Every March, the Arizona Aloha Festival at Tempe Beach Park celebrates the little-known fact that the Phoenix Metropolitan Area is home to one of the largest populations of Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders on the United States mainland. Amid the dance performances, exhibitor booths, and outrigger canoes, you’ll find dozens of food vendors selling plate lunches, the popular and hearty meals of Hawaii. All the plate lunch purveyors at the Aloha Festival are worth trying, but one of the booths drawing the longest lines always belongs to Paradise Hawaiian BBQ.
Fortunately, it’s not necessary to wait for the next festival to enjoy Paradise’s Korean-influenced Hawaiian food. Instead, just visit the actual restaurant, located just a block from the Veterans Way / College light rail station. There are a few Hawaiian scenes and a bit of Sun Devils memorabilia on the walls, but a big TV showing CNN dominates the sparse dining room. Despite a sign proclaiming no public restrooms, staff will provide a key to a bathroom shared with nearby businesses. Bikes can be locked to the railing on the neglected patio or secured at an official bike rack a block to the north.
The big menu and photos on the wall near the counter are useful mainly to those already familiar with Hawaiian and Korean food. For novices, they can be confusing. Be warned that the staff here can be brusque and business-like. Questions will be answered, but there seems to be little interest in chit-chat. Likewise, stern signs warning customers not to use water cups to steal from the soda fountain or announcing charges for to-go boxes don’t suggest much Aloha spirit. Nevertheless, if you can overlook an austere atmosphere, the reward that awaits is a tasty plate lunch for less than $10.
|nearby bike rack|
Those plate lunches are what most visitors order at Paradise, and first step in enjoying one is to select a meat. A basic grilled preparation (as opposed to the slow smoking of true barbecue) is the starting point with beef, pork, or chicken, all of which are served in generous portions of two or three pieces. A spicy version of each meat is also available for anyone who wants to take things up a notch, but the added heat may not be enough to justify the higher price. It may be more efficient just to order the standard version and apply some of the Sriracha sauce provided in the dining room.
For beginners who want to sample a few different tastes, the lunch special is the most economical option. For a price about a dollar less than the other plate lunches, this entree includes chicken, beef, and meat jun, which is essentially the same cut of beef as the BBQ but encased in an egg batter. The result is a thin wrapper around the beef with a taste and texture reminiscent of a chile relleno’s outermost layer. While the lunch special is fixed, there are numerous other options for full-price plate lunches, and two-item plates combining any pair of meats are available.
For fried choices with a thicker exterior, the chicken katsu is breast meat flattened and then coasted in a coarse, crunchy breading. The shrimp tempura have a more yielding but equally substantial outer layer. While the meats in these dishes hold up well against the rigors of deep frying, mahi-mahi loses a lot of its distinctiveness when fried. The garlic shrimp are a lighter, more flavorful option with no breading and only the shells standing in the way of the meat inside. The Korean influence shows in kalbi, marinated short ribs that are high in flavor, albeit with some bone and fat.
For all of the plate lunches, the accompaniments are two scoops of rice and four sides selected by the customer. The more straightforward options are the macaroni salad, a Hawaiian favorite, and basic vegetables like steamed broccoli, sliced zucchini, and kernels of corn. Those are all good, but Paradise augments plate lunches with banchan, traditional Korean side dishes. There’s kimchee, or course, but that’s only the beginning. These dishes are generally served cold and are often pickled. Typical choices are seaweed, cucumber, bean sprouts, napa cabbage, and buckwheat noodles.
As an alternative to plate lunches, Paradise offers half a dozen soups, all of Korean origin. All come in generous bowls and are served with the same choices of side dishes as the plate lunches, so they’re generally as filling as the other entrees. Two soups that might sound vegetarian, the tofu soup and the miso soup, actually contain small pieces of meat. That’s not unexpected to anyone familiar with Korean cuisine, in which it’s common for tofu dishes to be accentuated with protein from animal sources, but it may come as a surprise to someone expecting a meatless meal.
Another Korean specialty is fried mantoo, small dumplings filled with ground meat and then pan fried. These come clustered as part of a plate lunch with a vinegary sauce on the side. Paradise’ mantoo are slightly smaller than the potstickers at most Chinese restaurants, but otherwise hard to distinguish from them. On the Hawaiian side, it’s possible to order spam musubi, a snack that reflects the surprisingly important role of the canned lunch meat in island cuisine, or loco moco, a plate lunch that incorporates a hamburger patty topped with a fried egg.
Although the food comes to the table already abundant in flavor, there’s a small condiment bar with hot sauce, barbecue sauce, and little packets of soy sauce. To extinguish any heat, Paradise serves fountain sodas and the fruity Hawaiian Sun canned drinks made from real cane sugar. A selection of draft and bottled beer is also available. There isn’t any dessert, something it’s hard to imagine most customers having room for after eating one of Paradise’s entrees. The Aloha Festival may happen only once a year, but a Hawaiian plate lunch is always available in Downtown Tempe.
580 S. College Ave., Tempe AZ 85281