So, I went to Hawaii this summer...
Now, before you get all hater-y and leave mean online comments, let me finish the sentence. I went to Hawaii this summer - with kids.
Let the condolences begin.
Any parent who's traveled with young 'uns in tow will tell you, this is not a vacation. Still, we managed to have fun, and we definitely managed to eat very well. One island delicacy we couldn't resist sampling at each and every opportunity (even as a nacho topping) was kalua pork.
This is what's served at luaus - an entire pig slow-roasted for hours in an imu, a primitive underground oven that's basically a pit lined with hot rocks and banana leaves. The meat is succulent and smoky and so delicious you could eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
And guess what? You can save yourself some serious g's and find that great pork right here in the desert - at Mama's Hawaiian Bar-B-Cue.
This almost 2-year-old University of Arizona-area eatery (a second location is in Sahuarita) isn't fancy. There's bench seating and paper plates. Plastic utensils are dispensed out of a gizmo that's really cool, actually. Press a lever and a single fork pops out, perfect for those of us who are skeeved out by rooting through bins for plasticware that many, many other hands have, too.
In its low-key setting, Mama's embodies the eclectic cuisine of the islands. Hawaiian food is this joyful mishmash from the many immigrants who've settled there. You'll find plenty of Japanese influence along with traditional kalua pork and poi and very retro, utilitarian American chow like Spam and macaroni salad.
Mama's brings all that authentically Hawaiian food, except for the poi, to its menu, which even includes Spam and eggs ($6.49). The Spam musubi (sushi featuring the canned meat) isn't actually on the menu but when it's made, the seaweed-wrapped bite blows out the door.
"It's really popular with students," said general manager Sam Alboy.
Now, Alboy has never actually been to the islands himself. But when he lived in San Diego, he fell in love with Hawaiian food, which was everywhere. So, he joined forces with best friend Steve West's family - who are partners in Mama's - who do come from Hawaii. West's uncle even used to run a Hawaiian plate lunch restaurant in Kauai some time back, Alboy said. It's their recipes supplying that aloha taste.
One bite of the kalua pork ($6.99) sent me right back to the sand and surf. The shredded meat was all pork-y goodness. Juicy with just the right accents of salt and smoke, the menu wasn't kidding when it described the pork as melting in your mouth. There's a reason this pork outsells all the other meat.
Mama's doesn't have an imu out in the parking lot. Instead, a special oven with a ceramic element roasts three different cuts of pork just shy of a full day. Two scoops of perfectly cooked white rice and a mound of macaroni salad rounded out the plate lunch. Full disclosure: I am not a fan of mayonnaise-y salads, which rank only slightly above my most-feared food - eggs. That said, the macaroni salad was not gloppy with the white stuff. A hint of mustard added some dimension, and a lot of finely-diced, fresh veggies made the salad seem almost healthy. In fact, I'd take it any day over the stubby, limp fries begging for salt that came alongside the Island Burger ($8.49). The half-pound patty was moist and well-seasoned, marinated in Mama's housemade teriyaki sauce. A grilled pineapple ring added sweetness, while the dense bun sopped up all that tangy teri goodness and held everything together.
Kalbi short ribs ($8.49) were another treat encountered on that summer trip. Mama's version of the Korean-style beef ribs matched the memory. Cut flanken so that the meat is thin with little nubs of bone in the middle, the beef ribs were a little fatty but tender and salty-sweet with lovely crunchy bits where the teriyaki marinade, once it hit the fire, caramelized the edges.
Mama's desserts also highlight that generous aloha spirit with massive portions for a mere $2.99. The upside down cake featured a dense (in a good way), almost poundcake-ish cake, soaked with a caramelly, brown sugar syrup and topped with pineapple. A passion fruit square had a wonderfully crumbly crust, but no real discernible passion fruit flavor. A chalky chocolate drizzle on top struck us as an odd misstep. The lemon macadamia square had that same sublime, buttery crust with an exceptionally sweet lemon filling.
The shaved ice ($3.25, $4.25) is where Mama's does Hawaii one better. Here, the super-fine ice drenched in flavored syrup comes tucked inside a space-ship-looking plastic shield to keep the sticky treat from slopping everywhere. And, there's another thing any parent will tell you: Any time you can keep stickiness to a minimum, that's a very good thing.
Mama's Hawaiian Bar-B-Cue: 850 E. Speedway, 792-2350, and 15990 S. Rancho Sahuarita Blvd., 207-8187; www.mamashawaiianbbq.com
• Hours: Speedway location, 11 a.m.-3 a.m. daily
• Noise level: During the busy lunch hour it's still quite easy to carry on a conversation.
• Vegetarian options: A few.
• Family call: The kids' menu is very reasonable, and they'll adore the shaved ice.
• Price range: $6.49 to $10.99 for the Big Kahuna Plate - beef teriyaki, chicken teriyaki, kalua pork and two sides - that would probably feed a family.