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By Robrt L. Pela
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If you must nibble, try the teriyaki beef sticks instead, two wooden skewers laced with thinly sliced meat and charbroiled just short of chewy. A more authentic choice is manapua, although mainland tastes may be unimpressed with its subtlety. Essentially, manapua is a wad of heavy dough -- picture noshing on a few uncooked brown 'n' serve rolls squished together. Sometimes the buns are served plain, and other times stuffed with meats and vegetables. Aloha Kitchen isn't sure what it wants to do, settling for a halfway stuffing of a few meager bits of char sui (sweet pork). Too bad.
Better idea: Save your appetite for Aloha Kitchen's true specialties such as island-style noodles, soups and daily delicacies. These dishes, after all, as our counter server jokes, are what prompted the eatery's owners to come to Arizona "by canoe." An important caveat, though: The most authentic of the entrees -- Kalua pig, lomi salmon and chicken long rice -- are available only on Wednesday and Saturday. Laulau can only be had on Saturday.
These dishes are where Aloha Kitchen moves to the head of the fast-food pack, offering interesting tastes, textures and ingredients. They're all fun; a few are acquired tastes.
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.
One day's special, for example, is poi, a staple of Hawaiian dining -- die-hard natives are said to consume up to five pounds of the stuff per day -- but I don't think it will do much for mainstream diners. Made from boiled taro root, the sour, slippery side dish gains stronger flavor the longer it ferments (on the islands, diners can get one-day, two-day, or the strongest tasting, three-day poi). My Hawaiian-raised dining companion dips his spoon, licks and pronounces it serviceable, one-day poi. I take his word for it on this one; to me, all poi tastes like mauve motor oil.
In fact, while poi may be the number-one Hawaiian starch, my vote goes to saimin, a ramenlike noodle created by islanders. The skinny, crinkly noodles are served in a tasty warm toss of slender Japanese fish cake strips, char sui bits, chopped cabbage and an almost indiscernible drizzle of shrimp soup base. More exquisite is the won ton saimin, a very restrained, clear soup floating with scallion, bok choy, char sui dumplings and fish cake, the spiral pink and white slices looking like ribbon candy and tasting pleasantly like wet packing peanuts. Saimin shows up stir-fried, as well, tumbled with more fish cake, char sui, cabbage and onion; or chilled with the same ingredients in a healthful salad. Whatever the form, it's all terrific.
If a special of ahi poki salad is available, get it. On a highly evolved culinary scale, this isn't a pure parade of flavors, but for fast food, it's mighty nice. The raw tuna chunks are brilliant red and fresh, tossed with unfortunately pale tomatoes, shallot and sweet onion in a bracing sauce of soy, garlic, ginger and rice wine vinegar. The only problem? While I'm not expecting a whole fish for less than five bucks, I do want more than the four meager chunks I find buried under the massive serving of chopped veggies.
Lomi salmon is another victim of fish deprivation. I like the idea -- a simple chop of tomato, onion, red pepper and fish deeply chilled. Yet on one visit, salmon is rubbery and smells much too fishy. Perhaps it's just a bad day; a second visit finds the tiny portion of fish tasting better.
I'd focus on chicken and long rice any day. It's not served in its customary manner, with chicken breast shards instead of a whole thigh, and with the thin, translucent cellophane noodles chopped short, but I'm not complaining. I like the hot broth quite a lot, mysteriously touched with what hints of lemon grass.
You won't find squid luau on any other menu in town, so when it's offered as a special here, give it a try (you only live once, after all). It's not a familiar flavor to most folks, but charmingly weird, combining firm chunks of squid in thick coconut milk and butter thickened with boiled taro leaves. The result is sweet, fishy, soft, chewy and totally different.
For a milder introduction to island cooking, laulau combines succulent steamed taro leaves with moist shredded pork. The taro reminds me of spinach without the metallic tang, and though the laulau is minus the traditional fish chunk in the center, it does have its expected pork-fat chunk for marvelous melted-in flavor. Paired with Aloha Maid Pass-o-Guava nectar, a flat, sweet juice, the dish is a delightfully cozy treat.
We finish our island adventure with a thick slab of haupia, a shimmery coconut and cornstarch pudding on graham-cracker crust that's just simple enough to shine.
For Hawaiians, Aloha Kitchen is a lovely taste of home in the middle of the desert. For us mainlanders, it's an opportunity to experience something new. Try it. I think you'll like it.