Chicken kelaguen served over scoops of both red and white rice
We’re driving south on Broadway when we spot it: a simple, boxy storefront with a banner sign and cartoon graphic depicting a spiky haired toddler in an aloha shirt. Usually, when I’m in this part of Chula Vista, I’m out for killer Mexican food, either Tacos El Gordo or Aqui Es Texcoco. But this time we’re hunting down JJ’s Island Grindz, a homey restaurant promising poke bowls, sushi, and island BBQ.
836 Broadway, Chula Vista
We’re particularly interested in that Pacific islander BBQ. I’ve found a growing number of restaurants serving it, scattered around the county, and in seeking them out, I’ve acquired quite the taste for its distinctive combinations of salty, sweet, and sour flavors and the macaroni salad that usually accompanies it.
Huli huli chicken, a Hawaiian grilled classic
JJ’s menu shows well in both regards, assembling a large, scratch menu bolstered by a sort of pan-oceanic inclusivity. The guys behind the restaurant are ethnically Chommoran, specifically Guamanian, so as expected, we find chicken kelaguen, and beef sirloin and shrimp versions. But JJ and co. supplement these offerings with Filipino fare (lumpia), Hawaiian dishes (kalua pork and loco moco), and Japanese staples (katsudon and karaage). We’re even offered a table sauce credited to the Mariana Islands: finadene, a condiment blend of soy sauce, vinegar, chili spice, and onions, in this case green onions.
Beef lumpia, served with a purple orchid
That sauce seems to go well with everything, beginning with an appetizer of beef lumpia (six for $7), served with a sweet-and-sour dipping sauce on a plate dressed with a purple orchid.
The flower pretties up the chicken kelaguen ($9) as well. When I order, our server checks to make sure we understand that it’s a dish served cold — apparently a few customers unfamiliar with Guam’s signature dish are caught by surprise. The grilled chicken dish verges on ceviche: served chilled and finely chopped, flavored with lemon juice, grated coconut, and crushed chili flakes. All at once, it’s smoky, salty, and sour. Served here with a choice of white or red rice (or a scoop of each), it’s not nearly as challenging a flavor profile as it sounds, though if you haven’t tried it you probably haven’t tried anything like it.
This distinctive chicken alone makes a visit to JJ’s, though we weren’t done exploring. A no-brainer was the Hawaiian combo plate. For one we needed a macaroni salad fix, and JJ’s is built to satisfy, with the right amount of mayo. But it’s just tough to walk out of a place that serves kalua pork without trying it. The succulent pulled pork is right on the money, smoky and salty, with that hit of tang that gives BBQ pork allure regardless which cultural interpretation you try.
The combo ($17) features huli huli chicken, another Hawaiian dish that takes its cues from teriyaki chicken. Somehow, the grilled leg and thigh pieces on our shared plate were finished before the pork. Something about the sweet marinade made them irresistible. Especially given a little added bite thanks to that finadene sauce.
A pleasant crew and a spacious enclosed dining patio contribute to the quality of JJ’s Island Grindz, but when I go back, it’ll be for the grindz most of all. It’s some of the most enjoyable islander food this haole has found in San Diego.