Is there anything more seductive to a Chicagoan at the start of a cold, soggy March than the idea of Hawaii? About this time of year, when the winter weary dream of torching all the dibs on the streets in a massive spring bonfire of rebirth, a little vision of sunshine and seawater sounds pretty good. Not many of us have the ability to drop thousands of dollars on an island escape, but on the cold, car-swept corner of Western and Ogden, there’s a tiny outpost that provides a fix.
Aloha Wagon is the vision of Rebecca Romo and Richard Manongdo, a married couple who’ve reimagined the food truck they ran on Oahu for six years into a brick-and-mortar take-out counter. After returning to Tri-Taylor, where Romo grew up, they’ve opened in a former po’boy/Chinese food joint where they’re pushing the signature food of Hawaii.
No, it isn’t another goddamn poke stand. Romo and Manongdo are trafficking in the iconic Hawaiian plate lunch, a carb-loaded power platter of rice, pasta, and protein, the latter some expression of the islands’ historic working-class immigrant mix: Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, and Portuguese.
For the past 14 years or so, Lincoln Park’s Aloha Eats has existed as the city’s sole outlet for the Hawaiian plate lunch. More recently Wicker Park’s Mahalo has provided a cheesy, ersatz version, but there’s something about the coordinates of this lone outpost in the territory between Garfield Park, Little Italy, and North Lawndale that seems appropriate; it’s a convenient spot for those in need of fuel to get through a figurative day of bolting steers on the killing floor, plodding through the mail route, or heaving the contents of black plastic trash carts into the stinking maw of a powder-blue garbage truck.
From behind the counter Romo takes orders while Manongdo griddles barbecue chicken thighs, sweet-and-spicy Korean-style pork butt, or bulging beef patties, two of which are employed in the consummately comforting loco moco, where they’re mounted on rice, drenched in beef-onion gravy, and topped with a crispy fried egg. Plunging into this pile of gratification, with its attendant creamy elbow macaroni amalgamated with potato and a superfluous pile of salad, requires you to immediately get moving once finished, lest your plodding metabolism finish you.
One can build a combo plate with any of the proteins, including pulled pork tossed with shredded cabbage, panko-fried katsu chicken cutlet, and grilled chicken with banana peppers. All of these, along with grilled fish and tofu, are available as sandwiches, which include the signature aloha burger lacquered in teriyaki sauce, the entirety of which can barely stand up to the thick slice of grilled pineapple topping it. The resulting messy deconstruction is just as satisfying as the plates.
Naturally there’s Spam musubi, that Japanese-GI mashup of processed pork product and molded, nori-wrapped rice: here two fat, rectangular specimens come per order, each sustaining enough in its own right. Dense, moist banana bread and thin sheet pineapple-coconut cheesecake with a buttery cookielike crust provide similarly substantial finishes.
There are a few nods to the neighborhood as well—fish and pork tacos, and posole rojo on Thursdays and Fridays—but the simple model of Aloha Wagon fits snugly into a tropical niche you wouldn’t have known we needed until it got here. v