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Grass Shack Cafe is your tasty trip to the islands

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Kalua pork is one of several proteins served as “plates” with rice and macaroni and potato salads at Grass Shack Cafe. Photo by Sarah Lemon.
The passionfruit bar is Grass Shack Cafe’s take on a classic lemon bar. Photo by Sarah Lemon.
Taro root fries come with housemade mango-coconut dipping sauce at Grass Shack Cafe in Phoenix. Photo by Sarah Lemon.
Iced teas come in several tropical flavors at Grass Shack Cafe in Phoenix. Photo by Sarah Lemon.
A hearty slab of grilled tofu tops yakisoba at Grass Shack Cafe in Phoenix. Photo by Sarah Lemon.
Yakisoba incorporates a variety of grilled vegetables at Grass Shack Cafe in Phoenix. Photo by Sarah Lemon.

More than 20 years since Noho’s Hawaiian Cafe brought a taste of aloha to the region, a wave of island fare has followed.

Fans of Pacific Island cuisine have more choices that ever before at no fewer than a half-dozen establishments, not to mention several food trucks and drive-up stands. One of the early arrivals on the local scene, Grass Shack Cafe continues to anchor The Shoppes at Exit 24 and plays a key role in Phoenix.

Open since 2010, Grass Shack serves authentic Hawaiian “plate lunch,” available during the coronavirus pandemic for takeout or consumption on its pleasant patio. This particular brand of comfort food — judging from copious to-go orders carried out on a recent weeknight — commands a significant following. Clearly, Grass Shack’s food transcends the kitschy island decor of its dining room.

The prospect of dining outside pleased me and my partner on an unseasonably warm spring evening. Grass Shack’s accommodation is both discreet — tucked into the strip mall’s back corner — as it is spacious for social distancing. The only dine-in customers, we had this sweet spot to ourselves.

Sweets arrived to our table before the appetizer and main courses. The special passionfruit bar ($4.50) — like a lemon bar, just made with Hawaii’s beloved “lilikoi” — could not be passed up, although we exercised enough restraint to set it aside for dessert.

I was a tad disappointed the tropical fruit bowl, combining passionfruit pulp and coconut pudding (“haupia”), was not available. Perhaps if someone had requested the traditional luau spread, the restaurant would have a batch of haupia on hand. Acknowledging the perishability of certain ingredients, including salmon, Grass Shack requires a week’s notice to prepare some of its menu items.

Customers also are encouraged to call ahead for poke, musubi and “seafood Fridays.” The catch of the day, at market price, is available some Saturdays, depending on demand.

Steady demand for kalua pork, teriyaki beef and “ono” chicken warrants serving the proteins several ways — typically with steamed rice and other starchy sides — and at several price points, from $7 to $11. For vegetarians or anyone unprepared for the prevalence of meat in Hawaiian cuisine, there are a couple of tofu options, as well as several health-conscious substitutions, including green salad and brown rice for an extra fee.

Tofu sounded just right with Grass Shack’s yakisoba ($10). The Asian-inspired noodle dish tossed with teriyaki sauce and sautéed vegetables also can be ordered with chicken thigh, chicken breast or beef for a slight price increase of 50 to 95 cents.

Plant-based preferences aside, I upheld the kalua pork ($11) plate’s appeal for my partner’s benefit but also so I could sample the succulent, shredded pork shoulder with its indispensable macaroni salad accompaniment. The kitchen’s willingness to furnish a little potato salad with the macaroni, instead of specifying one, suited both our tastes. And I reveled in confirmation that Grass Shack’s “ono” sauce — a salty-sweet elixir with hints of sesame and chile — was served on the side.

The prospect of mango-coconut sauce for dipping “kalo” fries compelled us to tack on an appetizer. Made from Hawaii’s ubiquitous taro root, the fries ($4.50) are much more enticing to the average mainlander than the purple staple known as poi. And these managed to deliver on the crispy, salty front while being a tad chewier, but less greasy, than potatoes.

The fries’ accompanying sauce enhanced almost everything it touched, notably the kalua pork and rice. As expected, portions were large and flavors mild, excepting garlic powder’s prominence in the macaroni salad.

As my partner murmured his appreciation, I mused that — for the uninitiated — Hawaiian food looks a lot like Southern barbecue with its flamed-kissed, slow-roasted meats, creamy side salads and sweet tea. Complementing Grass Shack’s kalua pork are St. Louis style ribs ($11). Just substitute a slab of white bread for the rice, and diners could imagine themselves at a Texas roadhouse.

