A close friend of mine is an officer in the Navy stationed in Honolulu. While visiting over the holidays, I asked him if they’ve been trying much traditional Hawaiian cuisine. He gave me some side-eye and told me that a lot of Hawaiian food is very heavy, includes a lot of Spam, and wasn’t something that they were enjoying very much.
So, it was with trepidation that I placed my first lunch order from Aloha Cookin’. I enlisted the help of two coworkers, one of whom is absolutely crazy for sushi and ramen, and we tried to sample a wide cross-section of the menu. One of my colleagues had the huli huli chicken; grilled chicken thighs in teriyaki sauce with rice. Her two side item selections were kimchi and Portugese bean soup. The chicken smelled absolutely delicious, and she reported that the teriyaki sauce was sweeter than she was expecting, but that it was a safe bet for someone who isn’t typically a very adventurous eater. The Portugese bean soup, she said, tasted strongly of tomato and not much else.
My other colleague, the one who loves ramen, tried the miso ramen, which came with braised pork, fish cakes, marinated egg, bean sprouts, onions, green onions and bamboo shoots. Her bowl was missing the fish cakes, which she attributed to fate as that addition to the dish was giving her minor heart palpitations. She was pleasantly surprised with the overall taste, since the dingy color of the broth didn’t look particularly appetizing. She reported the pork to be quite dry and a bit lacking in flavor, but wondered if that phenomenon would be different had we dined in the restaurant and the pork had been served already in the broth.
The clear winner of the afternoon was my poke bowl. Poke is becoming quite prevalent in the Greater Lansing area, and I noticed at least two new poke restaurants on a recent jaunt through East Lansing. Poke bowls are a delight on the senses and have a base of rice topped with thinly sliced raw fish, seaweed salad and vegetables like edamame, avocado, chickpeas, carrots and fresh greens. I chose the tuna poke with roasted sesame dressing, and my bowl was aggressively colorful and fresh. I loved it and would gladly eat a poke bowl for a perfectly balanced lunch every single day. If you’re looking to infuse a lot of health and a ton of flavor into your diet, try a poke bowl. Aloha Cookin’ even offers a vegan version, and if you are wary of raw fish, I’m certain they could throw your tuna or salmon on the grill for a quick sear.
My next lunch order included a barbecue pork plate for Mr. She Ate and the chicken katsu for yours truly. Chicken katsu is, essentially, a thinly pounded chicken cutlet, breaded and fried. Fried chicken cutlets are not my typically preferred lunch fare, but this was in the name of research, and I hoped that it would mentally transport me away from looking at the snow and rain combination that was pouring from the sky and make me think of the paradise that I imagine Hawaii to be.
Alas, the chicken was so dry that it was near inedible. I chose French fries as one of my side items, hoping as I always do for something inspired, but these were French fries that my 2-year-old would gobble down. That’s to say they were saltless and limp, clearly having recently broken free from their home in the freezer. My other side item was kimchi, something that I love for its unmistakable pickled flavor and also for its health benefits. Mr. She Ate’s barbecue pork was better, although it verged on unacceptably sweet. It was far and away the best selection of the day, and still, it wasn’t something that would ever get me to drive to East Lansing and pay a meter again.
In short, I’ll wait to visit my friend in Hawaii before trying another Hawaiian meal. It can’t all be Spam, right?
Back in 1989, when I was 10 years old, my family took a trip to the Aloha Bowl in Honolulu. It is one of my earliest food travel memories, and I recall the vibrant fruit flavors, the linguini and steamed calamari in white sauce, and the luau hosted by the Michigan State Alumni Association — complete with roast pua’a (pork) and poi (a taro root-based paste). I also recall many menus having Spam as a staple in both upscale and takeout restaurants. These fond flavor flashbacks were evoked by my recent visits to East Lansing’s Aloha Cookin’.
Located along a diverse food corridor on Albert Street, Aloha Cookin’ offers unique flavors and ingredients for our region. The restaurant interior is contemporary, but comfy — not trying too hard and, thankfully, not propped up by Hawaiian kitsch. I found the space to be clean, the staff friendly and the ambience granting a chance to focus on the food. A chance you all should be willing to take.
During my first visit to Aloha Cookin’, my companions and I tried a little bit of everything. I think by now you know I’m a fan of calamari and am likely to sample it everywhere. Aloha Cookin’s calamari was lightly breaded, thick cut and tubular. Given its unique flavor profile, I was expecting Aloha Cookin’ to offer sweet chili or duck sauce, rather than a plain tartar sauce for dipping. We tried two types of wings — huli huli (sweet teriyaki) and the Korean fried wings with a sweet and spicy peanut sauce. I would only order the Korean fried wings again, but the huli huli was flavorful. The kalabi (grilled short ribs), on the other hand, tasted rather flat with a non-descript barbecue sauce — it certainly didn’t benefit from the accompanying nearly raw sliced onions. However, the Hawaiian chili was unique in the best way. Aromatic and packed with beef, beans, onions and tomatoes, the chili gently snuggled with a generous link of Portuguese sausage on a bed of warm rice, an utterly delicious surprise.
On the night of our second visit, the temperature outside was a balmy 18 degrees, not exactly tropical. Thankfully, Aloha Cookin’ has wonderful corn tea that is light and not overpowering, serving as a nice palette prep for the delights to come. Both the pork fried dumplings and shrimp tempura stand up against many of the others in the area. Crispy but not too hard, the dumplings have hint of ginger, and the tempura comes with an onion ring and a fried sweet potato. Similarly, the tofu and eggplant stir-fry gives most sweet and sour chicken or pork dishes in the area a run for their money. The sweet chili sauce with sliced red peppers and other veggies made a perfect complement for the sticky rice. One of the side dish options is a side salad with a very yummy lemon ginger dressing. The dressing is also available on the poke bowls with tuna, salmon or octopus. I’ll be back for one of those for sure.
This month’s best bite was an absolute dead heat between the garlic butter shrimp and the kulua pig. Both dishes come with the same sticky rice that would be great for sushi. The shrimp dish is pan-fried with peppers and onions, a savory garlic sauce and grilled pineapple. I swear I wanted another order after the first bite. The kulua pig is like a pulled pork with cabbage and is wonderfully salty, but not overpowering on its own. It had me reliving the luau from my youth. When I drizzled the sesame garlic sauce on the meat, I found a new level of umami that could only be described as “more” — as in, I want more! I need that sauce recipe, so I can pour it on every protein in my refrigerator. I promise it won’t disappoint.
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