Mama's Hawaiian Barbecue is one of those restaurants that I was really excited to check out.
Why? Well, Mama's is locally owned, and those local owners are trying something different—there aren't a whole lot of Hawaiian-barbecue joints in this dusty little burg.
Fortunately, the barbecue there didn't disappoint: The pork, the chicken, the beef and the mahi mahi were all tasty and affordable.
Unfortunately, almost everything else about Mama's did disappoint.
Before we move to the disappointments, though, let's discuss those barbecued meats. Mama's offers "plate lunches" with chicken (teriyaki or katsu, $6.99), beef teriyaki ($7.49), Kailua pork ($6.99), kalbi short ribs ($7.99) and mahi mahi ($8.49). Meat-lovers are advised to try the Big Kahuna plate, which comes with helpings of chicken teriyaki, beef teriyaki and the Kailua pork; non-meat-lovers can check out the teriyaki tofu ($6.99).
The chicken teriyaki was nothing special; however, it was pleasant—moist and not overwhelmed by the teriyaki. (Those who want to be overwhelmed can ask for extra sauce.) The mahi mahi was also moist and delicious; a hint of char added nicely to the flavor. The Kailua pork may not please everyone—the pulled pork tended a bit toward stringiness—but a subtle sweetness made it pleasing to the palate.
Then there's the beef teriyaki, which was something special: It's cut into small slices—the word "chips" comes to mind—and grilled to perfection. The preparation reminded me a bit of the pork you'd find with vermicelli at a nice Vietnamese restaurant. Yum.
Beyond those delectable meats ... there are the disappointments.
Let's start with the loco moco, a famous Hawaiian dish consisting of rice topped with a hamburger patty, a fried egg and brown gravy ($8.49). This could indeed be a delicious combination, but the version at Mama's consisted of the rice, the egg, a dry and largely flavorless hamburger patty, and congealed brown gravy that tasted like the stuff one would make using a packet from the grocery store. Not good.
That bought-at-Safeway vibe extends to the macaroni salad served (along with white rice) with all of the plate lunches; it also extends to the greens in the Hawaiian chicken salad ($6.99): Teriyaki chicken was served atop a romaine-lettuce mix complete with those annoying, flavorless carrot slivers. (I guess the inclusion of a few pineapple pieces and onions helped make it "Hawaiian.") The fact that all of the serving dishes and eating utensils are paper and plastic, respectfully, doesn't help, either.
The service was also unhelpful. At counter joints like Mama's, customer service is usually not much of an issue ... but let me share an anecdote from our second visit. We were the only customers in the restaurant on a Saturday evening, and a young woman was out wiping down tables and doing general cleanup. Someone shouted from the back that our order was ready (after we'd been waiting for 14 minutes; this was an improvement on the 19-minute wait we had on visit No. 1). She put down the cleaning supplies, walked behind the counter, picked up our trays with the food—without washing her hands—placed them on the counter and called our number. As if the order could have possibly belonged to any other customers.
Then there's the incident involving the guava cake ($2.99). It looked and tasted like a slightly fruity spice cake. The round cake—with just one slice missing—sat in the display case and looked mouth-watering; unfortunately, it was nearly mouth-damaging: The side and bottom of the slice were beyond dry; the word "hard" would be an appropriate descriptor.
The menu also includes a couple of types of wings ($6.99), Spam and eggs ($6.49) and a few sandwich items, including a hamburger ($6.99) and an island burger ($7.99). What's the difference between the two burgers, I asked? "The Hawaiian one has pineapple," the young woman at the counter replied.
"Otherwise, they're the same?"
"Yeah, exactly the same."
We decided to go with the normal hamburger. It was merely OK—again, the hamburger patty wasn't very flavorful.
Mama's is located in an old Yokohama Rice Bowl—and it still has that Yokohama Rice Bowl look. However, the surfboard art, the numerous bamboo plants and the TV are all nice touches.
So, there's potential here. The concept is fairly unique, as far as Tucson goes, and the stuff in the restaurant's name—Hawaiian barbecue—is pretty damned good, so the core is strong.
But all the stuff around that core—the sides, the service, the awareness of what's going on the plates—needs some serious work.