For more than a year, Mark Antonation ate his way up Federal Boulevard. With that journey done, he'll now explore different cuisines from around the globe right here in metro Denver, one month at a time, in Ethniche. First up: Hawaiian food.
It's a long drive from my neighborhood to the rolling hills of Thornton, where I rarely venture or dine. The last occasion was several years ago, for a family rendezvous at an Olive Garden that somehow topped a list based on some misguided attempt at compromise. Aloha Hawaiian Barbecue beckoned me northward this time, which at least provided a topic of conversation in the midst of heavy rush-hour traffic. We pondered the consistency of gravy on loco moco, deliberated the merits of kalua pork and Michoacan-style carnitas, complained about the complete botch job and resultant gridlock of the new Santa Fe fly-over/on-ramp to I-25 (not at all related to Hawaiian cuisine, but a passion-inciting topic nonetheless). I was hungry, but not really inspired; I'm not a huge rice fan, and it seemed like the bulk of my caloric intake had come from platters of starchy grains and pastas over the past few weeks. This particular drive was beginning to feel like an obligation to my culinary mission instead of an adventure into unique and tasty territory.
After a couple of miscues attempting to exit Washington Street for the strip-mall parking lot fronting Aloha and its neighbors, my mood was darkening on pace with the cloud-filled evening. But the color photos of menu items cluttering the front window lifted my spirits, surely a sign of good food inside. It's an unwritten rule, after all, that the level of deliciousness is directly proportional to the number of food photos displayed. Photos on the menu: great. Photos on the walls or in the window: truly inspiring.
Aloha's interior leaned strongly toward Spartan; only a Hawaiian state flag and a curious bauble resembling a miniature feathered helmet served as island-themed embellishments. A large flat-screen TV dominated the counter space, but was at least tuned to Hawaiian travel shows at mercifully low volume. The curved orange benches and laminate counter stood out like remnants of a 1970s burger shack. But the dining room was clean and lively, and the aromas emanating from the kitchen, separated by a half-drawn curtain that perhaps concealed a wizard of Spam, enticed with tendrils of sweet marinade rising from hot grill surfaces. I've been focusing on loco moco and Spam musubi as two of the cornerstones of Hawaiian comfort food. Aloha's musubi are the cheapest I've encountered so far, at $1.75 each. Competently rolled and thick like cheap paperbacks, they provided a good balance between the mild nuttiness of the rice and the salty-sweet intensity of the glazed Spam. The loco moco, while not nearly as pretty as the composed bowl at Iwayama or as liberally mounded as L & L's standard bearer, made do with light and onion-infused gravy and beef patties more akin to cube steak -- tenderized into submission rather than ground. As a nice touch, the kitchen lets you specify whether you want gravy on your rice or just on the beef. Keep reading for more on Aloha Hawaiian Barbecue. The bubbly cashier also recommended the mixed barbecue plate, a heap of thin-sliced steak, short ribs and chicken marinated in a sweet teriyaki-style glaze. I tacked on a side of kimchi -- house-made and spicy, with just a hint of fermented funk. It was a good, satisfying plate with an addictive sauce that had me gnawing every last scrap off the coin-sized rib cross-sections. The ubiquitous scoop of macaroni salad delivered a creaminess deserving of the reverent praise this humble side often receives from natives. I'm still a little baffled by the affection poured out for the Hawaiian plate lunch in its various configurations. If you grew up with this combination of cheap satisfaction and traditional slow food served in big portions like grandma would, it would certainly push all the right comfort buttons. I will always celebrate the best cultural collisions, the kind that result in zesty banh mi, outlandish Mexico City tortas and Pacific Rim ingredients playfully warped by the addition of war-era processed meats.
But the heavy, plain stuff -- maybe I'm even learning to love it despite the lack of fresh ingredients and power-packed flavors that draw me to Mexican and Vietnamese cooking. Maybe next time, when the server hands me a groaning styrofoam clamshell overloaded with double fistfuls of sticky rice, I'll even say "mahalo" instead of "thank you."
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For more from our tour of Denver's cultural, regional and international restaurant scene, check out our entire Ethniche archive.