They have one or two fish offerings -- wouldn't you expect more from ocean-surrounded Guam? -- like the grilled mackerel with ponzu sauce ($11.25), plus a $14.25 Hawaiian combo, with huli huli chicken, kalua pig, macaroni salad, and white rice. I'm told it's worth it for the macaroni. "Mama Mila," who's Filipino and the mom of one of the owners, Gary, apparently puts pineapple, apples, and cheddar in it.
But if you want to sample what the Chamorros eat, there's no contest: the Chamorro combo includes four Guamanian dishes -- Uncle Frank's pork ribs, chicken kelaguen, Grandma Rosie's potato salad, and red rice. It's $14.25. Add three dollars if you want beef or shrimp kelaguen instead of chicken.
Uncle Frank turns out to be one of the founding fathers of the restaurant. "Everybody goes for his ribs," says Jessica. So I order the combo. Hank orders sushi, an ahi poké (basically tuna in seaweed, $6.75), a crab hand roll ($4), and a spicy scallop ($4).
My order arrives first, a plate of way-big ribs (four), with potato salad and "red" rice -- it actually looks orange -- and a green-flecked pile of chicken kelaguen. They also have a cucumber salad.
"That came real quick," I say to Hank.
"That's because they know most people are going to order it," he says.
The ribs have a smoky, slightly sweet (and is that lemony?) tang to them. What's delicious is the blackening. (I run across Uncle Frank himself later, and of course, he says that the recipe's a secret. "But it's all worked around garlic, lemon juice, slow cooking.")
The chicken kelaguen is a nice counterbalance. At first taste, you'd swear this was a shrimp ceviche. The chopped-up chicken has green onions, peppers, and shredded coconut, sharp and light against the ribs.
"Okay, this is the other Chamorro thing you've got to add," Jessica says. She slides across a little sauce-pot. "Finadene." She says it "Fee-na-DAY-nay." "National sauce of Guam, and that's official. They put it on everything, just about. But take it easy."
Ho boy. She's right. I dipped the end of a rib in it. Didn't think it helped the rib's flavor, which was good enough on its own, but it burned the heck out of my buccal cavity. I bet that's what Uncle Frank marinates his ribs in. Ellis tells me the sauce is made of lemon juice, peppers, scallions, and soy sauce. You can see Spain in a lot of this. Three hundred years' occupation doesn't disappear without a gastronomic trace. To a probable taro-and-fish diet the Spaniards added hot peppers and corn (from their Mexico territory), tortillas, for sure, and probably better chickens, domesticated pigs, even rice. And what about this ceviche wannabe, kelaguen? (It tastes even more ceviche-like when I come back a few days later and have the shrimp kelaguen.)
Then there's achiote, the seed of the annatto tree. Very Spanish. That's what makes the rice red -- well, orange. It's supposed to add a subtle flavor, but I think color's the big deal here. There's garlic in the mix, too, and I can taste it.
My little burn sent me to the naked rice first, but after a while, adding some finadene to it makes the rice interesting. The cucumber salad is a good cooler, too. It's bathed in a vinaigrette. Oh, and "Grandma Rosie's potato salad" tempers everything nicely. I think she's Uncle Frank's wife. I don't taste anything radically Chamorro, but Grandma Rosie knows her stuff. She's put in black olives, pimientos, relish, and egg. It's a meal in itself.
Hank says they don't have any of Guam's famous stews, like kadon pika, spicy stewed chicken leg quarters, or the milder Estafao manok. But why would he worry? He first came here because of the Japanese-sounding name ("Yokozuna's Sushi Bar--" -- he blanked on the "& Islander Grill" part). As usual, he's on a sushi search.
He loves the ahi poké, nestled pink in there under the floppy seaweed and sesame seeds, and over sliced, marinated cucumber. Hank then digs into a huge scrumbo pile of "dynamite" green-lip mussels, baked in that weirdly French-tasting white sauce the Japanese make. He asked for the hand rolls to be made without rice, to cut down on the carbs, and they obliged with big flutes of pinky chopped-up crab and mixed spicy scallop. "I like it better if they don't chop the meat up," he says. "Then you get its full tenderness and flavor. But this tastes fresh, and they filled the whole roll with the meat. They didn't have to do that. I'm not complaining."
A big party has filled one of the long tables near Lee Ann Kim's pic. The girls bustle about in their flower-flapping pareus. That's the thing. People look as if they're enjoying themselves. The point is, yes, it's sushi, yes, it's Guam, but most of all it's pan-Pacific, where partying is a way of life and generous servings of whatever is the most important virtue. We're not talking nouvelle cuisine with a micro-dot of food on a big white plate. If you even see the plate here, there's something wrong. I come back a couple more times after this visit. First time, I desperately want try something new but get sucked into that Chamorro combo again, just 'cause of Uncle Frank's addictive ribs.
Next visit, I'm determined to get something for the patient Carla, so I order her kalua pig (Hawaiian all the way, $9.25) and an "Islander Sampler Platter" ($10.25), which has two nice, standard lumpia; two empanadas (achiote-stained masa shells filled with a spicy chicken purée); two delicious shrimp patties, with flavors that make you think "kelaguen"; and four teriyaki chicken wings. Pretty good deal for $10.25.
The kalua pig is smoked and slow-roasted in ti leaf "for eight hours," they promise -- different from the Chamorro way of maybe two hours' barbecuing. I think I preferred Uncle Frank's ribs.
The day here, with Hank, I run out of steam, and of space. Hank helps me out with the ribs, and the cucumber salad, and the chicken kelaguen, till even he's sated.