But Hapa Hawaiian Grill, a pandemic-opened Hawaiian eatery located near PPG Paints Arena, easily proved me wrong. The musubi, a classic Hawaiian snack that takes influence from traditional Japanese sushi — wrapping nori around a thick slice of SPAM, scrambled egg patty, and rice — marked the first time I’ve called SPAM delicious.
The canned ham was lightly browned from the grill and matched nicely with mild egg. Neither had any stand-out flavors, which made the addition of nori, savory with a subtle sweetness, the perfect balancer.
SPAM isn’t the only thing Hapa Hawaiian has on its long menu, though the musubi was one of my favorites. The comprehensive list covered a wide range of traditional island eats, many cues from Asian cuisines. I paired my musubi with tuna poke, banana lumpia, and a cuisine staple, the mixed plate. I was a big fan of the Hawaiian mixed-plate tradition because it allowed me to try multiple entrees without having to order a full serving of just one. I filled the plate with kalbi, Korean-style barbeque short ribs, chicken katsu, Japanese-inspired fried chicken, and kalua pork and cabbage.
Every meat on my plate — complemented with potato mac salad and rice — had a strikingly different flavor from the one next to it. The kalbi, soaked in a special ginger soy sauce, was deep, rich, and savory. In comparison, the chicken katsu, breaded in panko, fried, and dipped in a tangy tonkatsu sauce (like a mix of barbeque and ketchup) was mellow. The traditional Hawaiian kalua pork and cabbage were juicy, punching with the acidic flavor of pineapple.
Spice kicked through my ahi tuna poke, a simple bowl of raw fish with onion, tomatoes, and an unidentified, but very hot pepper. Though the spice was enjoyable, it masked the flavors of the tuna a bit too much for my taste, and I added a bit of rice from my mixed plate to calm the heat. The lumpia were almost like a dessert, crispy spring roll wrappers encasing a pleasantly sweet banana.
Aside from poke bowls, traditional Hawaiian eats are hard to find in Pittsburgh. Hapa Hawaiian is one of the few establishments that shows off all sides of the cuisine, from poke to SPAM, and they do it with excellence.
Hapa Hawaiian Grill. 1334 Fifth Ave., Downtown. hapahawaiiangrill.com