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By Edwin Goei
Photo by Matt OttoThe soy sauce-fueled sizzle of meat slapped upon a grill is a constant at Aloha Chicken—that and a powerful punch-in-the-palate scent, the collective odors of thousands of chicken lunches and acrid macaroni salads gobbled within the restaurant's tiny premises. The scent permeates everything it touches, even the people who enter only to pick up a to-go platter. Seems customers don't mind reeking like cooked chicken for days; the restaurant bustles like a luau from its midmorning opening to its orange-sunset close.
The chicken/macaroni smell is about as showy as Aloha Chicken gets; the rest of the place is a paragon of the Spartan setup characterizing the best Hawaiian restaurants. The Buena Park bistro's solitary menu is one of those halogen-lighted marquees from the hamburger-stand days of yore with the plastic removable lettering. Customers wishing to dine in must choose between the four tables inside or the three outside, each set showcasing a fantastic view of traffic-choked Cerritos Avenue. Art consists of a chicken bell, Bible scripture in Korean lettering—I believe it's Psalms 121: 8—and a hideous crosshatched sunset painting that appears to have been created by a boozed-up Thomas Nast.
Like most Hawaiian restaurants, the menu at Aloha Chicken splits into thirds between purely Hawaiian choices, Asian options, and a type of fusion cuisine best described as Hawaiian-American. The indigenous Hawaiian staples are few but taste like the cafeteria grub at Kamehameha High: poi paste subtle with nutty taro tones and steaming manapua—pineapple-glazed pork hidden inside a loaf springy enough to bounce quarters off—that acts as a model turnover. Asian offerings include kalbi (Korean short ribs brushed with a sesame-derived barbecue sauce) and a biting Korean spicy chicken that furiously lives up to its name.
But Aloha Chicken impresses best with its take on Hawaiian-American cuisine, a type of dining tradition combining the messy amalgamation of the islands with American imperialist bulk, the ultimate comfort food. The luau fave Kahlua pig doesn't come straight from the sand pit but sure tastes like it: baked for hours until pale fat deposits melt over the shredded meat and impart that sickly sweetness only lard can provide. Smoky-sweet Lahaina ribs come four to an order, each crisp and as rigid as a male porno star. Saimin-noodle soup spills out of a clay hot pot and consists of little more than zigzagged chow mein noodles, a choice of meat (try the char siu, soft Chinese barbeque pork), a slice of a fluorescent pink root that wants to be ginger but is too polite and more salt than Lot's wife.
This is the health-conscious side of Aloha Chicken; other platters are the world's closest approximation to cooked cholesterol. Reflect on the loco moco plate, two well-done beef patties fused together with fried eggs and dripping with a gravy-like goo that tastes like soy-spiked mayonnaise. Even more clog-worthy is the Spam musubi, the pseudo-meat wrapped around rice and seaweed, the seaweed's salty marine essence barely tempering the thick, slimy Spam.
The only meal remotely gourmet is the namesake Aloha chicken, which is as great a version of hen as you'll find outside of San Clemente's Surfin' Chicken. People watch in wonder as the friendly husband-and-wife team running Aloha Chicken slave over military-surplus-size grills, first cooking the chickens whole, constantly pouring upon them soy sauce so the flames respond angrily with flares that blacken the chicken's skin to an obsidian glimmer. They then chop the bird into eraser-thick slices, neatly positioning the portions on a bed of rice, remembering to add one final scoop of soy sauce.
Every Aloha Chicken entrée comes in a foam carton, the long space holding two scoops of rice and the main course, the two smaller compartments filled with a scoop of macaroni salad and some lettuce leaves each—nothing more, nothing less. Any simpler environs and you've reverting to the pre-Captain Cook era.Aloha Chicken, located at 10488 Valley View Ave., Buena Park, is open Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.-4 p.m. (714) 826-6672. No alcohol. Dinner for two, $10-$13, food only. Cash only.