The Taste of Aloha has brought the taste of Hawaii to the border of Howard County, and it's worth the drive to bring a little sunshine into your winter.
This is a small family-run restaurant in Arbutus that brings casual Hawaiian food -- with its mix of Asian and American influences, its range from light raw fish dishes through noodle soups to hearty burgers and "plate lunch."
I don't want you to go with heightened expectations, but Taste of Aloha reminds me of R&R Taqueria. It's a guy who wants to cook authentic food. Bare-bones seating. A short menu that changes with the ingredients. And a real focus on making things from scratch. Let's just say that we left disappointed that we had passed on macaroni salad because lunch made us realized that we had probably underestimated it.
First, you need to hit up Taste of Aloha just for the raw fish. Hawaiians make these wonderful dishes called poke where fish is cubed, then mixed with vegetables and often a dressing. There are endless varieties, and they were one of our favorite parts of vacation.
Last weekend, Taste of Aloha was serving a poke cousin called spicy tuna chirashi zushi. A scoop of warm perfect rice surrounded by cubed tuna mixed with a spicy emulsion. A touch of creaminess, but mostly a bright, light spiciness. A dash of furikake gave a little salt and crunch. As a $6 appetizer, it was one of my favorite dishes that I have eaten this year. On a china plate, it would have been at home at a high-end restaurant.
Second, you should come expecting authenticity. Hawaii has developed a unique culture with input from places like Japan, Korea, the Philippines and Portugal. During out single meal, we listened to two other tables exclaim about how the food tasted just like they remembered from their time on the islands. The menu included kalbi, chicken katsu, several burgers, and kahlua pig served as a hoagie or as a big plate lunch.
My wife ordered mahi-mahi tacos that had perfectly grilled fish with a kimchi slaw and pineapple salsa. I tried saimin, a noodle soup that starts with a mushroom-vegetable broth and then lets you add spam, shrimp, tofu, dumplings or a bunch of other proteins to bulk it up. It was a cloudy broth and a filling soup perfect for a cold day. I jazzed mine with a dash of soy sauce and a squirt of hot sauce.
Again, this is the vibe of R&R Taqueria where the folks take the food seriously even though they're cooking in a gas station. We heard folks talk about how the chef makes his own sauces and marinades, including his own teriyaki sauce. That's the kind of effort that we tasted in all our dishes and that makes me want to go back to try the kalbi, the roast pork, and maybe even the dishes made with spam. That was also when we realized that the macaroni salad side dish was homemade -- and probably delicious.
Don't go with crazy expectations. This is a casual place with a one-man kitchen. But Taste of Aloha is really worth checking out because they're making an effort to do something special. Plus, it's a unique menu that will give you a little taste of the islands without even driving to BWI.
Arbutus is just off I-95 where it intersects with I-195 and I-695. You probably won't happen to pass Taste of Aloha, but the directions are easy to follow. If you're going to make a special trip, I recommend following the restaurant on Twitter or on Facebook to see when they announce poke, chirashi zushi or other raw fish dishes.