Island Discovery

When I told some friends that I wanted to check out Island Roots Guam Cuisine, a cheerful "island-style barbecue" spot in south Tempe, I fully expected them to be clueless about the food. And they were. But luckily for me, they were curious enough to try it with me.

Let's face it — even though the island is a U.S. territory, its culture hasn't seeped into the mainstream in the same way as tropical vacation favorites like Hawaii and Jamaica. I'd never eaten Guamanian food, either, but I felt like I had an idea of it. (Sometimes my overactive imagination makes me hungry.)

"Well, it's similar to Hawaiian food, with a lot of Asian influences . . ." I explained to my puzzled friends.

Say "hafa adai" (hello) to the cuisine of Guam: Island Roots' chef-owner Frank Castro.
Jackie Mercandetti
Say "hafa adai" (hello) to the cuisine of Guam: Island Roots' chef-owner Frank Castro.


Lumpia: $2.99
Chicken kelaguin: $3.79
Kalua pig: $10.99
Kadun huang: $15.99
480-940-1887, »web link.
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Island Roots Guam Cuisine, 1285 West Elliot Road, Tempe

There were a few glimmers of recognition, but I wasn't sure if anyone really got what I was talking about. Later, in a burst of blunt honestly, another friend asked, "Where exactly is Guam? Isn't it in the Caribbean, or in Latin America somewhere?"

Uh, no. Sorry. Not even close. But that's okay — that's the beauty of trying food from an unfamiliar, far-flung place. You end up getting a geography lesson with lunch, which goes a long way in explaining an eclectic, little-known cuisine.

In this case, we're talking about food from the largest island in Micronesia, where the North Pacific Ocean meets the Philippine Sea. It's 210 square miles of mountains, forests, grasslands, and white-sand beaches. While the indigenous Chamorro culture is alive and well, Guam's also been influenced by Spain (it was a Spanish colony for more than two centuries), Japan (which occupied it during World War II), and the United States (after the Spanish-American War, and since 1944).

For dining adventurers, all that history has amounted to a homey fusion of barbecued and teriyaki-marinated meats, spicy seasonings, plenty of rice, and even some Spam for good measure.

That's right, Spam. Consider it a culinary legacy of American troops stationed in the Pacific during the war. Even now, Spam's a staple in Guam, where it's served fried, with eggs and rice, or wrapped with rice and seaweed, sushi-style, to make Spam musubi.

First time I heard of Spam musubi ("musubi" means rice balls in Japanese), it sounded just plain wrong. One of my college roommates, a Hawaiian native, started frying it up, and soon our whole apartment smelled like canned meat.

"C'mon, dude — you'll like it," he insisted, with his laid-back surfer accent.

I protested at first, but came around to it pretty quickly. When I saw it on the menu at Island Roots, I was excited to try it again. Their version had a thick slice of fried Spam atop a moist layer of rice that was slightly sweeter than ordinary sushi rice. Instead of the thin strip of nori that holds together nigiri sushi, the whole musubi was wrapped in it.

It was tasty, to be sure, but I was more excited by the chicken kelaguin, a zesty cold salad of chopped chicken tossed with onion, red chile, and lemon. The dish was spicy but refreshing in a way that reminded me of good ceviche or Thai payaya salad.

My dining companions and I raved about the shrimp patties, four golden fritters studded with bits of shrimp, peas, and corn. The shrimp flavor wasn't overpowering; really, the appeal was in the batter. Lumpia were addicting, too. These delicate Filipino-style spring rolls, filled with ground beef, cabbage, carrots, and celery, were light, crisp, and hot out of the fryer. As for the potato macaroni salad, it was creamy and delicious, a guilty pleasure.

I expected a side of pickled cucumbers and daikon to be light and tangy, like Japanese sunomono, but what showed up at our table was more like Korean kimchi (which I love). The vegetables were thickly crinkle-cut and dressed in a spicy-sweet chile sauce — a welcome foil for the rich, meat-centric dishes to come.

Rice was served with many entrees at Island Roots, and given the choice between sticky white rice, or "red rice," a mild, vaguely nutty rice that's actually tinted orange (thanks to the addition of achiote), I went with the latter. Another accompaniment to several dishes was finadene, a potent, soy-based dipping sauce flecked with scallions. I liked it but had to use it sparingly — the intensely vinegary, spicy, and salty flavors made my lips tingle.

Pancit, a Filipino dish likened to lo mein on the menu, was lighter and tangier than Chinese pan-fried noodles, with carrots, celery, onion, and shrimp tossed in rice noodles. Since it didn't come with any side dishes, a whole bowl of it was a little much; next time, I'd order that to share as an appetizer.

What I would not care to share is the Kalua pig, a heap of moist, mildly smoky slow-roasted pork, suitable for my own private luau. Pork adobo, braised in vinegar, garlic, and pepper, had a nice flavor as well, although I wasn't happy to come across a few bony pieces in the stew. (Eat that one with caution.)

Bulgogi, the classic Korean beef dish, was my least favorite item at Island Roots — it had been marinated to the point that teriyaki saltiness overwhelmed the taste of the meat itself. Barbecued chicken was also less than stellar, thanks to a couple of dry drumsticks included in my order. Barbecued pork ribs, thickly cut with lots of rich, smoky meat, were a better choice.

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I assume this means you're not friends with the owner (or his wife) least not anymore.

Just wanted to mention that they've got a "Closed for Renovations" sign up as of 20 November.


I've known the owner for years now. And I visited IslandRoots on several occasions. Each time the food looks and tastes different. The chicken has been mainly too dry - or over salted. During one visit in the HOT summer day, the A/C was not working, and NOT one person offered a apology or water! And expensive, for what they offer. I think the owners wife is the main "host" in which she's extremely rude, and unfriendly. Makes it be known she's over whelm with 4 customers. I hope they can survive - and get their act together.