[This Hole-in-the-Wall Life] Saucy Hawaiian at Waikiki Hawaiian Grill
There are plate lunches—the Hawaiian mega-meals consisting of a scoop of rice, mac salad, and your choice of meat—but what they serve at WAIKIKI HAWAIIAN GRILL approaches a buffet. My colleague Edwin Goei raved about its $4.99 mini-meal in our summer food issue, writing it “should only be attempted if you have a hungry friend in tow, or if you already look like an island.” I can’t think of a similarly clever metaphor to describe the plain ol’ plate lunch, except that it’s muy grande.
The serving doesn’t seem particularly large at first, being that the Korean owners stuff your meal into a Styrofoam package assuming you, like almost everyone else who visits, want a meal on the go instead of eating inside a charming locale where the music of the late, legendary island musician Israel Kamakawiwo’ole plays on an endless loop. (Quick aside: While I like Izzy’s lazy jams, I’m still waiting for a Hawaiian dive to play something else—anything else—from Hawaii. Don Ho? Slack-key guitar? Ukulele ditties from the Jazz Age?) And even when you open your order, the sides of rice and mac salad seem small. But check out the meat, enough to please a Mexican during a carne asada weekend. Bite into it—juicy kalbi short ribs, seeped in a light barbecue sauce (ask for a side of kim chi, which isn’t on the regular menu), crunchy chicken katsu, kalua pork chopped so finely that the meat looks more like bits of string. Salute the Mexican cooks in the kitchen for being able to translate Hawaii’s multiculti feasts in Tustin.
The key ingredients for Waikiki’s success are the sauces. Maui pineapple chicken is really chicken katsu served with a side bowl of a teriyaki glaze, spiked with chunks of the fruit. It’s not overtly sweet, but the sauce’s stickiness means the pineapple flavor sinks into the chicken’s breaded crust, and transforms the dish from a novelty into a true delight. The katsu sauce is actually memorable, with hints of pineapple, chili and sugar. Barbecue sauce summons meat’s charms, garlic sauce sears. And the gravy on the loco moco is how I want to meet God—drown me in this suffocatingly sweet goo, O Lord! Whatever you order, wash it down with a can of Hawaiian Sun—usually two bucks in other county Hawaiian restaurants, but available at Waikiki for $1.25.
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Waikiki Hawaiian Grill, 13771 Newport Ave., Ste. 10, Tustin, (714) 731-7371.
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