Really fine burgers in a tropical thatch setting
By Helen Wu
Advertiser Restaurant Critic
By Helen Wu
Let's face it. There's the tourist world of $13 cocktails in a coconut, and then there's reality for the rest of us not on vacation.
Usually, these two spheres don't mix. But occasionally, boundaries blur in a setting that transcends time, space and cost. Three-week-old Islands Fine Burgers and Drinks in Ala Moana Center is that kind of place.
Beneath thatched roofs and the watchful eyes of colorful wooden parrots and flamingos, customers can unwind and feel like they're somewhere tropical even though they're in the middle of a mall.
Islands seems to have thought of it all. Burgers and beer for the guys (reward for shopping with their wives or girlfriends). The greenery and private wooden booths done up in surf-style take care of the cute factor for women. In addition to $6.25 exotic drinks, salads and soft tacos can be had.
Nine television screens playing extreme sports distract and entertain teens, kids and some men. With top VH1 hits pumping up the atmosphere, the eye-catching dining room wouldn't be out of place on an episode of "The Real World."
Islands plays up the kitsch factor tastefully so that it doesn't overwhelm — it's a toned-down adult version of Lulu's and Wahoo's but still cool enough for the younger set.
Most comforting of all, the restaurant features the kind of big, popular, easy American food we can all relate to. Fast food with polish.
Pau-hana people wanting something more substantial than pupu or who avoid the nearby Mai Tai Bar scene can sit outside at Islands and mooch off the competition's live music. And tourists can still get their frou-frou drink in the $12.75 punchbowl, made with jungle juice, Galliano and orange Curacao.
Entrepreneur and CEO Tony DeGrazier's formula is working. Inspired by fond memories of eating out with his Navy buddies while stationed in Hawai'i in the 1960s, DeGrazier turned his experiences into a reality in 1982, opening the original Islands in West Los Angeles.
The first Hawai'i location is No. 56 in the no-franchise chain.
General manager Dan Roth said DeGrazier was so happy to bring an Islands to the place where his vision began that he attended the Ala Moana Center opening — something he hadn't done in seven years.
The enthusiasm shows. You're served by a pep squad — waitresses encourage diners with recommendations of their favorites. They stop by at intervals, sometimes one right after another. Friends and I wished the rah-rah attitude could have been scaled back a tad and infused into the food.
A 2-pound basket of skin-on fries ($2.99) arrived limp and lukewarm. A shame, considering they're cut daily and fried to order. They're even more of a letdown when they're offered as cheddar fries ($6.99) or all-out extravagant with sloppy joe chili (no beans) for an extra $2.75.
Tiki tenders ($8.49) also fizzled. Five strips of the ordinary, deep-fried chicken lay in a basketful of fried, puffed rice noodles. The tasteless white fluff reminded me of Styrofoam peanuts.
But Islands shines with its namesake — the burgers are indeed fine. Flown in from the Mainland, the beef comes from imported and domestic steers. (Local vendors supply most everything else to maintain fresh quality.) The 7-ounce patties are cooked to order on a flattop griddle to seal in juices. I enjoyed the crusty exteriors missing in the flame-broiled variety. Buns — you get a choice of soft, white or wheat — are toasted and buttered.
The meat-and-bread foundation is dressed up in lots of different ways.
The Sunset ($8.69) with its tangy barbecue slather, mustard and pickles, had Southern charm. Pineapple sweetened a wet Hawaiian ($8.79), lavished with teriyaki sauce and Swiss cheese. A tame Bluenami ($8.69) was mild enough for ranch dressing fans, regardless of blue cheese crumbles. (Order the dressing on the side for dipping if you want to avoid sogginess.)
Salads take the hearty route, too — big enough for two, they're creamy, chopped tosses with a whole lot of crunch and camouflage for those who avoid micro-greens and mesclun. Bits of dried oregano gave a nice, unusual fragrance to the attention-grabbing Kaanapali Kobb ($11.09), and the China Coast ($10.99) is a crunch fest of snow peas, lettuce, red cabbage, carrots, water chestnuts and fried noodles.
Trios of bulging soft tacos offer a south-of-the-border alternative. Choices include the flavorful Baja ($9.49), basically chicken fajitas in flour tortillas, and deep-fried, battered red snapper ($9.59) wrapped in flimsy corn tortillas that tasted great and disintegrated in my hands.
While waitresses hurrahed an ice cream pie and a brownie a la mode, I preferred the smooth, understated New York cheesecake with gooey strawberry slices. Its delicate mildness offered a bit of tranquil calm in the tumult of upbeat Islands — a perfect getaway from it all.
Reach Helen Wu at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ratings reflect the reviewer's reaction to food, service and ambience in relation to price. Menu listings and prices are subject to change. Reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. The Advertiser pays for meals.