Taste of Aloha is all about onolicious food. In Hawaiian, "onolicious" means super good, so it's a bold claim, but one that Taste of Aloha easily achieves.
Opened in Arbutus last October, Taste of Aloha draws from chef-owner Robert Alcain's Hawaiian roots. His menu is full of "grown up" family recipes, he explains, that combine traditional Polynesian flavors with occasional updates and twists.
The result is, truly, super good. Served in a very casual and friendly setting, Taste of Aloha is a reminder that Baltimore needs more Hawaiian restaurants.
Scene & Decor Surfing posters and Hawaiian magazines are a nod to the restaurant's roots, but the emphasis at Taste of Aloha is clearly on the food, not the trappings. The menu is written on a dry-erase board and orders are placed and paid for at a small counter in the entrance. Food arrives on paper plates with plastic flatware.
Around 6:30 on a Thursday evening, a couple of tables were occupied; the staff handled more carry-out than eat-in orders. The vibe was extremely laid back but also very friendly. It felt like the kind of place where strangers regularly strike up conversations.
Appetizer Spam, the canned ham product, is famously popular in Hawaii, so we weren't surprised to find it on Taste of Aloha's menu. The Spam musubi ($5) — seaweed-wrapped Spam sushi rolls — were very likable. Drizzled with a slightly spicy sauce, the rolls were sweet, salty and hearty. Spam's fatty texture and sweet flavor is not for everyone but in musubi form, it's easy to forget the ham ever saw the inside of a can.
Entrees The Hawaiian noodle soup saimin ($6.50) was originally inspired by Japanese ramen; it has a lot in common with its ancestor and other DIY-style noodle soups, like Vietnamese pho. The shiitake-infused broth, which we doctored with Sriracha and soy sauce, was simple and likable, a good base for noodles and a mix of vegetables, including snap peas, scallions and mushrooms.
At Taste of Aloha, saimin is available with several side-order options, including surprisingly mild kimchi dumplings ($2.50) and katsu ($2.50), chicken with a crunchy, slightly sweet fried coating. The dumpling arrived in the soup, while the chicken, cut into strips, came on the side for dunking.
We enjoyed both but especially liked the combination of the savory soup and sweet, crunchy chicken.
A plate of pork teriyaki and rice ($8.95) sounded simple but was packed with flavor, thanks to Alcain's skill with marinades and sauces, which he makes in-house. The teriyaki's salty sweet flavor was memorable and a good match for the thinly sliced pork.
Similarly, the kalua pig with cabbage ($10.25), a Hawaiian luau staple, looked boring but tasted great. Slow-cooked pulled pork was well-seasoned and juicy, with tender bits of cabbage adding interesting texture.
On the side, a double-helping of Hawaiian-style mac salad, a mayonnaise-based macaroni salad, was a fantastic match for the pork.
Drinks Taste of Aloha does not have a liquor license. According to Alcain, there are no plans for a liquor license or BYOB, though that may change in the future.
Instead of alcoholic drinks, we enjoyed cans of Hawaiian Sun tropical iced tea, a light and fruity tea that is produced in Hawaii.
Service Unfamiliar cuisines can be intimidating, but the staff at Taste of Aloha was friendly enough that we weren't worried about possibly pronouncing a dish incorrectly.
Two people handled our table — a man and a woman, both equally friendly. The man took our orders at the counter and together, they delivered the food to our table. They seemed genuinely interested in how we liked our meals and, as we eavesdropped on their conversations with other tables, we heard them befriend everyone in the place.
Dessert When we asked about dessert, our servers shook their heads, explaining that the restaurant's desserts, which are cooked by the owner's mother, are only available on weekends. Instead, they recommended we head down the street to The Eskimo Shack snowball stand (5500 Carville Ave.). They promised it was great. To keep the meal going, we ordered our egg custard with marshmallow "Hawaiian style" for extra creaminess. It wasn't the most authentically Polynesian way to end dinner but it was tasty. The Taste of Aloha crew had steered us in a good direction — just as they had all night.
Taste of Aloha
Back story: After several years at Yellowfin Steak & Fish House in Annapolis, Chef Robert Alcain opened Taste of Aloha in Arbutus last October. His recipes update the traditional Polynesian food of his childhood with "grown up" flavors, incorporating trendy ingredients, like kimchi, in a way that feels natural.
Parking: Lot on side
Signature dish: Don't miss Taste of Aloha's kalua pork with cabbage, served with rice and tasty macaroni salad. The pork and cabbage, both soft from slow cooking, are infused with great, smoky flavor.
Where: 1405 Sulphur Spring Road, Arbutus
Contact: 410-501-3030; taste-of-aloha.com
Open: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday-Saturday; 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday
Credit Cards: All major
Reservations: Not accepted
Bottom line: The space is not fancy but at Taste of Aloha, the faces are friendly and the Hawaiian food is terrific.