Spamalot: Uncle's Hawaiian Grindz out in Harco does island cuisine right

The first time my wife and I walked into Uncle's Hawaiian Grindz (2315 Belair Road, Fallston, [443] 966-3999, eatatuncles.com) last spring, we were greeted by an unusual sight: In the big, wood booth that forms the backbone of the generous indoor dining room, Chef Kaimana Chee sat amid a family of four, strumming his ukulele in full-throated song. It was hokey and beautiful, and the place smelled good, the waitstaff—mostly Fallston high school and college kids, I assume, by how they looked—working to do right by their boss and their customers.

I'm told Hawaiian food is trendy; poke is now available in Remington. And Chee, a native of Oahu's North Shore and veteran of the celebrity chef TV circuit (he also owns a catering company in Silver Spring), is a great ambassador for the mix of Native Hawaiian, Japanese, Filipino, Chinese, Portuguese, and American foods and traditions he's building on. Uncle's is a farm-to-table spot featuring locally sourced beef, ice cream, and greens, as well as island staples like pineapple, coconut, and Spam. Hawaiians went crazy for Spam during WWII, and the local variant, Spam musubi ($6), is a hybrid of salty-canned-meat-something and sushi. I knew this because my salt-craving half-Japanese wife makes it at home, and it's the only way I have ever been able to eat Spam. She pronounced Uncle's version "delicious." It's also a bit more complex than our homemade version.

After the Spam appetizer we got his and hers samplers. Uncle's Mix Plate ($22.50) features pulled huli-huli chicken, a shrimp shack skewer, and beef teriyaki over a stir fry. The chicken was a little dry this time (though on a subsequent visit it was juicy). The beef was simple and sweet with ginger and pineapple, and the shrimp was shrimp, with a nice chili sauce. Aunty's Mix Plate ($21) was the standout: chicken katsu (fried chicken cutlets! Toasted coconut! Japanese BBQ sauce!), DA kalua pig (beautiful slow-cooked pork shoulder over cabbage and sweet greens), and lomi salmon (fresh salmon, tomatoes, scallion, and mild onions on ice with spicy aioli). We also got the right kind of sticky rice, plus a macaroni and cheese dish we were advised to mix with the rice, creating an unlikely starch bomb that really complimented the sweet, sour, and spicy sauces.

The beer list includes local selections from Falling Branch Brewery, Independent Brewing, and Brewer's Art, as well as Maui and Kona. Hawaii has its own damn good microbrew thing going on, and IPAs go nicely with the food.

For dessert we tried the kanak attack, which is like a Hawaiian bread pudding with macadamia nuts, caramel vanilla bean custard, and coconut-ginger ice cream ($8), and it was heavenly. The ginger cut the sweetness down just enough to make it not too rich. We also enjoyed the malasada puffs, which are fried dough—basically a Portuguese donut. They come warm with custard and chocolate sauce.

On a more recent visit we sat outside on the high-fenced, torch-lit patio. It was a great night for it—light breeze, 72 degrees, and but for the absence of surf (the restaurant is in a strip mall next to a movie theater), it was near-perfect. We got Da Poke Boat ($15), a four-barrel assortment of poke selections with a side of crispy wonton chips. Now, there is a whole poke "debate" going on about whether mainland fusion variations of this traditional raw/seared/marinated fish dish are righteous or not. And we're not engaging that debate. I'd never heard of poke before, had to ask the waiter how to pronounce it ("poke-AY"), and wanted a new taste. It's delicious. The ahi tuna version is traditional, with green onion, shoyu (soy) sauce, sesame, ginger, and a hint of hot pepper. But there was also the walu poke, which is like a ceviche with cucumber, avocado, and a wasabi-shoyu sauce; and the crispy tofu poke, fried with citrus shoyu and red pepper flake and brimming with an undefinable umami taste. The excellent lomi salmon rounded it out. A-po-KAY as far as we're concerned.

But while we're on this "authenticity" kick, here's one quibble: In three visits we heard (other than the chef's impressive solo) one soundtrack—classic reggae, heavy with Bob Marley's radio-friendly works. While 'No Woman No Cry' is a nice island tune to enjoy alongside delicious food, it's not even in the right ocean. The restaurant is owned and operated by professionals who know their market, so they're probably right and we're probably wrong, but to our ears, mixing in a little Cyril Pahinui, Ledward Kaapana, etc., wouldn't hurt the place a bit. Music like 'Jus Press' and 'Wooden Boat' springs from the same brilliant polyglot fusion as the food and, even if it's not familiar to everyone's ear, it's a beauty that should be.

Uncle's Hawaiian Grindz is open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday.

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