Hawaiian Island Grill Won’t Remind You of Oahu, But This Fat Guy Didn’t Mind
The out of bounds block of 53rd street btw. 2nd and 3rd Avenue is quickly becoming a mini-restaurant row for east side Midtown Lunch’ers. A while back I wrote about Spoons (which was replaced by Good Health Burger) and Uncle Marky’s Organics (which is still there.) There is also LTK (Little Thai Kitchen) and , where you can get under $10 Thai and Indian lunch specials, as well as the recently opened second branch of the East Village’s Brick Lane Curry House.
But I think the cheapest option on the block is the Hawaiian Island Grill, a take out only place that is also home to the overpriced ”Gordon Chen’s Kitchen.” Both are owned by the same company that owns the Hakata Grill, and while I didn’t necessarily have high hopes, a tipster suggested I check it out. Seeing how it was supposed to be Hawaiian food, and I’ve never been to Hawaii, I enlisted my friend Kathy YL Chan (from the blog A Passion for Food & Serious Eats: New York) to accompany me.
Between the two of us, we ordered most of the lunch specials… and our thoughts (plus food porn) are after the jump. Mine, from the perspective of a fat guy- her, from the perspective of a Hawaiian.
Hawaiian Rib Eye Steak
Fat Guy: I’m a big fan of a steak lunch for under $10, regardless of the quality (see: Steak Truck & Tad’s) so you’ll hear no complaints from me about this. It may not be an actual rib eye (it certainly isn’t the thick marbeled rib eye you’d get from a real steak house, or even the grocery store) but it is pretty tasty, and filling… and it’s a steak! (For $6.25!)
Hawaiian Girl: The fancy addition of balsamic reduction and “soy demi glace” take away from the rustic local elements, but I caught a bit of rather satisfying Hawaiian salt chunks over the steak. Also liked the crushed peppercorns – nice touch.
Peruvian Rotisserie Huli Huli Chicken
Fat Guy: Not terrible, but not amazing. White meat was a little dry (to be expected) but the flavor was good. Not as good as Tio Pio West though… $6.50 gets you a quarter chicken with rice and macaroni salad.
Hawaiian Girl: The Huli-Huli chicken I’m used to eating is warm, succulent and moist whereas this was overcooked, dry with none that fatty crisp skin touched by shoyu and brown sugar. Not recommended.
Fat Guy: A pretty boring, watery version of beef stew, and at $6.95 you’re better off with some of the other (cheaper) things on the menu.
Hawaiian Girl: Pretty sad, I expected something thick and hearty to pour over steaming rice. But this was a watery, slightly over-salted stew, with more carrots than beef. Local foods tend to lean on the sweeter side and this wasn’t sweet enough. Our great love for sweets in the islands often spills over to the savory dishes.
Grilled Rio Pork Chops
Fat Guy: How can a pork chop for $6.95 be bad? A tad bit dry (though that’s to be expected at a place like this) but the Asian flavor was awesome. I was totally down with this…
Hawaiian Girl: I noticed that Zach enjoyed this one quite a bit! True to local style of cooking, the pork chops were on the sweeter side, and grilled in a shoyu based sauce. They were cooked just so (not overdone like the chicken), and paired well with the charred tomato salsa. Grilled pork chops aren’t a Hawaiian staple by any means, but for $6.75 with rice, mac salad, and the extra condiments, how could you go wrong?
Grilled White Fish Tacos
Fat Guy: I like my fish tacos fried (see: Baja Style) but there was something intriguing about this deconstructed version. The fish was flavorful, and moist, and because of the way it was served, you could make your own (which was kind of fun.) And the fact that they give you free sour cream, salsa, *and* guac (take note Chipotle!) was completely appreciated.
Hawaiian Girl: Not Hawaiian, but this was perhaps my second favorite dish. The fish is marinated in this spicy and slightly tangy sauce, which I found pretty addictive. Sticking with the theme of generous portions, it comes with three flour tortillas, a side of salsa and guacamole. Not bad, eh?
Mochiko Chicken Wings
Fat Guy: I don’t know what mochiko is, or what it is supposed to be like, but these were not good- and I say that as a guy who doesn’t often meet a fried chicken wing he doesn’t like. The batter was a little too grainy for me, but worse than that, they were totally unseasoned (a criminal offense when it comes to fried chicken.)
Hawaiian Girl: So, mochiko chicken is a staple in local plate lunches in Hawaii. It’s fried chicken made from a batter involving mochiko flour, cornstarch, sugar, eggs, and shoyu (mainlanders often refer to it as “soy sauce”). The mochiko chicken in Hawai’i usually has a heavier batter, more coating, and is fried very crisp, but these were bland (did they forget and salt/pepper or seasonings?) Mochiko chicken wings are less common than mochiko chicken made with the chopped boneless thighs (just a note).
Hamburger Steak Honolulu Style
Fat Guy: So now we’re talking. I don’t know how authentic this is, but if you take a hamurger, top it with gravy and fried onions and charge me under $7, I’m going to be a pretty happy guy. Sure, it sat at the bottom of my stomach like a brick for the rest of the day- but when have I ever held that against a lunch?
Hawaiian Girl: This was my favorite out of all the plate lunches, mainly due to the very, very generous inclusion of caramelized onions, which rank high on my list of foods to love. If you only get one dish at Hawaiian Island Grill, make it this one, which is the most “local” of all the plate lunch options.
As you may or may not have noticed, all the lunches come with rice and macaroni salad- and while it doesn’t tend to be my favorite thing of all time, Kathy had this to say about the indispensible Hawaiian side dish:
The one thing I miss most in NYC is being able to find a decent macaroni salad. Macaroni salad is a daily staple, (yes, it’s not the healthiest thing, but when done right, I find it hard to resist). This version was light on the mayonnaise, with a generous sprinkling of paprika – something completely new to me. Another notable factor is that the macaroni was consistently cooked more al dente than the versions I grew up eating. I also found the sides of sliced oranges, pickled carrots and chutney to be a nice bonus. These definitely DO NOT come with typical plate lunches in Hawai’i. Nonetheless, they were pretty awesome and a nice, totally unnecessary, but welcome addition.
Hawaiian Girl: Overall? Far from the styles of authentic Hawaiian plate lunches, but it’s rather decent food at a REALLY GOOD price. Don’t go in thinking that your plate of Huli-Huli Chicken is going to be the real deal. Instead, Hawaiian Island Grill is good for what is it: large portions of above average midtown food at an excellent price. This to-go spot leaves the vast majority of local Hawaiian food untouched (think lau lau, misoyaki butterfish, poi, and butter mochi.) But I suppose until someone with local roots and upbringing opens up a Spam Musubi truck in midtown, L&L is the closest you’ll get to local plate lunches.
Fat Guy: Yeah… what she said.
THE + (What somebody who likes this place would say)
- The “plate lunch specials” are all a ton of food, and the ones that are $6 to 7 are a real steal
- The hamburger steak Honolulu style is just awesome (if you like gravy and grilled onions)
- “I Love Macaroni Salad” (because every dish comes with it)
- I love make-your-own fish tacos!
THE – (What somebody who doesn’t like this place would say)
- Definitely not authentic Hawaiian food
- The mochiko chicken wings are downright bad
- A lot of the meats are slightly on the dry side
- That doesn’t look like any rib eye I’ve ever seen
- I hate macaroni salad
Hawaiian Island Grill, 231 E. 53rd St (btw. 2+3rd), 212-201-7603