Cafe Reviews

Hawaii to Go

The guy on the other end of the phone was bitter. He'd just come from lunch at a fast-food hamburger joint, and was ranting over what he considered an "outrage." Specifically, he'd ordered a Carl's Jr. "Western Bacon Six-Dollar Burger," a sandwich highly promoted to be of sit-down-restaurant quality.

But the burger was gross, he grouched. The meat was greasy, the bacon was flabby, the cheese was processed, it sat on sodden onion rings that soaked into the bun, and the whole thing was drenched in some kind of gloppy orange barbecue sauce. It was squished and ugly, and looked nothing like the tasty sandwich he'd seen on the company's TV commercials. On top of his "six dollar robbery," it had cost him almost an extra $4 for sides of mealy French fries and a thin chocolate shake.

This guy somehow wanted it to be my fault -- or at least my problem to fix -- simply because I'm a food critic. I should make up for his misery by writing something exposing the scam, he said. And get him his 10 bucks back.

What I wanted to tell him: First, it's fast-food garbage, bucko, so no surprise it was lousy. Second: If you'd been paying attention, you'd have realized that the "$6 Burger" actually is a marketing name. The lame sandwich really only costs $4.29 (still a rip-off, I think, but let's keep our facts straight). Third: Just never go back. That'll teach them.

Instead, I held my tongue. I listened to his indignation, uttering gentle uh-hums, and finally suggested that the next time he wanted something cheap and fast, but close to the caliber of a real restaurant, he should try Coconut Joe's, opened this spring in a small shack formerly occupied by Maxie's World Grill. Everything here is prepared to order, with ingredients purchased daily by a real person -- not mass-produced and frozen for who knows how long -- and with sauces and dressings made from scratch. Everything costs less than $6, topping out at only $5.29, in fact -- and that for an entire meal, including sandwich, cooked-to-order shoestring French fries and a soda with free refills. Plus, I've never gotten fast-food indigestion there.

Now, I don't want to get any phone calls from people thrashing me because Coconut Joe's isn't the most amazing food to be found. It's not. It's simply basic, honest stuff with an Asian and Hawaiian theme. It's not Maxie's World Grill, which was such a phenomenal fresh fast-food place that the media (I include myself in this pack) leaped upon it with drooling praise, and lifted its management into feeling that it could move to a much larger property with a much more ambitious menu. (Alas, Maxie's soon found bigger isn't necessarily better. The relocated restaurant closed down about a month ago.)

But Coconut Joe's is family-run, and that's always a plus in my book. Owners Myles and Queenie Lee use recipes borrowed from Myles' parents, who are native Hawaiians. It's family-decorated, too, in bright purple, red and black with yellow surfboard accents -- tiki-style straw/silk lei roof dioramas, even -- and, let's remember, it's cheap.

Consider this: There's no extra charge for all-white-meat chicken in the teriyaki bowl, while another of the Valley's prominent chains charges up to 99 cents for the upgrade. White meat or not, CJ's offers a nice bowl with steamy hot rice (not gummy), lots of sesame seeds and a sweet but light homemade sauce. The menu tells us that extra teriyaki is 25 cents, but there's a warmer on the counter with a friendly "help yourself" sign and takeout cups. There's a generous tumble of meaty shrimp, chicken, beef or tofu in a stir fry of crispy broccoli, bamboo shoots, red bell peppers, baby corn, mushrooms and carrots over rice (and these are real vegetables, cooked fresh!). There's pineapple in some of the dishes, and it tastes like actual fruit, not something plucked from a can. The salads are huge, like the mandarin orange chicken creation.

My grumpy phone correspondent can get his burger -- certified Angus, grilled and slathered with teriyaki sauce, mayo, lettuce and tomato. Or he can order the "Big Kahuna," with a third of a pound of beef layered with American and provolone cheeses, Canadian bacon, a pineapple ring and mayo. If he can convince CJ's counter staff he's a child (he had me wondering, what with all the whining), he can get a basic hamburger or cheeseburger with ketchup, mustard and pickles from the keiki (kids') menu.

Hopefully, he'll find some patience. It'll take a few minutes to get fed, since the cook actually prepares dishes instead of sliding them pre-wrapped from a warming tray. If he's in a rush, he can call ahead, and CJ's will have his order waiting at a drive-through window (it's an interesting setup, where diners push a button under the window to let staff know they're there for their meal, and a server shoves out the food with a smile).

I've got a couple of favorites from the compact list of offerings. The hula chicken is a sugary, satisfying bite of four ounces of white meat, American cheese, Canadian bacon, pineapple and mayo. The huli-huli salad is tops, too, crafted from char-grilled chicken breast slicked in a bit of teriyaki on mixed greens, with chunked pineapple, tomato, walnuts, chow mein noodles, and red bell pepper. Dressing is an interesting signature, a Hawaiian tropic that reminds me of Thousand Island dressing mixed with ketchup and spicy pepper. The Lees won't say what's in it, but suggest using it as a French fry dip, too, and it's a recommendation worth heeding.

I don't know of any other fast-food places that send out crisp iceberg lettuce wraps through a takeout window. These are tasty models, with minced chicken, mushrooms and chestnuts in a soy-sugar-vinegar glaze. And while I'm not a big chicken wing fan, CJ's could convert me. I've never been thrilled with most commercial barbecue, Buffalo, whatever sauces that come on the little wings and drums, but I'm really into the Korean-style recipe here. It's sharp, vinegary and spicy hot.

Mr. Miserable can even get his milk shakes. They're handmade, in chocolate, strawberry, coffee or French vanilla. Instead of plastic-toned soft-serve, there's the premium Berto's gelato, in coconut-lime or mango-raspberry.

The only thing I don't like, and this is a big dislike, is the chicken katsu sandwich. This has to be a mistake; maybe it was fried in old oil or something, but the thin breast is dreadful, blanketed in foul burned panko and limp with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. Thank goodness I didn't start with this dish, or I'd have been calling myself to complain.

Well, I figure one loser dish is an okay trade-off. Most fast-food places only have one, maybe two things that I'd stop in to eat. At Coconut Joe's, there's only one I wouldn't eat.

So, is everybody happy now? Good. I'm going to go grab a quick, cheap lunch.