mean, but these definitely were abused in some fashion. They had a commercial taste, with a thick, greasy breading and thin strips of onion. Book em, Dano.

But the main dishes showed some real promise, if occasional lapses in execution and delivery.

I had the thresher shark, a dark-meat fish I discovered 20 years ago, when public skittishness kept its price low. It has a pronounced, but not overpowering sea flavor. It was first-rate, except for the absolutely unpalatable "special pineapple papaya fruit salsa" slathered on top. The sauce was so bitter I had to scrape off every morsel.

A companion ordered opakapaka, a meaty, snapperlike fish that arrived nicely grilled. The menu noted it came topped with "Hawaiian Pele sauce," but neglected to inform readers that this meant lots of fiery hot chiles. My friend, whose lips generally touch nothing hotter than rye bread, joined me in a scraping duet.

My wife went for the kalua pig, served here as a plateful of wonderfully tender shredded pork and cabbage. But the kitchen's heavy hand with the salt kept the dish from soaring. However, it came with a terrific bowl of beef curry--mild, fragrant and with lots of meltingly tender beef.

We also sampled a combination platter of shrimp and chicken. Two skewers of four smallish, nondescript shrimp accompanied excellent deep-fried, breaded chicken breast, boned and sliced. It didn't strike us as particularly Hawaiian, but no one was complaining.

Unfortunately, our otherwise friendly waiter seemed to be trying to break the land speed record for service. Two main dishes came out while we were still munching on appetizers. Later, he tried to whip our plates away while we were still eating.

The main dishes all come with a heap of side dishes: forgettable iceberg lettuce or appealing macaroni salad; two big scoops of steamed white rice or great fried rice seasoned with ground beef and bacon; and the inevitable soggy corn cobbette.

Desserts are routine, like the macadamia-nut cheesecake insufficiently creamy and miserly with the expensive nut. If you must have something, stick to the sherbet or the moist, not-too-sweet carrot cake.

Hawaiian Wave Cafe doesn't cheat you on portions, and gives you a good deal on price. The potential is clearly here. The place just needs a bit more consistency and care to put it over the top.

First, slow the servers down. Ours got us through our three-course meal in an hour.

Then, watch the sauces and seasonings. Why detract from good meat and fish with a nickel's worth of salt or salsa?

That's the difference between "Aloha" and "Til we meet again."

CHILLS FAIL TO RAISE A FEVER ... v9-23-92

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