Hawaii is a melting pot of cultures. Along with Hawaiians, this tropical archipelago has long been home to large populations of Japanese, Koreans, Polynesians, Filipinos and Portuguese. Let's not forget about all those mainlanders, too.
The food of these varied cultures has shaped Hawaiian cuisine over the years. It's a mélange of Asian flavors served with a heaping spoonful of grandma's macaroni salad and some grilled Spam. You will find this and more at Kana Girl's Hawaiian BBQ, a fast-casual restaurant that recently opened in the former Smoke Inn spot - next to Smoky Davis - on State Street in Boise.
Owners Kana and Keoni Tyler are experienced restaurateurs. They moved their restaurant from Meridian earlier this year, where they ran it for more than a year. Keoni, who was raised on Oahu, grew up eating the food he now cooks. Kana, Keoni's wife, the restaurant's namesake, runs the front of the house. Ironically, they both lived in Hilo (on the Big Island) at the same time about 20 years ago, but they didn't know each other back then; they met in Boise a few years ago. Call it kismet in the Hawaiian kitchen.
Anyway, the restaurant makeover was complete after the small dining room received a few shades of sea-blue paint, new flooring, framed tropical pictures and Hawaiian woodcarvings, not to mention a hammerhead shark dressed in a floral-print Hawaiian shirt. The kitchen needed lots of work, too, like scraping 40 years of burger grease off the walls.
Kana Girl's menu represents Hawaii well, with traditional grinds and a few modern interpretations, such as thick-cut fries ($3.50) made from taro root, a starchy island vegetable used for making poi.
You would be remiss if you didn't try Keoni's teriyaki beef ($8.95), a pile of marinated skirt steak - slow-cooked until tender in a smoker out back - served with two scoops of sticky rice and one scoop of carrot-riddled macaroni salad, or mac salad, as Hawaiians call the stuff.
All plate lunches, as entrees are called here, come with rice and a choice of mac salad or pineapple coleslaw, in white plastic foam boxes.
The Korean-inspired beef kalbi ribs ($9.95), which were a little tough during one visit, are nowhere near as flavorful as the smoky and sweet teriyaki beef.
But carnivores will definitely be happy with the char siu pork ($7.95) and mafa chicken ($7.95), both of which were mainstays around Keoni's house when he was a kid. It's essentially pieces of chicken breast marinated with fermented tofu, chilies and soy sauce. The bird then gets battered and deep-fried until golden brown. The result is crispy chicken with a delicious backbeat of Asian flavors.
Did I mention that Keoni sings smooth Hawaiian songs while he works?
Char siu pork will probably remind you of Chinese-style barbecued pork sans the spicy mustard. Thick slices of slow-cooked pork loin are draped with a crimson-colored sauce, redolent of sweet hoisin.
It wouldn't be a Hawaiian restaurant without kalua pig ($7.95). Keoni's version of this classic island dish - sweet and smoky pulled pork, served with steamed cabbage - stays true to the original family recipe book, yet it was slightly greasy one night.
On the other hand, Kana Girl's Spam musubi ($3.95) is "broke-da-mouth" delicious - the best I've had in town. It's especially good dipped in sweet chili sauce.
For those of you who like extra sauces, there's a reach-in refrigeration unit out front (next to the self-serve soda fountain) that's packed with squirt bottles of hoisin, sweet chili sauce, sriracha, wasabi mayo and sweet and tangy tonkatsu sauce. Don't forget to clean up after yourself, though.
The restaurant, of course, also serves mahi mahi ($8.95), which is tender and flaky under a deep-fried panko breading. There's even house-made tartar sauce in the reach-in for the fish. Go ahead. Lather it up.
Vegetarians are not forgotten at Kana Girl's. Try the yakisoba ($7.95), a jumble of stir-fried Japanese buckwheat noodles with zucchini, red cabbage, bean sprouts, broccoli and seared tofu, drenched in a sweet and spicy sauce.
Finish your meal with pani popo ($3.25), a popular Hawaiian dessert that marries ultra-creamy coconut pudding to a yeasty sweetbread bun.
Kana Girl's is a great addition to this stretch of State Street. The food comes out of the kitchen quickly, service is friendly, and, if you're lucky, you might even hear Keoni singing as he mixes coleslaw.
Email James Patrick Kelly: firstname.lastname@example.org