I can’t think of a place in America farther away from Berks County – both physically and culturally – than Hawaii.
Hawaii is a tropical paradise. Berks County sometimes gets hit with a tropical storm. Hawaii is a destination thanks to its pristine beaches. The “beaches” at Blue Marsh Lake just can’t compare.
So the last cuisine I expected to make its way to Berks County was poke bowls, the Hawaiian specialty dish usually consisting of seafood, rice, vegetables and sauce – think a deconstructed sushi roll.
But then Hawaii Kitchen opened in West Reading earlier this year and a piece of the islands arrived in Berks.
Hawaii Kitchen opened earlier this year in the former Petite Milan – a children’s clothing store – in the 500 block of Penn Avenue.
The restaurant is roomier than it looks from the outside. Despite the narrow footprint, Hawaii Kitchen packs in tables of two and four with an additional row of counter seats. It’s not the biggest dining room in West Reading, but it serves its purpose.
There were only a few others seated inside when we arrived on a recent Saturday night – Julie and I with little Jakob in tow. The restaurant’s owner fawned over Jakob when she saw him so I’ll give some bonus points there.
We ordered at the counter and grabbed a table for two at the front window.
The first item to arrive was my avocado salad. It was a simple salad with just three ingredients: mixed greens, avocado and sesame-ginger dressing. But it was absolutely delicious.
I loved the dressing. It was salty; it was a little sweet without the bitter aftertaste of a balsamic. And with the simplicity of the salad, it just worked. It was also more filling than I would have imagined for a side salad, mostly thanks to the avocado.
Our entrees arrived shortly thereafter. Julie was going to be the one to try a bowl, the avo-coco shrimp bowl, a summer special advertised on the restaurant’s Facebook page.
The bowl included mango, strawberry, pineapple, avocado and shrimp tossed in a coconut sauce. This is not a “traditional” poke, but Julie loved it.
Part fruit salad, part poke bowl, it was sweet and bright. Coconut and shrimp are always a winning combination, but the addition of the other fruits – including the avocado – added a little more flavor depth and really helped make it into a real meal. Julie was very surprised by how full she was after finishing it.
I skipped the bowl and went for the restaurant’s other specialty, the sushi burrito.
My first sushi burrito experience came courtesy of Hai Street Kitchen at the King of Prussia Mall. Hai Street has a few more than Hawaii Kitchen for its rolls, but the concept is the same: take sushi and supersize it to eat more like a burrito.
There are five sushi burritos on the menu – all but one of them are seafood based with shrimp, salmon, crab salad or a combination of the three. I skipped the fish and went with the vegetarian option instead.
My “burrito” included tofu, cucumber, avocado, spring mix and sweet chili sauce rolled in purple rice and seaweed wrap.
The purple rice made for great presentation but it was really just rice. And the first bite – mostly tofu and rice – was a bit disappointing. But the second bite hit home with the sweet chili sauce. Eventually all of the flavors started to mingle a little more and every bite was flavorful.
Tofu is mainly just filler, and that was fine with me. The other flavors – especially the delightful sweet chili sauce – were what really mattered.
Neither Julie nor I are experts in poke bowls, sushi or anything else on the menu at the Hawaii Kitchen, but we were both impressed with our meals. Though at $32 – with two bottles of iced tea included – I wouldn’t call it a bargain.
Still, we enjoyed it. And whether or not it was “authentic” doesn’t really matter to us. We liked it.
Also, it’s not like we’re going to Hawaii anytime soon so we’ll just enjoy what we have.
Service: Very Good
Ambiance: Very Good
510 Penn Ave
West Reading, PA 19611