Richard Foss

The Humble Hawaiian [restaurant review]

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The welcome at The Grindz at 1601 is as warm as the islands. It seems everyone who works here is part of the same Hawaiian family

The Grindz at 1600 partner Gary Yonamine. Photo by Kevin Cody

I enjoy colorful slang terms, and have avidly read articles about the lingo of the Victorian underworld, Roaring Twenties revelers, beatniks, Cockneys, and carnival workers. It’s vivid, informal, and whimsical, often based on obscure allusions, rhymes, and wordplay.

It can also be subtle, and even an enthusiast might miss an example in plain sight. Consider the sign for The Grindz at 1601 in Hermosa, a café in the 24 Hour Fitness building on PCH just north of Pier. From the name I had assumed it was a coffeehouse, or perhaps a reference to weightlifting since it’s in the same building as the gym. I discovered it was neither. Grindz, as the Urban Dictionary informed me, is the Hawaiian pidgin term for humble everyday meals.

The decor and setting aren’t particularly Hawaiian, unless you take into account the fact that like everywhere else most new construction in Honolulu is glass and steel office buildings. But the welcome is as warm as the islands, and it seems that everyone who works here is part of the same Hawaiian family. The menu offers the odd hodgepodge that is modern Hawaiian food, a mix of Japanese, Chinese, Korean, American, and native ideas. Islanders like their food rich but not highly spiced, with a balance of salty and sweet in almost everything.

An example is the breakfast burrito here, which isn’t much like the standard item. You get a tortilla containing a thin pancake of egg with a giant portion of bacon fried rice and kalua pork. For those who aren’t familiar with that latter item, it’s pork shoulder seasoned only with salt that is traditionally wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in an underground pit. Modern preparations often use a crock pot and smoke seasoning to get a similar effect of concentrated rich porkiness. When paired with bacon fried rice, it’s two different textures of smoky, salty pork, and these are combined with rice seasoned with salty soy sauce. It’s pleasant but a bit one-dimensional, and halfway through eating it I found myself wishing they had tossed in some onion, cabbage, or other vegetables to add a little variety. Help is at hand in the form of bottles of Noh brand Hawaiian hot sauce, which is reminiscent of a fruity Caribbean jerk sauce. This will keep you eating all the way through the huge burrito, though after finishing it you may go into a food coma or to the nearby gym for a workout depending on your proclivities.

The most Hawaiian breakfast is loco moco, hamburger patties topped with eggs over rice and topped with gravy. These made the burrito look petite, and I wasn’t that hungry. Instead I tried the kalbi short rib plate, bone-in beef rib slices served with rice, macaroni salad, and a ramen-cabbage salad. By the standards of Hawaiian food this is almost a diet plate, and by any other it’s a very full meal. The galbi are marinated in a mild sauce of soy, ginger, garlic, and sugar that caramelizes on the grill, though they don’t go overboard with that. At some places kalbi are seared to get a pretty and sweet glaze and a tougher texture, but here they’re tender and juicy. The rice and macaroni salad are the standard starches, balanced by the cabbage and noodle salad in sweet dressing topped with a sprinkling of green onion and sesame. This plate is a lot of food, but good enough that I ate everything but the bones.

The Grindz bento plate offers chicken teriyaki, spam musubi, bacon fried rice, and kalua pork. Photo by Richard Foss.

On another visit I ordered the “bento box,” which was actually not one because it was served on a regular plate rather than a sectioned container. It’s a combination plate of the bacon fried rice and kalua pork with spam musubi and chicken teriyaki, which the person at the counter said are the favorite items there. Spam musubi is an odd relic of World War 2, created when Hawaiians turned canned meat from military rations into sushi. Spam certainly fits the Hawaiian sense of taste, and you can think of this combo plate as featuring three variations on salty pork. I wished that the plate had less fried rice and some of the cabbage salad, since the salt level got pretty intense as the meal went on. The chicken teriyaki was a different flavor but was my least favorite item since it’s cooked white meat with the sauce poured on top rather than the version that spends some time broiling or barbecuing so the sauce cooks down. I might suggest this plate as a meal for two if you order a salad on the side, but not for one person.

On another visit I decided to try one of the non-Hawaiian items, a burger made from fresh meat ground in house. The dense, very juicy patty came on a ciabatta bun with a hefty amount of garlic mayo, and it was very good though somewhat messy. I’d ask for a bit less of the mayo next time, because it was the dominant flavor rather than an accent. Either chips or a salad were offered as a side and having experienced the salt level of previous meals I decided on salad with housemade raspberry vinaigrette. The burger wasn’t overly salty but the salad was a good choice anyway, the tart, fruity acidity of the dressing a foil for the meaty richness of the sandwich.

A meal at The Grindz is inexpensive – the most expensive item on the menu runs 11 bucks, and portions are substantial. If you like Hawaiian food or are just curious about it, or if you want a decent sandwich and friendly service, it’s worth stopping in.

The Grindz is at 1601 PCH, Suite 155. Open daily 6:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. Parking in lot, wheelchair access good. No alcohol, some vegetarian items. Menu at thegrindzat1602.com. (310) 753-9889. ER

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