My sister, Cassie, hates Hawaiian food — or, at least, she did until this past week.

She described it as greasy, with fatty, carelessly cut meats (or semimeats like Spam) and a general lack of freshness that she found disappointing on the occasions she's tried Hawaiian in Los Angeles, where she lives.

Well, maybe Utah-Hawaiian food is different. After a recent lunch at Salt Lake's Tiki Hawaiian BBQ, Cassie had this to say: "I was very pleasantly surprised."

In these parts, where our vibrant local Polynesian culture makes for a raft of tropical eatery choices, people know what to expect from islands-influenced food, so maybe they have higher standards. Tiki meets the highest expectations with its friendly, helpful service and fresh, tasty dishes made to order.

On the day we visited for a late weekday lunch, the dining area was clean and welcoming, with basic tables and chairs and sponge-painted walls festooned with tropic-themed prints.

I knew as soon as I saw it on the menu that we had to have otai, a delicious milky-white blend of coconut cream, grated coconut, grated pineapple and diced mango. If you've never tried this traditional Tongan beverage, which is like drinking a fruit salad (chewing will be involved; it's chunky), get on down to Tiki for a cup.

I like how Tiki does its meals for kids (or keiki, as they're called here): Diners simply choose a kid-size portion of the regular menu items. The kids enjoyed dark-marinated chicken teriyaki and crisp, panko-breaded chicken katsu, along with the obligatory scoops of mac salad and fresh, tender sticky rice.

As an appetizer, Cassie and I shared the lomi lomi salmon. This cross between sashimi and salad features bites of salty, soy-marinated raw salmon tossed in "Hawaiian-style salsa," diced tomatoes, red onions and green onions. It's deliciously salty, fishy and fresh.

For lunch, Cass selected from one side of Tiki's menu, I from another. She had the "island favorite" Fiju curry, a stewlike melange of lean chicken, cauliflower, carrots and squash in a light-green, herb-sprinkled sauce that's just slightly curried with a finishing hint of spice.

I chose a two-item meal from the plate lunch side of the menu, picking kalua pork and mahi mahi from a nine-item list that also includes tonkatsu (breaded pork filet), beef short ribs and lau lau (pork wrapped in taro leaves). The kalua pork was lean, moist and tender, simply flavored with a full, smoky finish. I liked it very much but loved the mahi mahi, flaky and filling with a hint of lemon in each crisp, panko-breaded bite. They came with a nice tartar sauce that I didn't eat (beyond a taste in the name of journalistic accuracy) because the fish was so fine on its own.

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For dessert, we wanted to try the guava cake or ono strawberry cake, but they were still being prepared (we did arrive exactly between the usual lunch and dinner hours). Instead, we had pani popo, yellow loaf cake in smooth coconut sauce, and some creamy "tiki shakes," a mango that tasted more of coconut than its namesake flavor and a tangy, refreshing pineapple, which we sipped as we left to take Cassie to the airport, still discussing her surprise at what Hawaiian food can be in the right hands.

Plates, (one to three items with steamed rice and macaroni salad) $5.99-$7.99; island favorites, $1.95-$6.45; burgers, $4.65-$5.89; sides, 49 cents-$1.39; otai and shakes, $2.99-$3.29; desserts, $1.35-$2.25.

Rating: ***

Where: 1465 S. State

Hours: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.

Closed Sunday

Payment: Checks, major credit cards accepted

Phone: 487-6269


Wheelchair access: Easy at the restaurant, but a rampless sidewalk outside complicates handicapped access from the parking lot.

Stacey Kratz is a freelance writer who reviews restaurants for the Deseret Morning News. E-mail: