The automated voice you know as Google Maps announces over the phone’s speaker, “Right turn at Whataburger.” The orange burger hut is the last sign of Texas you’ll see, at least for the moment, if you’re headed to Aloha Hawaiian BBQ. The view from Aloha's front door is a heat mirage shimmering the air off Lemmon Avenue and a Volkswagen dealership. The shop’s stuffed into a strip mall near vaping supplies and an H&R Block. Once inside, you’re somewhere else.
During a quick lunch, Dallas has disappeared. Cases of Hawaiian Sun, the island’s ubiquitous tropical fruit juice, are stacked high behind the counter. Aloha soy and katsu sauces, sweet and vinegary, are ready for you in coffee thermoses — the kind you pump for hot java at the office. The grill hisses behind a hallway blocked by vinyl slats; Aloha is not interested in decor or presentation beyond comfort in the form of heaping piles of fast, hot food. Portions are enormous. Murals on the wall, turquoise and sunflower yellow, showcase amateur hand-painted beaches and mountains.
Owner Andy Cheng is at the register, handing over orders for walk-ins. It’s humid, near misty, in the restaurant. Cheng passes a Styrofoam container — the only way to devour Hawaiian fast food — and it’s as heavy in the hands as a slab of marble. The container is front-loaded with chicken katsu, intensely crunchy fried chicken breast sliced and reassembled. It wafts the salty aroma of fried chicken skin. Chicken crust crackles and shatters — it’s cut into slices as thick as an airport paperback. Two scoops of packed rice and creamy macaroni salad sit in the top sections of the Styrofoam. On the side are two pillars of grilled Spam, each gift-wrapped in seaweed on a rice bed.
The transportation happens quickly after sinking a bite into the block of Spam.
Have you been to Hana, Hawaii? You leave a version of yourself there. Somewhere on that Maui coast, there’s a presence of me floating around like a well-fed ghost. Once you go, bronze sand and liquid emerald water practically lease a version of your spirit. Chicken grills on the beach; it’s passed to you in the same Styrofoam containers broken into three sections. You jab a plastic fork into creamy macaroni salad, craning the whole thing into soy-soaked rice. This is what happens to your brain, for the briefest of seconds, inside Aloha Hawaiian BBQ.
“I have to say, it’s a secret,” Cheng says when asked about his Loco Moco gravy recipe. The sauce is as evil as it is comforting. The Loco Moco is a hamburger patty embalmed in dark gravy over mountains of white rice. Maybe there’s a fried egg. Once in the to-go container, it’s heavy enough to hold with two hands.
“It’s flour and fat,” Cheng admits of the brown gravy, leaking the barest of details. Aloha Hawaiian BBQ has two locations: one in El Paso that’s been family owned for 12 years and one in Dallas off Lemmon Avenue’s blazing concrete jungle. There, right next to a Whataburger, Cheng’s been serving for five years the kind of comfort food you eat after your skin’s salt-burned from surfing.
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“Oh yeah,” he says when asked why the mac salad is better than all other macaroni salads. “Hawaiian mac salad is creamy. It melts in your mouth. When you put it with the rice, it all mixes together.”
He’s right. It’s beautiful carbs. Dallas has nothing else like this food. Tender cabbage beds the crispy katsu chicken. With a few pumps of salty, gingery katsu sauce from the thermos, your feet will find the sand. Kalua pork is best eaten right there in store — it’s rich with Hawaiian sea salt and cut with steamed cabbage. Get a forkful, and adorn it with creamy mac salad.
You will depart the city for a while, even if it’s brief.
Aloha Hawaiian BBQ, 5610 Lemmon Ave.