The stout, happy woman who greets me at Waikiki Hawaiian Grill
is always in a good mood, which puts in me in a good mood. But her cheer and friendly demeanor isn't the only thing that keeps me loyal to this Tustin eatery: it's the food produced by her husband.
In the kitchen, this square-jawed Korean man in a baseball cap commands a crew of two hard-working Latinos. Working just as feverishly as his employees, his face seems forever flustered, like a marathon runner on his final mile.
But as a driven perfectionist, I often see him doting over a styrofoam container of loco moco
as if he were being judged on Top Chef
. With determined concentration and an intensity of purpose, he ladles just the right amount of gravy, and scoops the roundest, most perfect hemispheres of rice.
Outside, in the dining room, where the tables gleam like polished surfboards, the only CD they own -- Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's "Facing Future"
-- loops continuously, piped in through tiny speakers. IZ's creamy voice and the pluck of his ukelele bounces around the walls of the spotless, cheerful room, and in your head for eternity. The last track you hear is the one you'll be humming for hours.
But what better than the best Hawaiian music to accompany the best Hawaiian food, like Waikiki's Loco Moco
($5.99) -- the finest I've had anywhere. It's a rich, hearty dish that begins with a foundation of rice, and continues with two ground beef patties, two sunny-side up eggs, all drenched in a salty, brown gravy made from scratch.
As any loco moco
maven will attest, what makes or breaks a loco moco
is its two principal components: the beef and the gravy.
It only takes an unseasoned patty or an insipid gravy to tip the balance from a heavenly loco moco
to one that will make you sick from nausea. Not here. The beef is salted perfectly, and the gravy elevates the meat in a way that gravy always should.
In fact, the last time I ordered the loco moco
, I found myself sopping up every last drop with what was left of the rice.
My favorite item to come out of his kitchen, however, is the Chicken Katsu
($5.99), which amply feeds two with leftovers for the weekend. Served with a scoop of rice and a mayonnaisey mac salad, it is simply the most divine katsu
to ever grace any plate, styrofoam or otherwise.
The secret of its success is three-fold.
First, the crust. Through what must be some sort of bizarre alchemy, the crackly integrity of the breaded shell remains greaseless and fully in tact, even after a thirty minute travel time to my door. Possessing a crunch heartier than a thousand Saltines, you won't find a soggy piece in the pile. Every strip of the breading is as sturdy as it is flavorful, with a faint buttery sweetness hiding inside each Panko crumb.
Secondly, the meat is cooked to just the right degree of moistness -- not slobbery (underdone) or dry (overdone). It's a happy middle which will please both white-meat and dark-meat connoisseurs.
Last, but not least, is the sauce, which is pitch-perfect and well-balanced in every sense. Served in small plastic containers, it has the tangy fruityness of pineapple juice which is softened by sugar and then sharpened by chili. The woman, who knows I love the stuff, packs away two servings for me without having to ask.
When I'm hankering for fried rice, the kitchen chief also cooks a mean version called appropriately enough, Hawaiian Fried Rice
($6.49), with loose, toothsome grains, stir-fried in a wok until it attains the ruddish color of paella
He doesn't skimp on the proteins either. Included in the dish are meaty strips of their BBQ chicken, and three fat shrimp along with some juicy chunks of pineapple.
Another dish I tried recently was Garlic Shrimp
($7.99), which resembles the Chinese restaurant staple, "Salt and Pepper Shrimp", but served on top of wilted cabbage.
An order comes with rice and mac salad, with a dozen of the plump crustaceans lightly floured, deep fried, and then wok-tossed in an aromatic mix of minced garlic and chopped scallions. If you get it as take-out, it will stink up your car, your house, your breath, and still leave you begging for more.
Of course, since I'm mentioning everything I like about the place, let's not forget about their Hawaiian BBQ plate lunches, which I've reviewed previously on this blog
. It's still formidable, gut-busting, and delectable.
And no I haven't forgotten about the Spam Musubi
($2.69 for 2). It's SPAM-tastic!
Waikiki Hawaiian Grill
13771 Newport Ave. #10
Tustin, CA 92780