The woman in front of us who ordered six dozen malasadas at Island Sushi & Grill Express underscored a long-held belief: Hawaiians sure love their traditional foods, whether they’re on their eight islands or our ninth one.
Some of which may be a little difficult for the rest of us to understand. Spam is, after all, much beloved there, a subject of much derision in the rest of the country. Also hugely popular are loco moco plates, which usually come with two scoops of rice and one of macaroni salad (although Island Sushi offers mixed greens or brown rice as healthier alternatives), leading me to muse that it’s no wonder there are so many guys walking around who call themselves the Big Kahuna.
But back to the malasadas: Those are among the Hawaiian specialties that travel from the islands particularly well. If you’re not familiar with them, they’re best described as a sort of cross between a beignet and a raised doughnut, slightly heavier than the former but lighter than the latter. Both our plain (85 cents) and chocolate-filled ($1.20) malasadas, liberally sprinkled with sugar, were fresh out of the fryer and had just the right amount of chewiness, without a hint of grease.
Those were the end of our meal, but the beginning was right up there, too. Ahi poke ($8.99 for a half-pound) is another island classic, chunks of raw tuna seasoned with onion and tossed in a soy-and-sesame-based marinade. Freshness is important here, too, and Island Sushi delivered, the fish sweet and mild with just the tiniest hint of the sea.
I’ll admit to, over the years, being more than a little mystified by the widespread popularity of saimin, which is sort of the Hawaiian equivalent of Vietnamese pho, and which is so well-liked that even McDonald’s serves it in the islands. All four of Island Sushi’s versions of saimin contain kamaboko, a cured-surimi product shaped into semicircular loaves, the curved edge coated in DayGlo pink (and, come to think of it, sort of a fish equivalent to Spam). It is, I think, not only an acquired taste but one that can be acquired only in childhood.
But my Wonton Min ($9.95) had lots to offer once I’d fished out the kamaboko, including about six well-flavored and delicate filled wontons, quite a number of finely cut Spam sticks (Spam julienne?), the Chinese barbecued pork char siu, sliced shiitake mushrooms, Napa cabbage, sliced scallions and of course lots and lots of those squiggly noodles that you find in packaged ramen, except in this case they and the rest of the ingredients were bathed in a largish bowl of hot, slightly smoky, slightly salty dashi, or broth.
In a place called Island Sushi we would, of course, have to try the sushi, in this case the Hawaiian roll ($13; $6.50 at half-price for summer happy hour). It was nicely executed, with spicy tuna and cucumber within, topped by albacore and some poke sauce for an island accent.
Like most of the Hawaiian restaurants around town, Island Sushi — from Hawaiian native and longtime local chef Terence Fong — is a counter-service place, and the lone employee behind the counter (there were others behind the sushi bar and running food from the kitchen) performed admirably. The customers, on the other hand, didn’t seem to realize that maybe it would be a good idea to peruse the menu before they got to the register.
I know, I know, what’s the hurry? It’s island time; might as well take a deep breath and enjoy it.
Las Vegas Review-Journal restaurant reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at Hrinella@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0474.