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The Aloha Spirit Comes to Maryland

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— July 15, 2017

The Aloha Spirit Comes to Maryland

  • Hawaiian Food and culture combines with local ingredients
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Before eating at Uncle’s Hawaiian Grindz in Fallston, Maryland, the only place I had tried Hawaiian food was in, well, Hawaii. But after a family member raved about the restaurant, I knew I had to check it out.

First, let’s tackle the name: Although it uses the word “grindz,” it has nothing to do with coffee. In Hawaiian culture, grindz means “good eats.” As for the “uncle” part, coowner Kosmas “Tommie” Koukoulis says that in Hawaii, people use the words “uncle” or “auntie” as a sign of respect for older people. Using a sign of respect in the name is all part of bringing the aloha spirit to every facet of the restaurant; Koukoulis says part of it also means respecting and loving the staff as well as the customers.

The idea for Uncle’s came after Koukoulis and his wife, who is Hawaiian, spent two weeks in Hawaii and, as he puts it, “We got engulfed in the Hawaiian culture.” Already a restaurateur, Koukoulis asked Kaimana Chee, a Hawaiian-born caterer, to become Uncle’s co-owner and executive chef. (Chee has appeared on a number of the Food Network’s cooking competitions.)

Whenever they can, Uncle’s makes their food with locally sourced, naturally raised and chemical-free ingredients. In fact, most of the food they use is sourced within 100 miles of the restaurant, much of it coming from farms within 20 miles. The exception: Their specialty, Carolina mahi-mahi, hails from 248 miles away in Nags Head, North Carolina. Speaking of food, let’s get to it.

My friend and I slid into a seafoam-green booth and started off with King’s Hawaiian sweet bread with butter into which they fold coconut cream and raw honey. The sweetness makes you feel like you’re eating a light dessert before you get to the meal. Next, we tried a sampling from Uncle’s Poke Bar (pronounced POE-kay), which serves raw or rare-seared fish: Queen Street Tuna, first-grade tuna, green onion, ginger, garlic, sesame oil and aloha shoyu; Lomi Salmon, Hawaiian salt-cured salmon with tomato, scallion and onion, atop firecracker aioli; Walu Poke, cubed white fish with lime, cucumber and avocado in wasabi-shoyu sauce; and Crispy Tofu Poke, Eastern shore tofu breaded and fried, tossed in citrus shoyu and red pepper flakes. My friend, who admits that she usually doesn’t like fish, loved all of these. I did too, as they melted in your mouth. I especially liked the tofu—and I usually don’t like tofu no matter how it’s prepared.

SPAM—yes, that cooked pork in a can—became big in Hawaii after World War II when servicemen brought it to the islands, and it’s still a staple there. Uncle’s serves SPAM Musubi, in which the meat is marinated in teriyaki sauce, seared, then wrapped in sticky rice and seaweed. The spam and rice were the perfect blend of saltiness and texture, while the seaweed was strong.

The Kalua Pig Lumpia, an appetizer, begins with Maryland pork that is salted, wrapped in banana leaves and smoked. Then it is stuffed into a spring roll wrapper along with carrot and cabbage, and fried. It’s served with a sweet chili sauce that leaves a tangy afterthought.

For our entrees, we tried the Kalbi Style Beef and the Misayo’s Mahi. The beef is antibiotic-free and pasture-raised and comes from a Monkton farm only 12 miles away. A Korean-cut beef short rib, it’s marinated overnight in sweet garlic and aloha shoyu, and served over Hawaiian greens and creamy purple sweet potatoes. I even liked the Hawaiian greens, which were a combination of collards, chard, spinach, and kale cooked to perfection.

The mahi-mahi, crusted with flakes of Japanese furikake seasoning and broiled, was satisfyingly firm yet tender. Again, my fish-adverse friend enjoyed it. Like the beef, it was served over Hawaiian greens with a beurre blanc (butter sauce) made with pureed lilikoi, or passionflower fruit, as well as sriracha oil.

For dessert, I went with a locally made chocolate-and-vanilla ice cream—my taste buds will never again settle for store-bought. My friend tried the Kanak Attack, macadamia nuts and crumbled Hawaiian sweet bread baked in a caramel-vanilla bean custard, and served with coconut-ginger ice cream. I think she’s still swooning. Uncle’s aims to create a relaxed vibe of “farmer meets surfer,” and they’ve achieved it. I’ll be back.

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