The fascinating mashups of Hawaiian cuisine were born out of necessity. Living with geographic isolation and bouts of economic deprivation, islanders had to mix and match what was available, and the dishes that became popular – macaroni salad; Spam sushi; and the hamburger, rice and gravy combo known as loco moco – filled the need for flavor and calories at a minimal cost.
James Strange, founder of Kimo’s Hawaiian BBQ, has become a local ambassador for these Hawaiian comfort foods, first through his food truck and, more recently, at his brick-and-mortar restaurant just off Candelaria NE between Carlisle and I-25.
The restaurant sits on Girard amid a stretch of auto repair shops and industrial operations that has in recent years been infiltrated by restaurants and pubs. La Cumbre Brewing Co., Bacon Jam, and Palmer Brewery and Cider House are all within shouting distance.
While the high chain-link fences and corrugated metal walls outside Kimo’s hardly summon visions of a tropical paradise, inside is warm and welcoming. Surfboards and photographs from Strange’s time in Hawaii cover the walls. There are a dozen tables for two or four diners and the pleasant surprise of comfortable, cushioned chairs instead of the pitiless metal ones that have become ubiquitous in newer places around town.
Breakfast, served till 11, features Portuguese sausages from Hawaii ($7), Spam with eggs and rice ($6) and pancakes ($4). After that, plate lunches take over: You can get rice, macaroni salad and beef, chicken or pork for $10-$11, or a combination plate of all three for $12.
Ordering at the counter, I got a piece of Spam musubi ($3). The small, seaweed-wrapped brick of rice with a slab of Spam on top typifies Hawaiian ingenuity, pairing the canned meat used to feed American troops during World War II with the sushi of Japanese immigrants who moved to the islands to work on the sugar plantations.
It’s easy to see Spam musubi’s appeal as a grab-and-go food. Utensils are not needed; you just peel the plastic wrap away and take a bite. As fun as the whole thing sounds, it’s a bland experience. The seaweed’s brininess and the salt and spice of the Spam barely register. More punch from the marinade and more caramelization on the Spam would help – or better yet, a second slab of Spam.
Kimo’s has several hamburgers and sandwiches for $8. The kalua pulled pork sandwich is named for the traditional method of preparation in which pork shoulder is wrapped in the leaves of a plant and cooked for hours in an underground pit. Kimo’s uses the more practical crockpot and further bucks tradition with the addition of a sweet barbecue sauce. The pork, cooked almost to the point of losing its texture altogether, picks up some backbone from a mound of coleslaw. A few hits of tabasco from the bottle on the table make it a terrific sandwich.
Legend has it that loco moco ($8) was invented at a restaurant in Hawaii after two boys asked a waitress to put together something filling that they could afford. The result was a hamburger patty over a pile of rice dowsed in beef gravy. Later, an egg was added to the mix. In Kimo’s version, served for both breakfast and lunch, the ground beef patty is thick and loosely packed, and the smooth gravy is seasoned to just a tick above neutral. The over-easy egg was cooked correctly, its runny yolk further enriching the gravy. It’s like an elevated version of the Salisbury steak dinners that turn up so often at school cafeterias and in frozen dinners.
Drinks include cans of Hawaiian Sun tropical fruit drinks and bottles of Zuberfizz soda from Durango, Colorado. For dessert, I was hoping to try Kimo’s version of malasadas, sugar-dusted, deep-fried Portuguese doughnuts that are popular in Hawaii, but there were no more left.
As for service, no complaints: the woman behind the counter was friendly and the food came out very quickly.
Credit James Strange for bringing something different to Albuquerque: comfort food that speaks to the resourcefulness and creativity of the people from our most geographically isolated state.