Down in blue Hawaii.
So far away from blue Hawaii.
Aloha nui means goodbye.
“In Blue Hawaii”
Brian Wilson/Van Dyke Parks
On yet another daylight-challenged, Oregon grey winter day, we puzzle over where to eat. It is a frequent noon time ritual at my office. My business partner–a social worker masquerading as a divorce lawyer–disdains a “project lunch.” The term refers to anything that might take more than 45 minutes to order and consume or involves any ingredient unavailable at Safeway in 1975. The “no project lunch” rule wears like a strait-jacket, denying me reach to nearly every entry on my favorite restaurants list.
Our office is in Johns Landing. Most of the food in the area is dreadful. There is bad pan-Asian down Macadam by the Zupan’s; horrid pub grub and mediocre sushi a couple blocks from there; and stunningly awful Chinese or sugar-coated corporate ham or turkey in our building. We enjoy the fried fish not far down Corbett, but not today. No, today is Friday and nothing else will brighten the weather somber mood like Bamboo Grove Hawaiian Grille.
Bamboo Grove sits just off Macadam, on SW Carolina, around the corner from a (surprise!) mediocre Thai restaurant. David Kahoilua, a self-described “hapaguy,” owns the place, though often orders are taken and delivered by his manager, Francis. Francis is a pretty nice guy if you catch him when he is not too busy, otherwise he can be brusque to the point of rudeness. Part of his gruff persona derives from the fact that the Grove is always packed at lunch, especially on Fridays. The 50 or so seat house is full by noon. You either go early or come in after about 12:30. Some customers fail to heed the rule, and they wait. To be fair, the flow from the kitchen is fast and Francis has a knack for turning tables.
It is not the decor that draws the mostly office dwelling lunch crowds. Two of the three small dining rooms are devoid of decorative flourishes, save for a surf board mounted near the kitchen on which the daily special is noted and some tropical flowers and bamboo painted on a couple walls. The third dining area is dressed in an almost humorous Tiki tacky get up. I have only been seated in there once and much prefer the nondescript tables and booths in the main rooms. Not that we care much about looks anyway. We are in a hurry.
Friday (and Saturday, too) is kalua pork day at Bamboo Grove. Kalua pork, is a Hawaiian specialty. In its true form, it is a pit-roasted pig, liberally sprinkled with Hawaiian sea salt, that smokes lightly under a cover of banana leaves. Oven-roast variations involving foil-covered pork shoulder (commonly referred to as the “butt”) with the special salt and liquid smoke are common. This is what they offer at Bamboo Grove, in part because health regulations do not permit pit roasting. According to Francis, pit roasting is overrated anyway, with that delightful smoky taste coming from the burnt burlap bag that goes into the pit with the pig. The oven-roast method is fine with me. The yield is delicately flavored strands, shreds and chunks of mouthwatering, moist pork meat.
A trip the Grove is worthwhile solely for the chance to sample this delicacy. Add in high marks for value and one might consider including this establishment in a regular moderate priced, dine-out rotation. A large fist-sized mound of Miss Piggy, along with a scoop of bland white rice and another of macaroni salad swimming in mayonnaise, is only $7.50. The medium, for large appetites, is $2 more. And, though I have never seen anyone order it solo, the unspeakable abundance of a large order will only set the diner back $11.50.
Other dishes are similarly portioned. Slow-marinated, assertively flavored teriyaki chicken ($8-$10-$11.50) is one poultry option. Others, Korean ($9-$11-$12.50) and Shoyu ($8-$10-$11.50) chicken, are also worth a try. Additional teriyaki possibilities are beef ($10-$12-$14) and pork ($9-$11-$13). If you have ever had the variations on pork ribs while vacationing on Maui, you might remember the ones you could get at Azeka Market. Here, that sweet teriyaki style is offered as “Kihei” ribs ($12-$14-$16). Korean style, or Kalbi, ribs are more garlicky and less sweet than the Kihei version and cost the same. For those who cannot decide between any of these (plus a few other) choices, there are a two combination platters, though these really require at least four serious consumers to make the adventure worthwhile.
To focus on the protein/rice/macaroni theme misses several sections of the menu, though it does capture the essence of the place: large portions, reasonable prices and satisfied in-eat-and-out customers. For a slightly lighter lunch, I have gone with the chicken Caesar ($9). Come to think of it, though, the only thing that makes it lighter than the others is the substitution of generously dressed romaine and croutons in place of the rice and mac salad. I doubt there is huge calorie swing involved. In the appetizer section, you can reduce your caloric (if not volume) intake by sticking with the poke ($12). Poke, for those who have not had the pleasure, is cubed raw tuna–usually ahi–typically marinated in different soy-based infusions and served with slivers of raw onion. At Bamboo Grove, Hawaiian (soy and sesame oil), ginger or shoyu versions are regularly available.
Through the grey and wet, surf the Johns Landing sea of culinary mediocrity along to Bamboo Grove for a hearty, toothsome midday (or evening) meal. It is no project at all.