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Femme de Joie has to confess she has never harbored any desire to take a Hawaiian vacation. This might be partly because she’s spent most of a lifetime right here in Shasta County, getting sunburns on the sandy beaches of Whiskeytown Lake, and can’t believe the sand/sunburns are any better on Waikiki. It might also be partly due to the trip reports she hears from many people who do take their vacations in Hawaii, most of whom buy all-inclusive travel packages.
There’s a stupefying sameness to the recounting, probably because all the activities and meals are planned out in advance for maximum profit with minimum effort. A hotel/condo on the beach with a room overlooking the pool. Mai Tais. Pick a pearl. A luau with hula dancers, flaming baton twirling, getting lei’d (get it? Getting lei’d? Nudge nudge wink wink). More Mai Tais, luaus, kitsch to be shared with 200 other tourists. It just didn’t sound all that appealing.
However, Femme de Joie’s partner in crime, Amico del SIgnore, enjoyed a lengthy stay in the 50th state, and knows a thing or two about the real non-touristy deal, including the only-in-Hawaii specialty, plate lunch. Plate lunch might be compared to the American South’s meat-and-three meals, or even the ubiquitous Mexican combo plate – that is, there are some elements that are always included, without which it wouldn’t be a plate lunch.
Rice: Hawaiians consume 100 pounds of rice per person per year – nearly four times as much as other Americans. You get two scoops of steamed rice on each plate lunch. Macaroni salad, goopy with mayonnaise and flecked with shreds of carrot, is the other staple. The rest of the plate might include loco moco (hamburger patties topped with fried eggs and gravy), teriyaki chicken or pork, fried fish, or any number of local specialties.
Niu Hawaiian BBQ opened just over a year ago in the shopping center at Cypress and Churn Creek. It’s not a big space – a few utilitarian easy-clean tables in a largely forgettable dining room. Order at the counter, take a number, and wait – it never takes very long no matter how busy they are. It appears that most of their business is take away.
Kalua pork, Mini $7.29, regular $9.29
Kalua pork has nothing to do with Kahlua Liqueur. Think of it as Hawaiian pulled pork – shredded into tender piggy bits. Slightly salty with a hint of liquid smoke, you can add katsu sauce (a mixture of soy, ketchup, Worcestershire, vinegar, and spices), Sriracha, or teriyaki sauce from squeeze bottles. Included in most orders are a few fragments of steamed vegetables, primarily cabbage and broccoli, which are modestly tasty but not really important enough to stand on their own.
Hawaiian BBQ mix, $10.59
if you just can’t decide, the BBQ mix includes BBQ beef, BBQ chicken, and BBQ beef short ribs. Each one had their own seasoning so it wasn’t as though they were just a pile o’meat that all tasted the same. M. de Joie was a little disappointed with the beef short ribs, as they seemed on the dry side without being as tender as they could be. The BBQ beef was juicy and not sodden with too much sticky sauce. BBQ chicken is too often dry and stringy, but this was moist and infused with flavor.
Garlic chicken, $9.99
In addition to the printed menu, Niu has some specials listed on the wall. This large portion of garlic chicken was succulent and rich with lots of slivered garlic pumping up the flavor.
Spam fried rice, $6.99
It sounds like the plot to a goofy spy thriller, but Spam is so popular in Hawaii that black market-linked theft of cases of Spam became a real issue for merchants last fall. That isn’t likely to become a problem on the mainland, but if you’d like a legal Spam fix, try the Spam fried rice. The intense saltiness is tamed by bits of pineapple mixed in. This wasn’t really fried so much as just sort of mixed together, but it made a pleasant side dish.
Fried shrimp Saimin, $7.29
Saimin is the Hawaiian cousin to ramen, a brothy noodle dish served with your choice of toppings. This was the only item at Niu that M. de Joie really didn’t like – the noodles were wiry and tough, and the broth tasted mostly like boiled cabbage (which was part of the toppings). Curiously, the fried shrimp – which was tasty and crisp – was served in a separate container.
Niu is wildly popular and it’s easy to see why – very generous servings of well-prepared food for a great price. It would be nice if the seating area was larger, but it’s also nice to take your order down a couple of doors to Fall River Brewing Taphouse and enjoy a beer with your meal. (All food is served in to-go Styrofoam containers.) If you’re yearning for an authentic Hawaiian experience that’s more Peter Moon than Don Ho, give Niu a try and bring your appetite.
Niu Hawaiian BBQ, 1030 East Cypress Avenue, Suite B, Redding, CA 96002. (In the same strip as Starbucks on the south side of the parking lot from Safeway.) 530-221-8888. Open Sunday-Thursday, 10:30 AM to 9:00 PM, Friday and Saturday 10:30 AM to 9:30 PM. Cash and cards; no checks. Vegetarian options; limited vegan choices. No alcohol.