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.
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.
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.
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.
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