The Weekly Eater

Nadine Kam

There’s something
fishy going on at this
burger joint

To read the Grass Skirt Grill's menu is to learn that the place is all about "burgers," all but the most important one, that is. For most people, the word is synonymous with beef, and it's the hamburger that's conspicuously missing.

Beg all you want, as others have done, for a quarter-pounder loaded with cheddar, bacon and grilled onions, but owner Johnny Moore won't renege on his gentleman's agreement with friend and fellow restaurateur Terry Thompson, whose 29-year-old Kua 'Aina occupied the famous North Shore site for years.

"We get a lot of requests for burgers, but I always thought if Terry was known as the burger guy, we were going to be known as the place where people go for fish."

To some degree that works. One East-sider who recently made the trek to the other side of the world said she chose Grass Skirt Grill because she can already get a Kua 'Aina burger in town.

But you can't blame some people for being confused since Kua 'Aina moved its Haleiwa operations to a bigger site on Kamehameha Highway in January. Grass Skirt Grill's site at 66-214 Kamehameha is still imprinted on impressionable minds as the place they may have had their first burger revelation.

Get over it already. Better than a broken relationship, you can still drop into Kua 'Aina anytime. That said, Grass Skirt Grill is truly the place for fish burgers, by Moore's terminology, or what I prefer to call a fish sandwich. He deals in food, but I have to deal in words and "burger" implies a pattie of some sort, and what we have here is the real deal, 100 percent ahi, mahi ($5.95) or ono fillets, each topped with lettuce, tomato and onions. I sampled the mahi, accompanied by a smoked sesame mayo that you can slather on to your taste, though dressing your fish is not its only purpose. Moore says that many people ask for extra containers of the sauce for dipping their fries.

At the Grass Skirt Grill, Kirsten Petersen shows their ono fish plate. Owner Johnny Moore (behind the counter) says the fish plates all have a half pound of fish on them.

In a nod to the North Shore's famous shrimp wagons, Grass Skirt Grill offers a shrimp scampi plate ($11.95) that isn't quite as buttery as the shrimp wagons, which may be a plus for dieters, that comes with a healthy salad of island mesclun, tomatoes, onions and cucumbers.

Everything but the scampi is offered as a plate or on a bun.

One of those dishes that always seems to promise more than delivered is coconut shrimp. Here it's worth trying a side order of four pieces for $4.95, where you can taste both coconut and shrimp that unlike elsewhere, doesn't disappear into starchy batter. If you like it, you can move on to a full plate ($9.95) of six pieces, rice and a salad.

Teriyaki chicken is tender and lightly glazed with a mild teriyaki sauce that is more sweet than salty. Similarly, a pulled-pork sandwich ($7.95) was also saccharine, which was a disappointment to me because I had seen a Japanese tourist chowing down a plateful and it looked exactly like kalua pork. If I had actually read the menu, I would have known it was a BBQ sandwich, but it was a shock to the system to discover sugar when you're expecting a taste of salt. Some will love the sweet taste, but for me it just seemed unnatural.

GRASS SKIRT Grill didn't spring up overnight. Moore started his venture as a lunchwagon that operated at Shark's Cove for 2-1/2 years. His partner eventually moved to New Jersey where he opened another Grass Skirt Grill with an identical menu, save for the East Coast offering of crab cakes. Those from the area who have visited the islands are now surprised to find a sister restaurant in the boonies, but come on, which place is more likely to be the birthplace of an eatery with such a name?

Fans of Kua 'Aina will find not much has changed. It's still got that rustic, surf-town vibe. You still order, then scoot out of the way for the next person in line to order while you wait for your food to arrive.

Moore finds working in a larger kitchen a luxury that has given him the opportunity to fulfill catering requests he says wasn't possible while working out of a lunchwagon.

He also runs two Strong Current surf shops, but says he enjoys the restaurant biz more.

"We have a system; it's not like a chain where they have 50 zillion things on the menu. So even when we're jammin' it really flows, like Waimea Bay on a big day."

Grass Skirt Grill

66-214 Kamehameha Highway / 637-HULA (4852)

Food Star Star Star Star

Service Star Star Star Half-star

Ambience Star Star Star

Value Star Star Star Star

Hours: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily

Cost: About $6 to $10 per person

See some past restaurant reviews in the Columnists section.

Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin. Star ratings are based on comparisons of similar restaurants:

very good, exceeds expectations;
below average.

To recommend a restaurant, write: The Weekly Eater, P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, Hawaii 96802. Or send e-mail to nkam@starbulletin.com



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