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, there are dozens of food vendors selling plate lunches, the popular and hearty meals of Hawaii. All the plate lunch purveyors at the festival are worth trying, but one of the longest lines always belongs to the booth operated by Paradise Hawaiian BBQ.
Fortunately, it’s not necessary to wait for the next festival to enjoy Paradise’s Hawaiian food with its Japanese and Korean influences. Instead, just visit the actual restaurant, recently relocated to a storefront on Adams Street just a block from the Washington / Central (westbound) and Jefferson / First Avenue (eastbound) stations. Paradise migrated to the heart of downtown Phoenix after a decade at a location eight miles and ten light rail stations to the east in downtown Tempe. With the move from one city to another, there were inevitably some tradeoffs.
The Korean banchan side dishes and the liquor license did not make the move to Phoenix. Neither did evening and weekend hours, at least for now. In yet another demonstration of how much difference can exist from one block to another, Monroe Street just to the north is lively at night while Adams remains quiet once the office population goes home. Still, there was one major gain with the move: a noticeable improvement in customer service. The Tempe location didn’t always exhibit Aloha spirit, but the downtown Phoenix staff are consistently welcoming.
Plate lunches are what most visitors order at Paradise, and the first step in enjoying one is to select a meat. A grilled teriyaki preparation is a popular starting point with beef, pork, or chicken as options. A spicy version of each meat is also available for a small additional charge, but it may be more efficient just to order the standard version and apply some of the Sriracha sauce provided in the dining room. The accompaniments are two scoops of rice and one of creamy macaroni salad, a double punch of carbohydrates that is a signature of plate lunches.
The teriyaki aroma is detectable as one approaches the restaurant, and the results of the marinade are a nuanced blend of sweet, spicy, and salty flavors. More indulgent fried options include jun, in which beef or fish is encased in an egg batter. The result is a thin wrapper around the meat with a taste and texture reminiscent of a chile relleno’s outermost layer. For a thicker exterior, the chicken or fish katsu is flattened and then coated in a coarse, crunchy breading. The shrimp tempura have a more yielding but equally substantial outer layer.
The garlic shrimp are a lighter, more flavorful option with no breading and only the shells and tails standing in the way of the meat inside. Kalua pork is a Hawaiian classic, in this setting probably the result of liquid smoke rather than cooking in a traditional underground oven, but still successful. A vegetarian entree of fried tofu has been a running special for several months, perhaps on its way to promotion to a regular menu item. The Korean influence shows in kalbi, marinated short ribs that are high in flavor, albeit with some bone and fat to contend with.
Another Korean specialty is fried mandoo, 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’s mandoo 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 loco moco, a plate lunch that incorporates a hamburger patty topped with a fried egg. Orange chicken is an American Chinese classic, and the Paradise Fire chicken adds an extra layer of heat.
As an alternative to plate lunches, Paradise offers bowls and salads. All come in smaller portions than the plate lunches without the added starch of the macaroni salad. For those who want to more food rather than less, the restaurant allows two items from the menu to be combined into a single plate lunch. There are also two specials that combine smaller portions of four items to offer a wide variety of tastes. As side dishes or snacks, there is spam musubi, reflecting the important role of canned lunch meat in island cuisine, as well a chicken musubi.
Although the menu promises takoyaki, a Japanese street snack of small balls of fried dough with a bit of octopus inside, the item has not been available when recently requested. To drink, Paradise serves sodas, bottled ice tea and canned milk tea, and fruity Hawaiian Sun canned drinks made with real cane sugar. Cans of Hawaiian Punch, the childhood favorite created in California, are also sold. There isn’t any dessert,but it’s hard to imagine most customers having room for that extra course after eating one of Paradise’s substantial plate lunches.
The Aloha Festival may happen only once a year in Tempe, but a Hawaiian plate lunch is always available (at least during weekday business hours) on Adams Street. Night and weekend hours would be a nice addition, perhaps one that will come with time after Paradise has settled into its new quarters. Even with the tradeoffs involved, this relocation, necessary due to the prospect of new development at the restaurant’s original site in Tempe, appears to have allowed the restaurant to sharpen its focus and continue the plate lunch tradition in a new venue.
18 W. Adams St., Phoenix AZ 85003
Washington / Central (westbound) and Jefferson / 1st Avenue (eastbound) stations