Moki’s Hawaiian Grill offers a taste of Hawaiian and Pacific Islander food in Salt Lake City

Story and slideshow by GEORGE W. KOUNALIS

Moki’s Hawaiian Grill brings the food and atmosphere of Hawaii to Taylorsville, Utah, from the 808 to the 801. Located right next to an Indian market and a True Value hardware store, the restaurant’s bright yellow sign sticks out as one drives by on Redwood Road.

The atmosphere of the restaurant is laid back and family-oriented. Family is a cornerstone of many Pacific Islander cultures, and Moki’s is able to make many customers feel like they’re part of the family.

Bele Tukuafu, 19, has been working at Moki’s for six months.

“My uncle owns the restaurant,” she said. “My uncle’s sister started the restaurant in 2002, and he took it over.”

Tukuafu said the Moki’s in Utah is the first of two locations, with the second restaurant located in Mesa, Arizona.

“We try to make simple, good Hawaiian food,” she said.

The food is simple and basic, but explosive with flavor. It is a tour of the Hawaiian Islands and many other Pacific Islander cultures.

Each plate comes with a choice of meat; two mounds of white rice; a Hawaiian salad consisting of chicken, cabbage and rice noodles with a house dressing. The flavors of each respective item had a story.

Kristian Naone of Honolulu was at the restaurant with Ted Camper, a University of Utah student from Chicago. Growing up in Honolulu with Hawaiian cuisine, Naone had a lot to say about the food.

Naone ordered the chicken katsu plate. Katsu is very similar to the fried chicken many Chinese restaurants make prior to coating it with a sweet sauce.

“It’s a dish that one could eat a lot of without getting full too fast and is complemented by the macaroni salad that Moki’s makes,” he said.

“That’d be good on a sandwich, it’s real crispy,” Camper said about Naone’s order. Both diners offered the writer a piece of each respective dish.

Camper ordered the teriyaki beef. Moki’s dish is more authentic than anything one can get at Rumbi Island Grill, Naone said. The teriyaki beef at Moki’s is marinated prior to being cooked, unlike many other restaurants’ interpretation of teriyaki where a sauce is coated on the meat after cooking.

The marinade reminds one of Korean bulgogi, a dish that consists of thin sliced marinated beef that’s been grilled.

“Modern Hawaiian food is a culmination of multiple ethnic foods,” Naone said.

“It’s because of the sugar plantations back in the day,” he said. “There were a lot of different cultures from Asia that were living with each other, but had no way to communicate with each other, except using food.”

“Prior to colonization,” he added, “Hawaiian food was simple. Taro was the big starch for people. It was the potato for the islands.” Colonization had brought problems with it, such as the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, but also created a fusion of food.

The Spam musubi is an example of this. The dish is comprised of a piece of cooked Spam covered in teriyaki sauce, put in rice that was pressed with a musubi press, then wrapped in seaweed.

“Spam is a big part of Hawaiian cuisine,” Naone said. World War II “created a lot of meat shortages on the islands, but Spam was abundant and easy to access and quickly became part of the cuisine.”

Lokomokos are also a popular Hawaiian dish, he said. “We call it surfer food because it’s simple to make, but hearty and gives you the energy to go out and surf all day.” Lokomokos consist of rice, brown gravy, hamburger patty and egg. The meal is served with a side of macaroni salad.

The theme of this fusion of cultures is very apparent with the kalua pork and kalbi ribs. Hawaii’s history can be told by its cuisine.

Naone said, “Kalua pork is made in a slow cooker. You put your pork and cabbage in and let it cook. The cabbage absorbs the juices and turns almost translucent, but is filled with the pork flavor.”

One bite into the kalua pork shows the flavor of the seasoning salt used. The pork has the consistency of almost melting in one’s mouth.

“The cabbage in this dish almost acts like noodles,” Naone said. While eating the pork, one has to mix it with the cabbage at the same time to make sure that all the juice is eaten.

The kalbi ribs are a dish very similar to Korean BBQ short ribs. “You have to make sure to eat all the meat around the bone,” Naone instructed. “Be sure to bite around the bone to get the sinew as well.”

The kalbi ribs at Moki’s explode with the flavor of the marinade and the cooking technique used. The smell of the marinade prior to taking a bite builds the flavor as one takes a bite of it. The flavor is a rich experience of sweet and smoke along with the fat melting in one’s mouth. It is similar to eating meat candy.

“There was a place across the street of my high school that offered comfy memories,” Naone said. “They’d serve kalua pork, rice, chicken katsu, all the comfort foods were there. This was the food we would have served in school as well. Katsu, rice, kalua pork. This is local food to me.” 

The Hawaiian salad offered a mix of sweet and salty flavors that pair well. The sweetness of the vinaigrette against the crunch and saltiness of the rice noodles offered an equilibrium that made the dish a good go-to in between the kalua pork and kalbi ribs.

The rice at Moki’s is served in two big mounds, topped with black sesame seeds, and can be mixed with the restaurant’s own rice sauce. The sauce offers a flavor similar to the Filipino condiment toyomansi, which is a mix of soy sauce with lime juice.

To finish the massive lunch, the two placed an order for malasadas, mango otai and a pineapple split.

The malasadas are very similar to a donut, but not as dense. “This is food you would get at a carnival,” Naone said. Malasadas are covered in semi-wet granulated sugar with a very crunchy outside, but a warm doughy inside.

Camper said, “The best part about the malasadas is they’re not as floury and you don’t have to drink a sip of something after every bite.”

Naone pointed out, “It’s very important that they use granulated sugar to coat the malasadas.” He also said that the way the granules stick to the outside surface of the malasada creates the texture necessary when one eats malasadas. “Usually when you order these back home, they give it to you in a brown paper bag and you just eat it straight out of the bag.”

For the pineapple split, a pineapple is cut in half and served with Dole Whip, whipped cream, and strawberries on top. The quality of Moki’s Dole Whip, a soft serve pineapple-flavored frozen dessert, is very similar to the Dole Whip served at Disneyland.

“When my family came to California for the first time, we went to Disneyland,” Naone said. “We saw the line for the Dole Whip and I was just thinking to myself that I can get this anytime I want at the Dole Plantation.”

The mango otai is one of Moki’s non-Hawaiian dishes that shows the Tongan roots of the Tukuafu family. Naone said, “Otai isn’t necessarily a Hawaiian drink, but it’s still present in Hawaii.” The otai consists of shredded mango, coconut cream, sugar and mango juice. Naone pointed out that the use of a boba tea straw is important for this drink because of the shredded mango.

Camper said, “There’s nothing like this in the Chicagoland area. Pacific Islander culture feels like it’s missing in Chicago.”

Salt Lake City’s Pacific Islander community is big. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, Utah is home to one out of every four Tongans who live in the United States.  

Moki’s also offers a Polynesian plate. “The plate has samples of Tongan, Fijian and Samoan food,” Tukuafu said. The restaurant’s mixing of Pacific Islander cuisine offers Utahns a unique chance to get an authentic taste of these cultures. “We just try to make it as close to home as we can,” she said.

Hawaii’s history is marked by colonialism, the sugar plantations and the impact of World War II. The islands’ story is not only told through what’s been recorded but also through its cuisine. The use of Spam, teriyaki and lokomokos tell Hawaii’s post-colonial history through food. Moki’s is a testament to that history by serving its cuisine.

[Editor’s Note: Salt Lake City’s growing demand for Hawaiian and Polynesian food was the subject of a recent New York Times article. Reporter Priya Krishna focused on one local chain, Mo’ Bettahs, owned by brothers Kalani and Kimo Mack.]

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