Make that Japan if the dish is Grass Shack’s special chicken katsu or the yakisoba. Vegetables and noodles in equal ratio were topped with a slab of tofu doubling for a deck of cards in its dimensions. Its exterior nicely marked on the grill, the tofu remained silky and soft inside. Sweet teriyaki sauce almost superfluous on my palate, this was quite likely the best tofu I’ve ever had in a restaurant.

And I may have to temper my enthusiasm for lemon bars after tasting Grass Shack’s passionfruit recipe. Sweet-tart with a subtle floral note, the bar had a dense but luscious texture, reminiscent of a good cheesecake, and slightly caramelized surface. I almost reluctantly had to admit this iteration improved on the classic.

Ginger and lemongrass were flavors I missed in Grass Shack’s iced tea ($2). I detected neither and regretted ordering the beverage, believing it would be less sweet than pineapple or passionfruit. In reality, the pineapple iced tea my partner selected had a superior, bright, fruity body while the ginger-lemongrass brew was muddied.

Beer and wine service at Grass Shack have been suspended during the pandemic. But there’s no shortage of aloha at this ambassador of the islands.

Located at 205 Fern Valley Road, Grass Shack Cafe is open from noon to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Call 541-512-8969 or see grassshackcafe.com. Delivery is available through Grubhub.

Tempo Tidbits

Customers of Ashland’s Standing Stone Brewing Company can support local fire relief when they order a specialty cocktail.

Sales of the “Phoenix rising paloma” benefit United Way of Jackson County’s “United Together” campaign, which has raised more than $3.1 million since December for victims of September’s Almeda and South Obenchain fires. From every cocktail purchased, Standing Stone donates $2 to United Way’s Fire Relief Program that has benefited 780 individuals, families and businesses through its application process. United Way used additional funds to provide more than 300,000 meals, to date, to displaced people.

“It is through these kinds of efforts that we all come together to help thousands to find permanent, safe and secure housing,” said United Way Chief Executive Officer Dee Anne Everson. “Standing Stone represents what community is all about.”

Standing Stone manager Elisha Lewis acknowledged the community still needs help, although months have passed since the devastating fires. “Standing Stone has always done what we could to help our local community, and we are grateful to be able to provide a platform where we can raise funds to continue to do so.”

Created by restaurant bar manager Noah Edwards, the “Phoenix rising paloma” is available to order on the patio at Standing Stone, 101 Oak St.See standingstonebrewing.com or call 541-482-2448.

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Treat Mom to gift boxes of locally made goodies and artisan products for a day of pampering.

The “Out of this World” box from Ashland’s Luna Cafe and Mercantile combines the edible indulgence of Mamma Bella biscotti, Oregon Puddle Chocolate and an Endangered Species chocolate bar, paired with a split of Freixenet cava. Luna adds a Seagrape Apothecary “deep light” candle and all-natural bath and body soap, plus matches and a Michelle Michael sticker to highlight Mother’s Day.

Each box costs $40. Preorder online at lunacafeashland.com/mothers-day-gift-box/ for pickup from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. May 8 or 9 at Luna, 2525 Ashland St.

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Rogue Creamery marries savory, salty, crunchy and creamy specialties in a “Moo-ther’s Day” gift pack for delivery to Mom’s doorstep.

An 8-ounce block of the Creamery’s Cheese is Love Cheddar and 6.5-ounce portions of organic Bluehorn and Oregon blues complement a Buddha Chocolate rose and sea salt bar, Effie’s Original Oatcakes and Jacobsen Co. honey sticks.

The Central Point-based Creamery matches the purchase of Cheese is Love Cheddar with a donation to local nonprofits. See roguecreamery.com/CHEESEISLOVE/

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Have a Tempo tidbit to share? Email news about the local dining, food and beverage scene to: thewholedish@gmail.com

Priced at $70, the box can be purchased at roguecreamery.com/product/moothers-day-gift/

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Sarah Lemon has relished the Rogue Valley’s dining scene for nearly two decades as one of the original contributors to Tempo’s dining column. Her palate has helped to judge some of the region’s culinary competitions and festivals. The former editor of A la Carte, the Mail Tribune’s weekly food section, she writes a biweekly column, The Whole Dish, and blogs and podcasts under the same name. Listen at mailtribune.com/podcasts and read more at mailtribune.com/lifestyle/the-whole-dish. Follow @the.whole. dish on Instagram, @thewholedish on Twitter or see facebook.com/thewholedish.