Waves of Pleasure
New Salinas barbecue spot offers genuine aloha vibe.
Thursday, September 22, 2005
Back when I was a surf nymph on the Big Island of Hawaii, I would occasionally work up a terrifically un-nymph-like craving for a classic Hawaiian plate lunch. When the mood hit, the gravitational pull of two scoops of sticky rice, a single scoop of macaroni salad and a mess of sauce-slathered teriyaki beef overwhelmed all reason. I mean, really: macaroni salad? I never liked it before. But at these times there was nothing for it but to veer toward the nearest plate lunch joint (invariably it was in a strip mall) and eat until coma set in.
It looks like Aloha Hawaiian Barbecue is exerting a similar influence on the Salinas lunch crowd. Just two months after opening, this island soul food diner across from the rodeo grounds already has its flock of faithful.
Hawaiian food incorporates elements of Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and American cooking. The result is an Asian version of soul food that has broad appeal.
For members of the Hawaiian diaspora, it’s a slam dunk. The restaurant is in a strip mall, so they know it’s authentic. And the food is true island fare at really good prices. Spam musubi (Hawaiian “sushi” made with Hormel’s much-maligned meat product) is a down-home island favorite for $1.39 per piece. Likewise the beloved noodle soup saimin (also known as ramen) features prominently on the menu for $3.59 and under. Slow-cooked kalua pork with cabbage ($6.25) approximates the genuine roasted-in-ground luau dish, while the Loco Moco ($5.95) will take ex-islanders back to the happy days when a meal of hamburger patties over rice smothered in brown gravy and topped with fried eggs was considered hearty and not deadly.
Aloha Hawaiian Barbecue has taken some steps to appeal to the non-Hawaiian population. First of all, the décor is a major improvement over the glaring white walls and cheap table-and-chair sets you find in plate lunch joints on the islands. Faux wood flooring, blond wooden booths and a peaked bamboo-paneled ceiling make for an airy, pleasant atmosphere. A photograph of a glassy green peeling wave made me catch my breath—I hadn’t known I missed the water there so badly. Someone has taken a lot of care here, and it shows.
The menu provides a nice range of options for those who aren’t yet ready for Loco Moco, starting with hamburger and fries for a jaw-dropping $2.99.
But the heart of the menu is the 15-item plate lunch list. I passed on the Fried Mahi Mahi ($6.25) and Shrimp Sticks ($6.25) in favor of the Hawaiian BBQ Mix ($6.95), a side of order of kim chee ($1.99) and Chicken Katsu ($5.95), the most popular item in the house. I also got a purple can of Hawaiian Sun guava nectar, my favorite from the old days, and took a seat.
In very short order my meals were brought out to me in Styrofoam containers. The Chicken Katsu was a pounded filet coated in panko crumbs and fried, then sliced in strips and served on a bed of shredded cabbage. It was addictive—crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside. It could have used some salt, but this is why God made sides of katsu sauce. A tangy concoction much like sweet ‘n’ sour sauce, it dressed the chicken up without overwhelming it. A simple, perfect pair.
The requisite rice and mac salad sat in flawless ice-cream-scoop mounds in their own Styrofoam compartments. The rice was sticky and perfect. Mac salad on a plate lunch should be bland, the better to serve as foil to a more flavorful meat dish. The best ones are slick and mayonnaise-y with maybe a bit of celery, nothing more. This one, however, had a tiny bit of tuna in it. Though disappointed at first, I came to like it.
The BBQ mix plate consisted of boneless chicken meat, some brisket and very short ribs marinated in Aloha’s special sauce and grilled. The flavors called to mind teriyaki, with lots of garlic and ginger and soy sauce, although there was no teriyaki glaze or side of sauce. Just a pile of fragrant, grilled marinated meat that was not mind-blowingly tender but was very tasty.
The kim chee, or spicy fermented bok choy, was awesome. I ended up bringing leftovers of everything home and I kept sneaking back to the fridge for bites of kim chee. Wierd. Guess I’m all grown up.
I decided to forgo the Marianne’s ice cream for dessert. The manager was making his way around, smiling and asking his customers how everything was and if they needed anything. It was an odd and endearing juxtaposition, this guy inquiring about the quality of the meals served on Styrofoam. But it also rang true. That’s the thing about Hawaiian aloha—it’s kind of hokey and 100 percent for real. As a friend of mine used to say, Hawaii is the only place in the US where people in the oncoming lane will stop to let you make a left-hand turn.
I left this little strip-mall outpost of aloha feeling
really good, and I could see that other people did too.
ALOHA HAWAIIAN BARBECUE
921 N. Main St., Salinas | 758-8028
open daily 11am-9pm