Aloha BBQ

Photo by Matt OttoThe finest hot sauce I've tasted all year isn't ground in a curry house, Jamaican restaurant or my mother's molcajete. Instead, focus your heat-seeking yen toward the condiment concocted by Margie Ku, owner of Aloha BBQ in Mission Viejo. The bright-red liquid initially coats your tongue with a vinegary zest that quickly turns sour, then suddenly sweet. As your brain tries to process the rapidly oscillating sensations battling for your palate's attention, a latent spark suddenly unleashes a flame deserving of its own park ranger's advisory. Aloha BBQ's house sauce is addicting and wonderful—and it's made that morning, with no preservatives and only enough prepared to last the day. You'll have to wait until tomorrow for more once it's finished, so squirt the clear bottle long and hard while you can.

That this hot sauce even exists at Aloha BBQ is a bit strange given that Hawaiian cuisine is notorious for being less spicy than vanilla. But this restaurant is, like nearly every Hawaiian restaurant on the mainland, a hybrid eatery that combines elements of various Asian countries with traditional island faves—in Aloha BBQ's case, Ku skews toward the fiery specialties of her ancestral Korea.

The menu advertises such Korean staples as bibimbap (a porcelain crater of glass noodles, meat and other assorted vegetables balanced over a hill of rice and smeared with chile paste) and the Korean beef rib obsession known as kalbi. Korean cuisine demands fire, so Ku tweaks up the heat on all her homeland entrées as if she were a Mexican.

Hawaiian staples such as manapua (steamed pork buns) and boiling saimin noodles are also fine at Aloha BBQ. But true to its moniker, the joint excels best on the carnivorous portion of its home island's diet. Barbecue beef is speckled with sesame seeds and grilled using typhoons of teriyaki sauce; you'll reek of the stuff the next time you sweat. Pork or chicken katsu is equally overpowering, strips of the meat deep-fried to crispy, crumb-spreading heaven.

As great as those are, the most impressive meat meal is the spicy pork ribs. Most rib places content themselves with giving patrons a couple of twigs, but Aloha BBQ carts over four massive things that appear to have been torn from a hippopotamus. Each flesh-heavy rib contains a strip of slightly melted fat, and Ku slathers her ribs in a barbecue sauce spiked with her lovely lava. I continue sniffing my hands in nostalgia for Aloha BBQ's pork ribs weeks after a bite. And those stains on my shirt, not to mention cheeks? They shan't meet the tyranny of soap for years.

Aloha BBQ, 24000 Alicia Pkwy., Ste. 4, Mission Viejo, (949) 581-0976.

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