Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Milpitas, CA - Mahalo BBQ

Aloha! I'm on a Hawaiian kick. From the warming Aloha Festival in San Francisco's Presidio, to tropical flavors infused in my food, to 'Hula Hips' and 'Hot Wahine' clothingwear with pua shell and kukui nut leis, I'm reveling in everything Hawaiian. Just call me Leilani. ;)

This past Saturday, a new Hawaiian place was spotted: Mahalo BBQ. The menu and vibrant yellow and red color scheme was an almost-identical rip-off from L&Ls, but that's about where the similarities ended. L&Ls is Hawaiian fast food: heaping trays of bbq'ed meat with artery-clogging macaroni salad and two scoops of rice. It's not gourmet, but it's satisfying, and it's certainly a pretty decent value. Mahalo follows the same basic framework.

The two restaurants (if you can call them that) are decorated along the same lines, with faux-grass fringes, tropical hanging plants, and surf accessories and hula pin-ups hanging from the walls. But L&Ls, even with its fast-food bent, has the all-important aloha spirit. It's the music, the hawaiian shirt 'uniform', and the tanned, easy smile behind the cash register. Hawaiian is not food, it's a feeling. And so when that aura is missing, everything else dulls as well. Mahalo was manned by quiet, unassuming Chinese who smiled shyly when we ordered, but were unable to respond to any questions or comments with little more than 'we open for 6 weeks now'. The interior was sadly quiet, even with about one third of the tables being occupied, with the main sounds being Chinese exchanged between two female staff members.

One dish was the quinessential BBQ platter: a generous pile of bbq'ed chicken, kalbi (beef shortribs), and bulgogi (finely sliced beef strips) elevated by raw, pale green cabbage, and flanked by two ice-cream scoops of rice and one of macaroni salad. The meat was well-flavored, but lacking excitement. And for one of the two bbq plates ordered, the chicken and beef were woefully overcooked. They were lackluster and dry in such a state, and edible but not enjoyable. In terms of rice, I prefer a high-grade short-grain rice that is plump, moist, with slightly-chewy interiors that remain individualistic instead of gumming into an over-moist, soft pile, like this rice was very nearly in danger of becoming.

Garlic shrimp is a menu item not often seen, so I ventured to try this one, and I was pretty glad that I did. I expected the shrimps to be sauteed with a garlic-oil sauce, not deep-fried and then garnished with a salty garlic-green onion mixture, but the latter worked surprisingly well. The eight shrimp were a good size, with a crunchy batter of medium thickness that didn't overwhelm them, and the savory pale-golden garlic added creamy zings of flavor that played delightfully in my mouth. Actually, I have to give the cook kudos for not over-cooking the garlic. This minced garlic was soft and moist, with that full-bodied mildness that is usually only found in oven-roasted garlic heads.

I was pleased to find that there was enough garlic to mix with the raw cabbage to make a tasty impromptu cole slaw. The macaroni salad may seem a overbearing with the mayonaise (this goes for most Hawaiian mac salad incarnations), but I find a happy medium by mixing it with equal parts of rice and/or cole slaw.

I wanted so much to like this newcomer.. and really, I was entirely content with my shrimp dish... but I was disappointed by this place. Food is great and all, but what I really look forward to is the life and laughter. The people hired are essential to a place's sucess. Add some Hawaiian (or Hawaiian-at-heart) people to your staff, please! Mahalo~ :D (mahalo = 'thank you' in Hawaiian)

Mahalo BBQ
[address unknown, right next door to Banana Leaf, at 182 Rance Drive]
Milpitas, CA 95035


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