Ono Hawaiian BBQ* - Tustin
I love Hawaii for the same reasons everyone else loves Hawaii. But most of all, I love the food. Fresh poke from the fish counter at KTA on the Big Island. Guri guri from Tasaka on Maui. Saimin from Hamura on Kauai. And of course, the plate lunch, which should be anointed as the State's official dish, if it hasn't already.
When Hawaii's native son, Barack Obama, went to vacation there this summer, guess what was first on his mind. That's right: the plate lunch.
This is a meal specifically formulated to satisfy, consisting of two scoops of sticky rice, a scoop of macaroni salad and a massive mound of meat. Gut filling, unflinchingly fattening, the plate lunch represents what modern Hawaii is: a singular culture born from a whole bunch of others. But above all, it's uniquely American.
And although I still can't get a decent poke anywhere in O.C., the plate lunch has successfully crossed the Pacific to the mainland, where it has been embraced. Tustin, for instance, has at least two Hawaiian joints specializing in it.
One is Waikiki Hawaiian Grill, a tiny cubbyhole of a take-out place in the shadow of an Office Depot, which performs feats of wonder with its chicken katsu.
The latest is Ono Hawaiian BBQ at The District, which is arguably the most successful eatery at the center. Finding a free table there at lunchtime is just as tricky as snagging a parking spot near the place.
Though Ono is part of a larger chain that spans two states, it's still relatively small compared to the L&L empire. If L&L is KFC, Ono is Popeyes. And like I prefer Popeyes over KFC, I prefer Ono over L&L.
Their plate lunches are formidable. The one that would've sated even Iz Kamakawiwo'ole is the Hawaiian BBQ Mix ($7.69). It should speak volumes when I say that the picture the restaurant uses on its menu marquee doesn't do the actual dish justice. What you get is significantly more insane, like the cooks intended to feed zoo lions.
But if quantity was the only thing going for it, I wouldn't have bothered writing this post. The kalbi is tender and luscious, the deeply-flavored chicken comes in two thick slabs (dark meat, of course); but the coup de grâce is their BBQ beef, which seems like its chipped off from the best parts of the cow -- a sweetly carnivorous meat treat.
They do their surf as well as their turf. Mahi Mahi ($7.19) is served up in more manageable, easy to eat portions, but done perfectly. Though the pieces are most likely from frozen, they're still great. The Panko-breaded fish are fried to a greaseless crisp on the outside and moist flakiness inside. They go remarkably well with rice and mac salad, especially doused in their pineapple-y katsu sauce and squirted with liberal amounts of Sriracha.
However, there are two items at Ono that I found lacking, but only because Waikiki Hawaiian does it better.
While Waikiki's chicken katsu exists on its own ethereal plane, Ono's katsu ($6.59) is just fried chicken. To put it another way, Waikiki's dances the hula; Ono's just sits there.
And while Ono's loco moco ($7.19) dutifully fills up my stomach, Waikiki's loco moco actually does the impossible: I actually crave more than what's served. That's something when you realize that loco moco is a hamburger patty topped with a fried egg, doused in gloppy gravy and served over rice -- a dish that is ten times as heavy and fattening as it sounds.
John McCain would be well advised by his doctors to stay away from it.
Ono Hawaiian BBQ
2336 Park Ave
Tustin, CA 92782
THIS WEEK ON OC WEEKLY:
Hungry Bear - Fullerton**
*Update 9/23/08: I confirmed today that this week, Ono Hawaiian BBQ at The District changed its name to Aloha Hawaiian BBQ. Thanks to Johnny Automatic for the breaking news!
**Special Thanks to Monster Munching location scout Cecile for the tip on Hungry Bear.