Joe’s Grill Express (Honolulu, HI)

So, one of my former coworkers invited me to his wedding in Waikiki, and we decided it would be a good opportunity to go explore Oahu and its sights and cuisine. However, that means getting there from NH. There aren’t a lot of great ways to do that, with most every option involving either a long layover, multiple hops, or red-eye flights. Or a combination of these. Between that, and an actual snowstorm in Seattle (requiring us to wait almost an hour for what is apparently just the one deicing truck at SEA), we pulled into HNL at almost midnight. Luckily, we had known that our flight would be getting in relatively late, so that we decided that the easiest way to handle things would be to get a hotel room near the airport.

However, the area around the airport is not exactly a culinary hotbed of activity (and, quite frankly, most anything else, unless you have access to the nearby military bases). And that entire area seems to be filled with former restaurants all boarded up. But amongst the few options available, we did find one gem of a place: Joe’s Grill Express.

Joe’s Grill Express is in a fairly nondescript strip mall about a half mile East of the airport, and a short walk from either the Best Western (where we stayed) or the Alamo Rent-a-Car lot. Like a substantially large fraction of lower cost restaurants in Hawaii (typically these places are called “Drive Ins” or “Drive Inns”, despite not actually having drive-up service, although this usage isn’t unique to HI, I’ve seen in it New England as well), the decor is sparse and almost non-existent: you walk in the door, and there’s basically just an ordering window and a few tables (and the ever-present in HI cat statue for good luck). But what it lakes in ambiance, they more than make up for in quality and variety.

Hawaii is a culinary melting pot, with contributions coming from native Hawaiian cuisine, the mainland, Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, Korean and Filipino being the major contributors, and for a typical “drive in” establishment, it’s not unusual for a place to serve an odd fusion of all of these cuisines (you’ll see in this and following reviews that this is a common theme I’ll keep coming back to). In the case of Joe’s Grill Express, the major contribution is Filipino. So the menu here is a variety of plates with rice (like much of Hawaiian cuisine, rice is the major staple) and meat, and a variety of other breakfast foods as well (waffles, French toast, and pancakes) served all day. The meat choices are primarily Filipino, ranging from adobo pork, to longanisa (the ever-present “Portuguese Sausage” at so many Hawaiian place), to pork guisantes (a simmered mix of pork and peas).

Looking over the available options, one jumped out at both Carol and me: the adobo pork omelet with fried rice. A few minutes after ordering, it came out as a nice three-egg omelet stuffed with an ample portion of adobo pork, all over a bed of fried rice. And this was just about the perfect breakfast for recovering from a late-night flight and a five-hour jetlag shift. The omelet was cooked perfectly. The fried rice was nice and crispy and flavorful. And, most importantly, the adobo pork was absolutely delicious. Soft, tender, and juicy chunks of pork in a rich and spicy sauce with some rice garlic and pepper notes, I would have been thrilled with just the pork. But it combined perfectly with the fried rice and egg to make one of the more delicious breakfasts I’ve had recently, and a great way to start off our trip.

For what’s otherwise more than a bit of a culinary wasteland, Joe’s is a great little place that offers up a great breakfast, and is the perfect spot for arriving passengers to catch a meal before heading on to their destination. I’ll certainly consider coming back.

(And Offbeat Eats has now been to 29 states!)

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