California is currently enjoying a surge of Hawaiian restaurants, mostly of the poke persuasion. If you go back a few decades, aloha restaurants in the state were more like Matiki — places that served so-called “local food.” These restaurants are basically Polynesian BBQ joints serving hearty portions of flame-charred and pit-smoked meats alongside rice and macaroni salad.
Right down the street from Knott’s Berry Farm, Matiki is old-school “local food.” It captures the island flavors that Hawaiian transplants line up for. When you first walk into the busy little restaurant, you are welcomed with the sweet smell of charcoal-blackened meat. Matiki does a fine job with familiar proteins like teriyaki chicken, or kalbi (flanken cut short-ribs), but the star of the BBQ menu is whole beef ribs.
Although kalbi and beef short ribs are from the same bone, they make for very different BBQ. Kalbi has more meat, absorbs much more marinade, and gets more grill contact on its surface. There is a little band of tendon left around the cross cut of bone. Whole ribs are fattier, have a BBQ bark crusted around them and a touch of smoke imbued into the tender meat. These beef ribs have burnt ends and the fat is rendered to a soft gel. Eating them is a messy, animalistic experience.
For those who crave pit BBQ levels of smoke, we recommend the lau lau. It’s pork wrapped in taro leaves slow cooked in a pit oven. It comes bundled up like a little green baby swaddled in soggy leaves. When you cut open the leaves steam rises and fills the air with the exotic smell of sweet palm trees. Good lau lau isn’t easy to find outside of the islands, so this is a treat. While traditional lau lau has fish, Matiki Island’s is only pork and much more smoky than others we’ve had on the mainland.
Plate lunch comes with either a simple green salad dressed with sweet vinaigrette and black sesame seeds or a top notch mac salad. Get the latter. Sure, macaroni salad can be terrible. At worst, it’s overly sweet, made with textureless pasta, and swimming in mayonnaise. At Matiki, the mac is peppery more than sweet, the pasta has some life left, and the texture is enhanced by little chunks of potato. It’s a macaroni salad that you don’t have to grow up in Hawaii to appreciate.
In addition to BBQ plates, Matiki offers Manapua, which are basically char siu bao buns. Being a BBQ place, Matiki’s buns are much meatier than what you find at Chinese snack shops. They are a good add-on to plate lunch, but not entirely necessary. The portions are huge here, and Island BBQ, like all BBQ, is really filling. This is a meal to fuel tireless wave chasers or a full day of non-stop theme park exploration.