Dining review

Uncle's Hawaiian Grindz a sunny addition to Harford County dining scene

For The Baltimore Sun
There's a new tropical getaway in Harford County -- at least dining-wise.

Don't let the name fool you — Uncle's Hawaiian Grindz in Fallston is not a coffee shop.

Some people think "grindz" refers to ground coffee beans, said Kosmas "Tommie" Koukoulis. But the casual spot in the Fallston Village Center, which Koukoulis owns with Hawaiian-born executive chef Kaimana Chee, is a full-blown restaurant specializing in the Aloha State's island cuisine.

In the Hawaiian dialect, grindz is slang for food or good eats, Koukoulis said. He also explained the use of "uncle" in the name; it's another nod to the Central Pacific islands, where the term denotes respect for an older person.

Once you understand the origin, the restaurant's unusual moniker starts to make sense.

"We wanted something authentic," Koukoulis said. "It's catchy."

The farm-to-table cuisine — with dishes like poke (pronounced POH-keh), chicken katsu (a breaded cutlet), and Spam in nori — is a pleasant surprise in Harford County, where corporate restaurants seem to dominate the terrain.

Kids are not left out. A children's section of the menu includes items like a grilled shrimp skewer and burger sliders. There are burgers for grown-ups, too — like The Duke, made with Roseda Farm beef.

Koukoulis' wife is Hawaiian, and he fell in love with her native cuisine when he visited Oahu. Chee, a Silver Spring caterer who grew up on Oahu's north shore, brings his authentic expertise to the kitchen.

"Why not an Hawaiian restaurant?" Koukoulis said. "It's delicious and it's different."

Scene & Decor On a cold winter day, the bright, airy dining room created a pleasantly warm contrast to the blustery winds outside. We enjoyed the sunny vibe in the main dining room, filled with soothing blue banquettes, yellow and black chairs, and large photos of Hawaiian scenes. The servers even wear shorts. There's also a connecting bar with seating.

Appetizers The firecracker chicken ($9), topped with toasted coconut, was a great starter. Boneless chicken nuggets were rolled in panko crumbs and fried, then coated with a sweet and spicy aioli. You can ask for a hotter version, but the mild preparation had just enough zing. The Queen Street poke ($13) — Hawaii's version of tuna tartare — featured enticing cubes of ruby-red fish tossed with green onions, ginger, garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil. Wonton chips, served in a separate bowl, added crunch.

Entrees Uncle's Hawaiian's menu includes lunch and dinner portions of various entrees. We asked our server if we could order a lunch plate for dinner, and his answer spoke to the quality of the service: "Our motto is, 'Don't say no.'" The smaller portions may not be enough for large appetites, but we found the amount of food sufficient in our dishes.

Misayo's mahi mahi ($15.50 lunch/$22.50 dinner) was a delicious broiled white fillet crusted with furikake (a Japanese seasoning that includes sesame seeds and seaweed flakes) and served over Hawaiian greens that were braised in sweet coconut milk and ginger. A lovely passion fruit beurre blanc sauce dotted with Sriracha oil encircled the fish.

The DA kalua pig ($11/$14.50) is named after a type of preparation. In Uncle's version, pork shoulder is smoked in banana leaves and then shredded. A pile of tender meat is served atop a flavorful grilled cabbage steak with onion jam and Hawaiian sweet greens.

The only thing Hawaiian about The Duke burger ($10.50) is its tribute to Duke Kahanamoku, considered the father of modern surfing. The champion athlete would be proud of this sublime burger, featuring a fat beef patty stacked with bacon, cheddar cheese, bibb lettuce, tomatoes and mayonnaise.

Drinks Beer, wine, sake and cocktails are available. But we really liked Daysia's daiquiri ($5) — one of several interesting mixed drinks offered without booze. The Slurpee-like mango-strawberry beverage was delightful, presented in a tall glass rimmed with li hing mui (salty dried plum).

Service Our waiter was terrific. He took the time to tell us about the restaurant and explained the menu knowledgeably.

Dessert We enjoyed Ted's pie sample ($9), which offered tastes of three mini pies: a chocolate haupia (coconut cream), Key lime-lychee, and strawberry guava. We also liked the malasada puffs ($7), a popular Hawaiian treat. The three fried doughnut balls were filled with a squiggle of custard and dusted with cinnamon sugar; each sat on a delectable puddle of Kona coffee chocolate sauce. The restaurant also carries local Jarrettsville Creamery ice cream.

Uncle's Hawaiian Grindz

Backstory: After a visit to Hawaii, Fallston resident Kosmas "Tommie" Koukoulis, who owns Café Mezzanotte in Severna Park, decided to open a restaurant in Harford County featuring the island state's cuisine. He partnered with chef and Hawaiian native Kaimana Chee, who has appeared on TV cooking competitions like "Guy's Grocery Games" and "Cutthroat Kitchen." They opened the restaurant in November.

Signature dish: DA kalua pig

TVs: Four TVs

Where: Fallston Village Center, 2315 Belair Road, Suite 2B, Fallston

Contact: 443-966-3999, eatatuncles.com

Open: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday

Credit cards: All major

Reservations: Accepts reservations

Bottom line: Uncle's Hawaiian Grindz isn't just for Harford County residents. It's worth the drive to experience Hawaii's aloha spirit and island cuisine in a casual, fun setting.

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