By Coty Dolores Miranda
A touch of Hawaii came to Ahwatukee a little over a month ago as Gilbert resident Keith Lawler opened Moku Hawaiian Grill – quickly generating a rush of business that has gobsmacked the four owners/partners.
Lawler, an amiable 42-year-old Hawaiian native whose Hawaiian/Chinese ancestors have called Oahu home for generations, said, “We’ve been open since June 14 but it seems like forever, we’ve been so busy.”
“But there’s no complaining,” he added. “I’m happy. We’ve got problems, but they’re good problems.”
In other words, “No Worries” – the very phrase that graced the Opening Soon banner over their door as Lawther and his New Zealand partners Graeme Flexman and his sons Joseph and Mike Flexman put in the months of work to get the Hawaiian-style plate meals eatery ready to greet locals.
Getting the casual eatery ready to open took nearly a year as the partners signed the lease agreement on the storefront at 4302 E. Ray Road in the summer of 2018.
“We were looking for a great location and this came available and we loved it. But we had to wait on the former tenants to leave, and then we had lots of work to do,” said Lawther, grinning at what he admitted was an understatement.
Anyone who’s enjoyed plate meals in Hawaii knows there is a mouth-watering, heaping helping of goodness served with various meats like Kalua pork or the dry-rubbed Pulehu chicken, white or brown rice, and scoops of sides like macaroni salad or kimchee salad.
But if you’re looking for the Ono Grindz – well-touted on their webpage or social media – don’t be looking for a sandwich or meal. In Hawaiian, that stands for “good food.”
“Some people do get confused at that,” laughed Lawther, the eldest of four brothers, one of whom works alongside him. “It’s Hawaiian pidgin like ‘you wanna get some good grindz?’ Our answer is ‘yeah, and come get it at Moku Hawaiian Grill.’”
Most of the recipes, including that of the mochiko wings, are from Lawther’s family, handed down through generations. Like their Mochiko wings, a Japanese-style fried chicken, marinated in Asian spices and dredged with mochiko, a glutinous rice flour.
Mochiko wings are a popular dish in Hawaii, and proving to be so in Ahwatukee.
“I grew up in Honolulu restaurants beside my mother, Haunani Lawther,” said Keith, who returns annually to visit his parents and extended family, who remain on the island of Oahu.
“I learned a lot from my mother. And we had all these great family recipes, and we thought Ahwatukee people would enjoy it, and it’s been great. Ahwatukee people are just amazing, and that’s led to our rapid growth.”
“They make us want to move here,” said Lawther, whose partners also currently live in Gilbert.
Lawther isn’t new to the Hawaiian restaurant scene as he said he helped open and then run one with a brother in Las Vegas. The men have an older sister living in Hawaii. His youngest brother, Kimo, works with him at the Ahwatukee restaurant.
Island visitors are also familiar with poke – a fresh ahi tuna salad that in recent years has become more popular on the mainland.
But as with sushi, knowing where to glean the freshest of fresh sushi-grade fish is of paramount importance to creating a successful offering.
“It’s not easy sourcing good fish, but we bring it in through a really good fish distributor. Before, you couldn’t get really good fish here, but that’s changed,” he said. “The ahi tuna used in our poke is top grade.”
A much-anticipated but late-arrival to the restaurant menu is Dole Whip, a pineapple-flavored soft serve frozen dessert that’s perfect for summer.
“Dole Whip used to be sold only at Disneyland, and now it’s available in Vegas and here,” said Lawther. “It’s non-dairy, non-GMO, vegan and very popular. We have the traditional pineapple flavor and will be showcasing the other flavors as we go along.”
There’s a wealth of choices at Moku Hawaiian Grill. Order up two meats and two sides for $8.49, and be prepared for leftovers. The $11.49 large plate meal allows you to select three meats and two sides. Teriyaki chicken, Pulehu chicken, Katsu chicken and Kalua pork are the choices with these meals.
Choice of sides are garlic or green edamame, macaroni salad, kimchee slaw, sweet corn or green salad.
Teriyaki steak, Pulehu steak, ahi tuna poke and Mochiko wings are premium meats and run a bit more. All can be ordered ala carte.
And there’s the one meat/one side kid’s meal for $5.49.
Everything is scooped up for you as you order, and all are served in foil take-out dishes – even if you plan to eat it in their casual dining area with its continuous loop of Hawaiian music adding ambience.
Catering has already proved popular with the summer crowds. There’s no delivery; it’s all order-and-go.
“We’ve done really well with the catering menu; people like to get them to serve at office meetings, or families just grab it and take home to eat family-style,” he said.
Meat and sides are all available to-go in small, medium or large quantities. Lawther explained small orders feed three to six, medium six to 12 and large 12 to 22. All are ample servings.
Poke salad made fresh ahi tuna is available at market price, but according to Lawther, market price is pretty stable at $13.99 a pound.
Moku Hawaiian Grill is available at MokuHawaiianGrill.com as well as on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Information: 4302 E. Ray Road, Suite 114, 480-704-0108.