I understand if you're confused by the restaurant's name. I also wondered if it was offering an unusual fusion of Hawaiian and Japanese cuisines. And while that might be an interesting mix sometime, somewhere, the focus here is authentic Japanese with sushi and sake in starring roles.
The "aloha" part starts to make sense, though, when you enter Locust Point's newest food destination, housed in a former neighborhood bar. The staff is welcoming, immediately bringing complimentary bowls of hot miso soup, and the tiki-bar décor reminds you of the islands. Bamboo, ceiling fans whirling lazily, and cheerful paper lanterns highlight the small space. The 13-seat bar is the focal point, with one table for six and six two-person booths offering additional seating, all in the same narrow room. There is also a private bar with 13 seats.
The restaurant was empty when I arrived with two friends at 7 p.m. on a Saturday. But we weren't alone for long as we perched on tall rattan chairs with comfy cushions at the bar. By the time we left two hours later, every seat at the main bar and tables was taken, the noise level had risen considerably, and the crowd was in a party mood.
The extensive sake menu might have had something to do with that, although most of the patrons seemed to be sipping beer. The bartender is happy to make sake suggestions if you're not sure what to order. We started with hot Hakushika Sake, kept warm in a pretty ceramic pot, and finished with a cold bottle of refreshing Taru Sake.
As one of my companions commented, "It's a Cheers kind of place." Yes, it's definitely more tavern than fancy dining establishment with its bank of TVs above the bar tuned to various sports games and the casual service. But don't expect Sam Malone sliding mugs of beer to Norm. Behind the bar, there is serious sushi-making going on.
The pleasant man turning out maki roll after roll said he was from Korea and cheerfully answered our food questions as he plucked beautiful seafood specimens from a chilled case on the bar and did his sushi sleight of hand. The results were impressive.
The Aloha Tokyo roll was presented on an attractive plank and garnished jauntily with a paper umbrella, like the kind you find in festive cocktails. Wasabi was drizzled artistically around the dish and accompanied by generous folds of ginger.
But the beauty wasn't just on the outside. The tuna roll was fat and from-the-dock fresh and sprinkled with a crunchy tempura coating. I also liked the Aloha Osaka roll, made with salmon, which was as good as its tuna cousin.
In between sushi bites, we shared perfectly steamed edamame lightly seasoned with salt and one of the big hits of the evening—green tea steamed dumplings. The wrappers imbued the delicate flavor and coloring of the tea while bundling a well-matched pork filling.
Before we finished the starters, the only disappointment of the night arrived—katsuobushi udon with shrimp and odeng (described to me as a fish cake)—way ahead of the other entrées. The large pot of buckwheat noodles and broth was delivered with a flourish but turned out to be a bland mix of mostly unidentifiable ingredients, including only a couple of skinny shrimp in their shells.
This is not Americanized food. That's not a bad thing. I just wish I could have snagged someone to explain more about this particular dish. But the service had become erratic as more patrons placed their orders.
We were more successful with the spicy teumsae ramen and a bowl of bulgogi don—tender, marinated sirloin atop a generous pillow of rice. We especially liked the ramen noodles with beef that delivered a powerful but invigorating punch of heat—the kind that clears your sinuses.
By the time we finished, we had lost our server to the increasing busyness of the evening and flagged down another to inquire about dessert. She looked startled by the request but recovered quickly to offer us vanilla or chocolate ice cream. Eventually, the restaurant will have green-tea ice cream, she explained.
I opted for vanilla and ended up with a vanilla-chocolate mix garnished with bits of chopped seaweed. It took me a while longer to grab a server to get the check, but the wait was soothed with another complimentary gesture—a miniature bottle of a sweet, yogurt-like drink—a nice finishing touch.
Despite the uneven service, the good intentions of this neighborhood gathering spot are reflected by the translated Japanese signs hanging around the room: "Happiness," "Peace," and "Friends."