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Ever since visiting Aloha Kitchen, the Valley's only Hawaiian-theme restaurant, something has been puzzling me. Who in the world invented Kalua pig? And how much free time did he have?
Consider this: A recipe from the Maui tourism board gives me no fewer than 36 steps to prepare this popular luau-style dish, involving wheelbarrows, shovels, a five-foot-deep pit called an imu, exploding rocks, banana stalks split with axes, chicken wire and a 125-pound porker. Preparation time is about three hours, with a cooking time of nine to 14 hours, the recipe says. What nut was sitting around one day and decided this would be a fun way to cook dinner?
That anyone ever came up with this intensive process is amazing to me. The accomplishment becomes even more astounding when I taste the luscious Kalua pig served at Aloha Kitchen. This pig surely wasn't prepared in a deep pit of white-hot rock and ash but tastes as if it were. From the look of the kitchen, I'd say Aloha Kitchen's cooks are salting some pork butt, perhaps adding a bit of liquid smoke, then roasting and steaming the meat in the oven for a couple of hours. They steam some cabbage leaves alongside and toss it together. That's it.
2950 S. Alma School Road
Mesa, AZ 85210
Squid luau: $3
Won ton saimin char sui: $4.95
Hawaiian plate (Kalua pig, lomi salmon, chicken long rice): $6.95
Hours: Lunch and dinner, Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 7 p.m.
But the result is surprisingly similar to the pig I've tasted at authentic luaus -- tooth-tender soft meat, subdued, delicious pork flavor and virtually no fat. Plus, Aloha Kitchen's version is less salty than pit-roasted pig, and I like that. It seems that the restaurant has found a way not only to serve a real Hawaiian dish here in the desert, but to improve upon it.
The small eatery is on to something, and it has the business to prove it. Aloha Kitchen is celebrating its 14th year of dishing out traditional island-style meals, and, despite a low-profile strip-mall presence, keeps drawing in diners.
It's got a good concept -- largely authentic Hawaiian dishes served quickly, in generous portions and for less than eight bucks a plate. There's no shtick other than upbeat Hawaiian music playing, a few island-inspired posters and travel magazines promoting the area's tropical beauty.
Thank goodness. Aloha Kitchen doesn't waste time on a theme-park experience, instead offering solace to homesick Hawaiians and excitement to mainlanders in search of an alternative to everyday fast-food fare.
Who's eating here? Hawaiians, of course, easily identified by their "local" uniform of shorts, tank tops and flip-flops. Business folks and families with home-from-school kids join the mix, placing their orders at the counter and settling in at pastel-colored tables, plastic forks and chopsticks gripped firmly in hand.
Aloha Kitchen's menu emphasizes "plates" -- those simple combo meals found at mom-and-pop shops all over the islands. The restaurant throws in a healthy mix of Japanese, Chinese and Korean favorites, too, reflecting the multicultural history of the Hawaiian Islands.
Aloha Kitchen's "plates" are served in traditional island style, centered around two big scoops of sticky white rice plus a scoop of heavily mayo'd macaroni-potato salad. The triple blast of starches may seem like overkill to mainlanders, but give it a try. The pea-studded mac-potato blend is delicious. It's also much more satisfying than substituting a green salad, a boring toss of lettuce in thin, sweet tropical dressing.
Most of the plate anchors are instantly familiar to even the most landlocked diner. Teriyaki chicken isn't entirely different from what's found around town, although I am pleased to find the thin sauce here greatly superior -- it isn't cloyingly sugary. Sweet 'n' sour chicken, too, benefits from well-managed sweetening -- the sauce tastes more of pure pineapple than the candy coating I too often come across. Breaded fish fillet and charbroiled salmon plates are definitely an appreciated fast-food menu upgrade, served plain and fresh.
Bulkogi is an interesting choice for its Korean-influenced sauce. Ribeye beef comes thinly sliced, charbroiled to a crispy turn and coated with a mild sesame-seed barbecue sauce tinged with the slightest edge of pear, onion and soy. You'll have to reach to find the flavors here, but chew slowly, and you'll get them. The meat's slightly tough and does even better, I think, when served as a sandwich and camouflaged by the soft bun.
Call me lacking in Hawaiian spirit, but my favorite plate here actually is the Japanese chicken katsu plate. The chicken breast is a bit fatty in parts, yet I'm very pleased with the greaseless egg and panko batter. Customary chopped cabbage is another bonus, but I only wish the meal came with traditional katsu sauce, instead of the horrid, ketchup-y cocktail sauce I get.
"Plates" are more than filling, and it's a good thing. Appetizers at Aloha Kitchen are a short list of four and the least successful things on the menu. I don't see why anyone would order these won tons twice -- the six little bundles are wildly greasy, air-thin chips dotted with an eraser-size nubbin of pork, worsened further when plunged in an accompanying sweet egg roll-style sauce. Island hot wings are more gloppy sauce than poultry -- not worth wasting the napkins required to clean your fingers.