Speaking of unpopular authentic dishes taken off the serving tray, I’m reminded of the Hawaiian place on Shattuck. I overheard the owner say that he would have to remove some stuff from the now-three-page menu. There’s business, most are lone diners and take-outs, but naturally business is not the same for every item. Once a middle-aged man ordered 20 spam musubis to-go, and I imagine this is nothing unusual for a $2 nori-wrapped solid brick of rice with one slice of browned processed succulence. It’s just a good deal, it tops the chart in terms of convenience times filling factor divided by cost. If you’re a Berkeley student, I guarantee you can’t dig up a better combination of those quantities in this area. So the spam musubis are safe, but who are (not) on the chopping block?
The barbecued meat and fried seafood? I don’t think. BBQ is in the name. You can snob up your chin about meat quality, but don’t tell me that the smell of caramelized grilled short ribs doesn’t wet your tongue. Crunchy fried mahi mahi and fan-shaped split shrimp offer more texture than taste, so I might worry a tad for them. For $8.25, the seafood combo (pictured) doesn’t deliver as much as the $7.75 BBQ mixed plate (teriyaki steak, short ribs, and chicken).
Not all meat is popular, though. Take fresh pork lau lau for instance. You are presented with a leaf bundle next to the usual three scoops, one of cheesy cold macaroni salad and two of white rice. You unwrap the leaves like one unwinding a silkworm’s cocoon, only to find more greens inside that baffles you “is this edible? should I keep unwrapping?” You sample a bit of that green mash, and feel smoothness sliding down your throat. It’s like overcooked spinach coated with beef fat. The meat is similar, like a plainer sister of the Vietnamese meat kho minus the sugar and the sauce. Then something fishy creeps up to the base of your teeth. Fish that you can’t see but it is there, so well woven into the pork and the greens that the taste is but a wisp of its slippery skin. You may notice that the whole experience sounds like a butter pool, and indeed it is. Plain and fattily smooth. Perhaps it slides down too smoothly to grab hold of my interest. $7.25 is quite reasonable for a fistful load of “taro leaves, pork, butterfish, and salt, all wrapped in Ti leaves“, but if you didn’t grow up with the taste, you wouldn’t miss it. I suspect pork lau lau will say bye bye. :-/
Saimin is likely another go-er, though for a different reason. If pork lau lau is at the very least respectable for its interesting ingredients, the barebone saimin’s simplicity doesn’t justify its price. At $3.25 you get a wad of egg noodle in salted broth, four rosy fingers of spam and a sprinkle of green onion rings. But, to be fair, I’d like to try Wikiwiki saimin with egg and BBQ chicken before I finalize the sentence.
The one thing that Wiki Wiki should keep even till word’s end is in this last picture. When you hear that sizzling sound the patty makes on the grill, suddenly something’s awake in you. But the meat isn’t the best part. It’s the rice smothered in a thick peppery gravy, further thickened by two running yolks. Every spoon glosses your upper lip. It’s just yellow and brown and unpretentious like an old friend’s laugh.
The loco moco made me like Wiki wiki, just like the oksusu cha sprouted my love for Berkel Berkel. Something about it (most likely its $6.50 price :-P) connects generations of Cal bears. I was reading Zach Mann’s post at The Eaten Path and I saw “that Shattuck Blvd discount diner,” and suddenly I felt that Zach Mann wasn’t a stranger anymore. Well, I’m sure I’m still a stranger to him, but hey, we ate at the same place, perhaps sat at the same shiny metallic table, and independently felt the same way about a meal sold in transparent plastic box. You can trust us on our assessment of Wiki Wiki’s loco moco. It won’t go off the menu. It can’t.