Grass Shack Cafe

Adecade after Noho's brought a taste of the islands to Medford, the local tide of Hawaiian food continues to rise.

Following Noho's 2007 installation of an annex on Table Rock Road, Ashland's Red Hibiscus added dinner hours, a new Phoenix eatery is serving authentic "plate lunch" and still another Hawaiian-themed cafe is on downtown Medford's horizon.

A weekend visit with my mom, a devoted fan of plate lunch, provided an ideal occasion to visit Grass Shack Cafe. The restaurant opened about a month ago in The Shoppes at Exit 24, the former site of Country Cottage Cafe.

A few generic eateries have populated this shopping complex over the years, but Grass Shack supplies more than mere convenience with its home-style cuisine and pleasant patio setting. The price is right, too, with most menu items in the $7 range.

The business was born in a Tualatin-based food trailer, which apparently ran its course as the owners longed to return to Hawaii. They changed their minds, opting to remain on the mainland when they saw advertisements to lease space at the Phoenix shopping center. At Grass Shack, they've achieved the ambiance of so many island diners with nondescript tables and chairs, accented with a few woven palm fronds and just a dash of island kitsch.

A half-dozen special menu items were advertised on a recent Saturday afternoon in addition to eight plates and a handful of island novelties, some available according to the day of the week, others by advance order. I considered the "chicken long rice," the pidgin contraction for rice noodles in broth ($7.50). But Mom lobbied for the chicken and sweet potato curry ($7.50) so she could steal a taste.

It was a forgone conclusion she'd choose the kalua pork plate ($9.50) with its accompaniments of macaroni salad, rice and shredded cabbage. I wanted to taste hers, too, but dutifully ordered my own macaroni salad ($1) so we wouldn't squabble over this beloved side dish. We also tacked on homemade pineapple iced tea ($1.50) and a single order of haupia ($2.50), a traditional coconut pudding, for dessert.

For those unfamiliar with Hawaiian food, don't come expecting summery salads arrayed in fresh fruit or seafood. Real island cuisine relies on meat and carbohydrates, rather than attractive plating or pretense. Lunch is intended as a stick-to-your-ribs meal, and Grass Shack delivers.

Most items come on paper plates with plastic cutlery, but the curry was served atop white rice in a sturdy melamine bowl with a flat-bottomed soup spoon. Although flavored with coconut milk, the curry was much milder than versions at local Thai eateries. What it lacked in spice, though, it compensated with rich, meaty flavor.

The chicken was obviously stewed on the bone, resulting in a succulent texture rather than the mealy consistency of frozen, ice-glazed chicken breasts that compose so many restaurant dishes. I would have preferred the potatoes a little more firm; these fairly dissolved into the curry.

Mom pointed out that Hawaiian snack shacks usually supply myriad condiments so customers from the islands' various ethnic groups can season food to their liking. Craving more salt, she grabbed a couple cups of "Aunt Betty's Ono Sauce" for her pork. If you don't know, "ono" means "delicious," and this teriyaki-like sauce certainly is. The restaurant sells pint containers to go.

Without condiments, the slow-roasted pork, like the curry, is characteristically bland but satisfying. Ditto for the macaroni salad, which is dressed with little but plain mayonnaise. Mom approved of the rice's sticky texture, perfect for absorbing the ono sauce. Brown rice can be substituted for an additional dollar, the same fee to swap green salad for macaroni.

The only disappointing item was the haupia, which lacked the sweetness of coconut and rested heavy on the palate, like it had been thickened with corn starch instead of gelatin. For another 25 cents, we could have had cheesecake drizzled with syrup and garnished with tropical fruit.

The restaurant's patio could accommodate more than a dozen guests for a low-key luau. With advance reservations, Grass Shack will cook up a Saturday feast of kalua pig, lomi salmon, chicken long rice, haupia and even the sticky staple poi for $15 per person.

Fridays feature a special "catch of the sea." Available anytime is the platter of over-easy eggs, hamburger patties, rice and brown gravy known as "loco moco."

— Sarah Lemon

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