We’re not really that far from Hawaii in terms of mileage, but for weather and culture, it couldn’t get any more different than Portland. And in this gastronomically impoverished neighborhood, especially on a gray, drizzly day, Bamboo Grove Hawaiian Grille can sound pretty tempting (just don’t come by on hot days—there’s no A/C).
The place is always packed with office types at lunch, especially on Fridays. But tables turn quickly, owing in part to brusque, efficient service. Don’t expect smiling hulas or anything that excessive; the décor is surprisingly un-kitschy. There’s a surfboard near the daily specials board and faux bamboo painted on a wall. But head to the back, and you’re totally in Disney’s Tiki Room. Sometimes there’s even a live ukelele band.
Fridays and Saturdays bring a more benign form of kalua pork, what you’d associate with a luau. We say “benign” because it’s not roasted in a pit under banana leaves. Here, it’s oven roasted with liquid smoke and Hawaiian salt, which makes for some juicy, delicious, and quite greasy pig. The sides, a watery macaroni salad and unseasoned sticky rice, are total throw-aways, but it’s cheap and there’s plenty of pork.
Let’s face it—teriyaki is good. Or it can be, anyway. Foodies sneer at the gloppy sweet stuff their less genteel friends order at sushi restaurants, and rightfully so. But this teriyaki has much more soyish umami, and comes on charred chicken, tough beef, and better pork. Ribs tend to be stringy, but with pretty addictive sauces; Maui-style ribs are super-sweet, and Korean-style short ribs are garlicky, though nothing like good, cross-cut galbi.
And third in the Hawaiian food triumvirate—no, not Spam, though it’s here, too—is poke, kind of a marinated-tuna tartare. Bamboo Grove offers this three ways: with soy and sesame oil (traditional), ginger, or shoyu. Again, this is just okay, with the traditional being slightly better than the overbearing shoyu.
Hawaiian food certainly has its place, and it would be nice to see an ambitious, perhaps Japanese-trained chef come along and temper the grease and mayonnaise on traditional preparations with some nuance and sophistication. Bamboo Grove isn’t entirely faithful to the best renditions found in Hawaii. But it’s here on gray days, and it’s pretty fun.
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