It’s been at least six or seven years ago since I was last at The Royal Hawaiian. It had closed for some time, but now, Chef Maro Molteni (of Maro’s Wood Grill fame) has taken over the space, and I was very interested to see what he’s done to the place. In all fairness, I miss the food those days of living on Oahu.
As I drove down PCH, images of the old tiki bar interior flashed through my mind, so I had no expectations when I arrived. I stepped through the front doors to find the brown hues eschewed, and in its place, a modern, deep royal blue running throughout the dining room and bar. I stood mouth agape at the transformation, from the bamboo discs, to the tropical lampshades that hung from the ceilings, that THIS is The Royal Hawaiian today.
It was happy hour, and The Royal Hawaiian Lapu Lapu ($16/$12 happy hour) was calling our name. Chef Maro tells me it is the original recipe, with Bacardi white rum, Appleton rum, fresh juices, and Myers’ rum floated over shaved Hawaiian ice. I had several sips because it is just simply, too easy to drink. Naturally, It went straight to my head before the food arrived. Later, the bartender revealed there were four ounces of alcohol in the glass, so be careful!
The happy hour menu sported Lemony Herb Grilled Shrimp ($5) and we were eager to partake in these delicious grilled shrimp. They were perfect on their own, but there is a side of Sriracha aioli if you want something extra.
If you’ve been to Maro Wood Grill, you’ll know that one of Maro’s signatures is the Daily Crafted Empanadas ($14/3pc/ $7/2pc happy hour). The fillings change daily — my favorites were the beef, and the mushroom.
My eyes darted immediately to Hawaiian Style Ahi Poke ($18/$10 happy hour), and I was happy to see Maro keeping this truly an island-style poke. The spicy soy marinade is ideal for the chunks of fresh wild ahi tuna. Throw in some scallions, minced red onions, ginger, and the result is an unadulterated, very authentic, Hawaiian poke. The sweet potato chips were a perfect touch for this appetizer.
If you know me, you’ll know that I am obsessed with octopus, therefore, Hidden Cove Grilled Octopus ($21) was a must. The octopus tentacle itself was perfection in both taste and texture. The accroutrements of baby tomatoes, peanut and pepper dressing, baby Romano lettuce, smoked red bell peppers, fresh citrus tomato basil salad, and charred pearl onions, balsamic vinaigrette all melded together to create the ideal mouthful. I was extremely happy with how well-executed this dish was even though it is not remotely Hawaiian.
Of course, anyone who knows Maro will know that he will find a way to incorporate his Argentinean heritage into his menu. Mesquite Grilled Sausage Caracol ($16) is a piquant sausage that pairs perfectly with grilled peppers, sweet potato puree, roasted Peewee potatoes, charred onions, okra, and house-made chimichurri sauce. The mesquite adds a level of glorious smokiness to the plate.
I was anticipating the Kalua Pork ($29) because most in OC are rather mediocre at best. I was a little skeptical when I saw pineapple fried rice on the menu, but kept an open mind. The pork was kissed with smokiness and oh so tender. It is one of the best renditions of kalua pork I’ve had in OC. The pineapple fried rice was surprisingly good, not sweet like I’d expected, but possessed a slight tartness, which balanced out the richness of the pork. I would come back for this in a heartbeat.
We asked Maro to suggest another entree, and he picked Grilled Top Sirloin Cap Steak ($36), a 14oz Creekstone Farm Angus cap steak grilled on Maro’s special wood grill. I’d have to admit, this man seriously knows how to cook meat. Cutting into the thick cap and finding it a perfect medium rare is utter pleasure, and the beef texture is absolutely insane. I love a piece of meat where I can still chew, but isn’t chewy — if that makes sense — but most importantly, correctly seasoned. Maro has successfully achieved everything on my steak checklist, and more!
If you’re vegetarian, The Local Farms’ Selections on the Grill ($22) is a platter of seasonal vegetables fired on the mesquite grill. The carrots’ natural sweetness is enhanced, while other less poignantly flavored vegetables are enveloped with an added layer of character. I especially enjoyed the asparagus and shishito peppers.
While we thoroughly enjoyed the meal, currently, the menu at The Royal Hawaiian leans heavily towards Maro’s Argentinean roots. I was a little sad that there weren’t more Hawaiian dishes, but I look forward to coming back for Lomi Lomi Salmon, and other island dishes coming soon to the menu. Still, good food is good food, and Maro’s cuisine is stellar, even if it’s not terribly Hawaiian yet.
The Royal Hawaiian
331 N Coast Hwy
Laguna Beach, CA 92651