Scenic Mirage, 1290 North Scottsdale Road, Tempe, 894-0460. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 9 p.m.
My mother-in-law taught me everything I know about Hawaii. But I'm caught in a time warp, since her knowledge comes from childhood memories as an Army brat who left the island a couple of months before the Japanese bombed her military-base home near Pearl Harbor.
I've seen her ukulele and genuine grass skirt, with matching grass anklets. I know the weird titles and lyrics from her cherished record collection: "Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula" (sample verse--You'll sway my heart your way, with your yaaka hula hickey dula tune"), and I can warble the line in "My Little Grass Shack" about the humuhumunukunukuapuaa swimming by. Her discs used to include "The Cockeyed Mayor of Kaunakakai," until my wife sat on it.
And I've heard about the strange and wonderful food that neighbors served this odd American child who wasn't allowed to go barefoot like the island kids.
That same food was probably hard to find even before Hurricane Iniki toured the islands. But Valley dwellers can get a little taste of South Seas life and remain dry without ever leaving the Sonoran Desert. And on a recent sweltering summer night, it seemed like a darned good idea to us.
Every single square inch of the ten-month-old Scenic Mirage screams Hawaii.
The most arresting feature: five huge TV screens running the length of the dining room. Four of them broadcast the same vision of Hawaii--a breathtaking mountain backdrop, viewed from the sea, interrupted by occasional seagulls, languid sailboats and frisky beachgoers throwing themselves into gently breaking waves. The fifth screen provided all the excitement of a luau staged for tourists: Hawaiian drummers, hula dancers and jugglers whirling flaming clubs perilously close to the tenderest parts of the body. All I needed for true authenticity was a lei and a camera dangling around my neck.
Between the screen and dining area are moats, supplied by a tiny, bubbling waterfall. Colorful artificial flowers pop up everywhere. The comfortable booths have pretty tropical prints emblazoned with toucans. And you sit in a forest of fake tropical trees, their branches twisting above.
The lighting is dim enough for a rain forest, too--the waiter had to pull out the menu from its plastic cover and scoot a candle over so we could make it out.
What we read shouldn't surprise anyone who remembers that Hawaii has been occupied by the United States only a few years less than Arizona.
The appetizers include nachos, shrimp cocktail and chicken wings, items that Captain Cook does not record as part of the island culinary fare in his ship's log. Nor do some of the entree offerings, like prime rib, pasta primavera and chicken cordon bleu, seem like time-tested native specialties.
But there are a few Hawaiian dishes sprinkled around the menu, and these got our attention.
The two appetizers we sampled put out good vibes. Cho cho are five skewers of grilled chicken breast, accompanied by a fruity, not-too-sweet pineapple salsa. It's hardly exotic, but it was good enough to be a main dish, and almost large enough, too.
A huge platter of vegetable tempura had a light, homemade touch. As a nice change, the terrific battered pieces of broccoli, mushrooms, cauliflower and carrots came with a perky sweet-and-sour dipping sauce.
Always looking for new taste sensations, we called for poi, an island staple made by pounding part of the taro plant into a starchy, soupy glop. The stuff will remind you of drywall paste, but without its attractive aroma and taste. Sometimes, adventurous dining does not yield dividends.
We took our main dishes from the recited list of daily specials, whose prices our waiter neglected to reveal without prompting.
Kalua pig has nothing to do with the coffee-flavored Mexican liqueur. On the islands, it's a whole young pig wrapped in leaves and roasted in an open pit. Here it came as a mountain of reasonably tender pork chunks enlivened with an attention-getting shrimp-cocktail-type sauce.
The side dishes looked and tasted like somebody took pride in them. Carrot slices came seasoned with butter and dill, and sweet brown rice went well with the pork. Brightly colored slices of mango, pineapple, kiwi and strawberry gave the dish a festive look.
Laulau is a traditional dish combining fish, pork and chicken, wrapped in a spinach-type leaf and steamed. Again, the portion was large enough for a 300-pound Hawaiian monarch, but it came out a bit dry. Still, it's an intriguing blend of flavors and textures.
Forget the baked potato and go for the wonderful, thin, transparent Chinese rice noodles and shredded carrots. Unfortunately, there's no way around the corn cobbette cooked within an inch of its life.
A couple of desserts had the island theme we sought, although the heavily rum-soaked baked bananas smacked more of the Caribbean than of the South Pacific. But after a few 80-proof spoonfuls, the distinction didn't matter.
Haupia, a more authentic sweet, is an incredibly thick and rich coconut pudding. It sports a pleasant, offbeat taste, which will linger a while if you don't wash it away with coffee. But it probably packs enough calories to nourish the Oahu surfboard team for a month.
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.
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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."
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