Say 'Aloha' To The Valley's Best Hawaiian Eateries

LAS VEGAS | Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Las Vegas is reputed to have one of the largest concentrations of kamaaina, or native-born Hawaiians, of any city on the mainland. We certainly have our share of Hawaiian restaurants. Here are two of the newest and best ones.

L&L Hawaiian Barbecue caused quite a stir when it opened in the summer. People from the islands were lining up to eat there. In Hawaii, this chain is like an institution, with more than 30 locations. No one seems to mind that the counter service or that these filling meals are consumed from plastic take-out boxes.

No one comes here for the atmosphere. There are island-blue plastic tables, a soda machine and one framed, sexy portrait of a flower-laden wahine (girl) on the wall. But this is a bare-bones place, and it is remarkable how many of the customers look as if they stepped straight off a Hawaiian Airlines flight.

Hawaiian lunch counter food is an amalgam of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, American and Korean influence, and all of the flavors of these countries show up on L&L's menu. The signature dish is chicken katsu, a breaded chicken cutlet cut up into lengthwise strips and served on a mountain of steamed rice.

This is a Japanese dish, really, as is musubi—nori seaweed wrapped around an ingot-sized bar of rice with a filling. That filling is usually a piece of grilled Spam, but I opted instead for the tastier—and less filling—Portuguese sausage, a.k.a. linguica.

I recently showed up when the doors opened at 10 a.m., and I was still in a breakfast mood. So I tried loco moco, a Hawaiian classic consisting of a fried egg, a nicely spiced grilled hamburger patty, and steamed rice topped with an unctuous brown gravy. This concoction isn't bad when you add a little soy and Sriracha chili sauce from the condiment counter. But I'll wait a few years before ordering it again.

Instead, I'm going for either No. 1 or No. 2 from the menu above the counter. The first is the chain's biggest seller, a seafood combo consisting of fried shrimp, mahi-mahi and a choice of either Hawaiian BBQ beef, Korean-style short ribs or marinated, barbecued chicken. Order No. 2 and you get the three meats. Both dishes come with rice and a creamy, mild macaroni salad. Those islanders sure love their carbos.

The one other thing not to miss here is saimin, which is a ramen-type noodle soup. The broth tastes a bit artificial, but the noodles are fresh and there is a large choice of toppings. If you're planning on eating here, it's best to come before the lunch and dinner rush. If you doubt how many Hawaiians live around here, come at either noon or 6 p.m. and see for yourself.

Aloha Kitchen has a spotless new location on Decatur (the original location is at 4745 S. Maryland Parkway), and the food is better than ever. Where L&L shines with grilled foods, this place does better with cooked dishes, such as kalua pig—shredded pork slow roasted in an oven (a kalua oven, in Hawaii, is a pit oven), the Filipino stewed-pork dish called pork adobo, where the meat is stewed with lots of soy and vinegar, and a thickly sauced chicken curry.

The family that owns Aloha Kitchen is Filipino-Hawaiian, which explains why lumpia Shanghai, an addictive appetizer, is served here. In spite of the name, lumpia is a Filipino, not a Chinese, specialty. They're fried egg rolls stuffed with ground pork, chopped onions and minced carrots, and they have a nice, crunchy bite. This is also the best Hawaiian place in town for manapua, a sort of steamed bun filled with minced pork. They love their pigs in the Islands.

Fried saimin, hot off the grill, is a terrific noodle dish; the long skinny noodles tossed with Chinese barbecued pork and lots of vegetables. One dish that might be an acquired taste for some is lau-lau—pork and fish steamed inside a banana leaf. Perhaps my favorite thing on this menu is precisely that kalua pig, which is served with a big pile of steamed cabbage. Maybe the Irish colonized Hawaii in the century before Captain Cook showed up.

Just like at L&L, all combination plates are served with rice and macaroni salad, and it's possible to mix and match many items: teriyaki salmon, beef stew, fried chicken and even Korean kimchee, the dreaded fermented spiced cabbage. The menu is much bigger here than at L&L, but the food is equally consistent.

Wash everything down with a can of Hawaiian Sun fruit nectars, all cloyingly sweet and exotic. Two of the best choices are Strawberry Lilikoi (passion fruit) and Guava Nectar. When you are in the mood to kau-kau (eat), you won't be let down by either of these two islanders.

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