Restaurant Reviews

Island Grinds

The Spam musubi at Little Island Grill on Westheimer looked strange. There was so much nori wrapped around the outside of the sushi roll, I couldn't see the pink pork product inside. It tasted okay, though I would have liked a thicker slice of Spam. The grilled shrimp and fried rice plate lunch was just average, and the chicken katsu was a little rubbery. But da kine grind here was the loco moco — that dish broke da mout.

In Hawaiian pidgin, "da kine" means "good" or "great," food is "grind," and "broke da mout" means "it was so good it broke my mouth."

A loco moco features a grilled hamburger patty over two scoops of white rice topped with brown gravy and a fried egg. At first, the loco moco at Little Island Grill seemed disjointed because the fried egg was on the side. But it was easy enough to slide the egg on top of the burgers where it belonged before I dug in. And for a bonus, Little Island's loco moco comes with not one but two burger patties. You also get one side — I went for the seasoned french fries.

The firm burger patties had a bit of grill char, which contrasted nicely with the soft, sticky sushi rice. The thick brown beef gravy and the warm egg yolk combined to make a rich but simple-­flavored sauce. Loco moco is essentially a rice and gravy dish, the ­Hawaiian version of soul food.

I once imagined that Hawaiians started eating their hamburgers on rice because there weren't any good buns around. But according to professor James Kelly at the University of Hawaii-Hilo, the loco moco was invented by a bunch of hungry football players at the Lincoln Inn in Hilo in 1949.

Short on money, they asked the restaurant's owner, Nancy Inouye, to put some rice, a burger patty and gravy in a bowl rather than charge them for the more expensive hamburger steak entrée. The nickname of one of the boys, "Crazy George" Okimoto, inspired the "loco" part of the name; the "moco" was just another word that rhymed.

Sorry, I can't find an equally interesting origin story for Spam musubi. But the two dishes exemplify the sort of lowbrow Hawaiian food that I love. Combine the tastes of sailors from the U.S. Navy with Chinese, Japanese and Filipino laborers and the native Polynesians, and what you get is an Asian fusion folk cuisine.

Farther down Westheimer, past Beltway 8,I stopped into another Hawaiian restaurant called the Aloha Grill. The interior reminded me of a fast-food ­restaurant, and so did the prices.

Little Island Grill and the Aloha Grill aren't the first Hawaiian eateries we've seen in Texas. Roy's Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine has been doing a steady business in Austin for eight years now. But there's a big difference between homespun Hawaiian food and the upscale fusion cuisine of Roy Yamaguchi. Roy's "Hawaiian Mixed Plates" go for 30 and 40 dollars. At the Aloha Grill, you can get a Spam musubi for a dollar-fifty.

James Beard Award-winning chefs from Hawaii like Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong deserve a lot of the credit for the popularity of the Pacific Rim cuisine. As Wong explained when I interviewed him years ago at his restaurant, there was nothing contrived about Asian fusion cooking when it first emerged from the polyglot kitchens of Honolulu.

"Hawaii is the melting pot of the Pacific," Wong said. Polynesian, Indonesian, Japanese, Portuguese, Chinese, Filipino and American ingredients flowed together naturally there. Houston has enjoyed the Asian fusion fine-­dining style at restaurants like benjy's for many years. But up until now, we've missed out on the genius of Hawaiian fusion fast food.

At the Aloha Grill, I recommend you start with a side of papaya salad, which tastes just like Thai som tum, only without the fish sauce and seasonings. I could eat a mountain of this fresh, crunchy papaya slaw. If you like it hot, grab a bottle of Rooster brand sriracha hot sauce from the condiment bin and stripe it up and down with ribbons of red chile juice.

Then try a plate of the kalua pork. "Kalua" means "pit-cooked" in Hawaiian. The original version of kalua pork was a whole pig steamed in an underground pit called an imu. It's the pork that's served at every Hawaiian luau. The wood fire gave the meat a smoky flavor even though it was buried in the ground.

Like the early Texas barbecue pits that were dug in the ground, the Hawaiian imu fell victim to modern sanitary regulations. The modern version of kalua pork is a slow-roasted Boston butt roast that's rubbed with liquid smoke, wrapped in aluminum foil and cooked in a 350-degree oven until it falls apart. Then it's mixed with a vinegary sauce and shredded cabbage. It tastes very similar to Carolina pulled pork barbecue. (I wonder how Carolina pulled pork tastes with poi?)

The other standouts at Aloha Grill are the mahi-mahi strips fried with a crunchy katsu coating and the grilled teriyaki plates. Thin-sliced short ribs are a little tough, but the teriyaki steak is tender and the chicken is very moist. The typical Hawaiian side order is two scoops of rice and one of macaroni salad. The macaroni salad here is an authentically bland mixture of little but pasta and mayonnaise.

You can choose from several flavors of Hawaiian Sun juice drinks at Aloha Grill, including my favorite, "Pass-O-Guav." There's also iced green tea and the regular soft drink choices.

Talk about your recession-era budget lunch. At the Aloha Grill, there's a wide selection of Hawaiian plate lunches for under five dollars. You can get a teriyaki bowl for three-fifty. At Little Island Grill, lunches start at $4.60.

Granted, the Formica tables, walk-up counters and serve-yourself drinks don't offer much in the way of atmosphere. But this isn't fine dining. And when you compare what you get at these two Hawaiian fast-food joints to what you'd get for the same money at McDonald's, you have to agree: The island grind is da kine.

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh