The new Ono Grindz brings a little bite of paradise to Las Cruces, complete with pineapple sauce and Elvis.
To experience Ono Grindz, the new Hawaiian and Pacific Rim restaurant in Las Cruces' Downtown Mall, is to take a short mental trip to Honolulu — the old Honolulu. From the Aloha! greeting at the door and sweet strains of slack-key guitar in the air, the casual eatery invites with the genuine spirit of Hawaiian hospitality, delivering authentic island cuisine.
The walls and ceiling are gaily painted in bold, rich colors that are somehow in tune with its New Mexico locale while evoking the flavor of the tropics. A huge, colorful Hawaiian map on one wall is surrounded by old photos depicting the grace and ease of Honolulu's slower-paced days.
In the back room hang old black-and-white photos of authentic hula dancing, a picture of Elvis on the islands when he returned from military service, a couple of the owners' ukuleles and nostalgic posters from a bygone Hawaii. A 100-year-old fishing net, handcrafted by an island man, adorns the back wall where waiters call out their orders to chefs in the semi-open kitchen. Chef-owner Rachel Faulkner's own surfboard hangs from the ceiling near the cash register.
The soothingly hypnotic island atmosphere, so cleverly and completely done, does much to enhance the luncheonette-style furnishings — simple but comfortable metal chair and tables. Charming images of comical, colorful fish brighten the practical, heavy-plastic tablecloths.
Ono Grindz — Hawaiian slang that roughly translates as "kickass eats" — serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Entree prices top out at $8.95, offering locals a middle ground between fast food and fine dining. Take-out is popular, and a steady stream of local regulars is popping in to pick up to-go orders as our party hunkers down for lunch.
We order a round of iced teas and find the mango version to be pleasantly sweet, needing no added sugar, and very refreshing. Our server mentions the two special spring roll appetizers today, one vegetarian and the other with pork. We order a round of vegetarian ones and pore over the menu.
Three entree salads are offered at both lunch and dinner: the Island Salad ($7), a standard shrimp Caesar ($8) and a Calamari Spinach Orange Salad ($8). The calamari fanatic among us orders that one.
Mixed Plates come with rice and macaroni salad (a trip to Kaua'i last year confirms that this love of carbs is authentically Hawaiian) and one to three choices ($7, $8, $9) from beef, chicken and pork options. One of us chooses the Mixed Plate with garlicky Mocchico chicken while another decides to go for it and orders three options: beef short ribs, Hawaiian barbeque chicken and Kailua-style pork with cabbage.
The sandwich section includes a range of burgers, including the Island Burger ($6), a seasoned, grilled beef patty served with a pineapple slice, the Terriyaki Burger ($6), and the mahi mahi burger ($6.50), which is a grilled filet — not a beef patty — dressed with pineapple sauce. Sandwiches come with waffle-cut, sweet potato or zucchini fries or a side salad.
We choose the fish tacos, also made with mahi mahi, with the side green salad.
The deep-fried spring rolls arrive steaming hot nearly as soon as we are finished ordering our entrees. We let them cool a bit before trying them in the sweet-and-sour dipping sauce. For fried rolls, they are amazingly fresh tasting, loaded with cabbage and carrots, and perhaps some fresh cilantro.
Soon after our appetites are whetted with the spring rolls, our meals arrive.
Ms. Calamari is thrilled with her salad. The octopus is crisp, not greasy, on its bed of fresh spinach. A touch of fresh red onion livens the mix, dressed with homemade orange dressing and topped with pine nuts.
The Mixed Plates are appetizing and ample. The garlicky Mocchico chicken is tender and juicy. The beef short ribs are succulent, the Hawaiian barbeque chicken is sweet and the Kailua pork with cabbage delivers tasty down-home island satisfaction. The rice and macaroni salad sides prove to be more carbs than this crowd wants, but are a nice complement.
The open-face fish tacos arrive in a paper-lined basket, reminiscent of a fish-and-chips presentation, with plenty of shredded lettuce. The mahi mahi, however, is a disappointment — breaded and fried, then chopped into chunks. Though there's an ample amount of fish, we had anticipated a grilled filet, the same as the mahi mahi burger. The delicious side of pineapple-and-fresh-jalapeno salsa, however, saves the day. The generous side salad — crisp lettuce, diced red bell peppers, pineapple chunks and citrus dressing, topped with macadamia nuts — is delicious, fresh and served up in a cheerful, colorful bowl in the shape of a fish.
Our server presents our options for dessert, among them the "Lava Cake," which he describes as "a chocolate cake with red sauce all over it." Mr. Three-option Mixed Plate cries "no room!" but the rest of us order a slice of mango-passion fruit cheesecake to share. It arrives plated, atop a pineapple-sauce drizzle, on a beautiful palm-leaf-shaped dish. The dense cheesecake is lightened by the lemony tang and subtly sweet mango flavor.
Ono Grindz' Saturday breakfast menu also says "authentic Hawaiian." The Local Breakfast ($7) comes with rice, two eggs, Portuguese sausage and Spam — yes, Spam. The canned meat, introduced to the islands during WWII, has become a staple food in the land of aloha, perhaps because of how well it goes with a pineapple slice. Breakfast customers can also order banana-macadamia nut pancakes ($7), peach pancakes with a side of eggs and meat ($8), omelets ($8) and Eggs Benedict, served on a slab of cornbread ($8.50). For folks looking to keep it simple, there's granola with yogurt ($6). The coffee is genuine Kona, of course.
Whether for breakfast, lunch or dinner, and no matter what you choose, expect Ono Grindz' authentic Hawaiian fare to thrill your taste buds in an atmosphere that charms all your other senses.
— Donna Clayton Lawder
300 N. Downtown Mall, 541-7492. 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 4-8 p.m., Mon-Fri.;
8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sat.; closed Sunday. Cash, checks and credit cards accepted.