This Hole-in-the-Wall Life
When someone tells me a new Hawaiian restaurant has opened in Orange County, I bet them a year's worth of dinners that I can name 90 percent of the menu. See, for a cuisine influenced by multiple cultures—a short list includes Portuguese, Polynesian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino and Hormel—Hawaiian eateries on the mainland can be maddeningly repetitive. And that's one of the reasons I delayed visiting the latest outpost of Aloha Hawaiian Barbecue in Costa Mesa. Their menu is all about the standards: Hawaiian barbecue, chicken katsu, mahi-mahi, burgers, sizzling saimin soups and loco moco, with all entrées served in weighty portions on Styrofoam plates with two scoops of rice and a mound of bittersweet macaroni salad on the side. The drinks are Hawaiian Sun fruit nectars; the music is the gentle ukulele strums of Izzy Kamakawiwo'ole. Nothing special, it seems.
There were a couple surprises, however. Aloha's owners store their teriyaki and katsu sauces in thermoses, ensuring that patrons can enjoy the two condiments the way they should be served—piping hot. (The difference between a hot katsu or teriyaki sauce and those stored at room temperature is that the heated sauces draw more flavor from the meat.) Also, I had never seen crab Rangoon at a Hawaiian restaurant but Aloha stocks it, and the Chinese-American favorite is excellent: creamy, crispy and with a dash of green onion.
But by far the best surprise at Aloha is the garlic clumps. Southern Californians swear by taco trucks for a quick, cheap meal; Hawaiians love their shrimp trucks, where customers line up for plates of the just-caught crustaceans prepared any number of ways. Aloha serves its shrimp crispy or grilled with garlic. Order the latter, and enjoy the dozen or so shrimp crammed onto a plateful of cold pickled cabbage. I expected it to taste like kim chi, but this was better: sweet—thanks to the gobs of butter that had melted off the glistening shrimp and dripped to the plate's bottom—yet still pungent.
And the shrimp? Grilled, moist, with garlic shavings cooked directly onto the shrimp's meat and welded on with butter. I had cups of Sriracha hot sauce ready for dunking, but they weren't necessary. Aloha's garlic shrimp are some of the best shrimp around and a welcome respite from Hawaiian barbecue. Not that it's bad here, though—in fact, order a plate of Hawaiian barbecue to go, and enjoy it as leftovers for your next four meals.
ALOHA HAWAIIAN BARBECUE, 3001 BRISTOL ST., STE. E, COSTA MESA, (714) 557-9386; ALSO AT 3009 E. CHAPMAN AVE., ORANGE, (714) 639-3388; AND 19071 BROOKHURST ST., HUNTINGTON BEACH, (714) 964-9878.
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