Even though Tucson is landlocked, you can still get a little taste of island life: In a strip mall on the far eastside, at Golf Links and Harrison roads, the friendly folks at Lani's Luau are dishing up traditional Hawaiian luau-style food.
The interior of Lani's is kitschy and quirky, if not a little drab, with seating for maybe 20 people. The restaurant seems to do quite a bit of takeout business; on both of our visits, we were the only dine-in clients. The owners, who both run the register and do the cooking, are incredibly friendly and helpful.
We checked out Lani's for lunch and dinner, though the menu is the same for both. During several visits to Hawaii, I've been keen on eating as much fresh ocean fish as I can get my hands on. But the menu at Lani's reflects more of the luau-style foods of Hawaiian culture—with lots of pork, chicken long rice and poi. There are also several Filipino-influenced dishes.
Because it was my first time at Lani's, I decided to go with the aptly named luau plate ($13.95), which had a bit of everything—kalua-style pig, laulau, chicken long rice, lomi lomi salmon and poke. For my sides, I stuck with the white rice and potatomac salad. Ted ordered the Pancho Paniolo plate ($9.75), featuring teriyaki beef and Korean-style chicken wings, with fries and potatomac. We also decided to try the lumpia ($2.20 for two sticks) for an appetizer. It's one of my absolute favorite Filipino dishes.
The lumpia (fried pastries) was piping-hot and crispy, and served with a sweet chili sauce. It was quite tasty, though it could have used a little more seasoning in the filling.
Food comes out quickly at Lani's, so we didn't have to wait long for our entrées. Ted's teriyaki beef had great flavors, but was a little tough, and the meaty Korean-style wings had sort of a standard sweet-and-spicy flavor—good, but not spectacular.
In contrast, almost everything on my plate was awesome. The kalua pig was shredded, tender and smoky—delicious without any additions at all—and the laulau (pork, pork fat and fish pieces wrapped and steamed in a taro leaf) was amazing, though the fish pieces were a bit difficult to detect in all of the pork goodness. The chicken long rice tasted just like the many versions I had when in Hawaii, and the poke (raw tuna marinated in soy sauce, onions and other tasty things) was fresh and delicious, without being too salty or fishy.
However, the lomi lomi salmon and the potatomac salad were both a little disappointing. The lomi lomi was too fishy, and the potatomac was way under-seasoned.
The meal ended with a treat: Malasadas (95 cents each, or 10 for $7.25) are deep-fried, hole-less Hawaiian doughnuts coated in sugar. We ordered four, not knowing how big they were—and we could barely finish one apiece. They were delightfully hot, crispy, doughy and just barely sweetened from the sugar coating.
On our return visit, the food was impeccable. Ted ordered one of the few fish dishes on the menu, the mahi mahi plate ($7.75), which is available breaded or cooked in garlic butter (he chose garlic butter), with Hawaiian-style fried rice ($1 extra as a side) and potatomac. This time, the potatomac salad was appropriately seasoned; the fried rice was delightful—both salty and sweet; and the fish, which was pan-fried, was tender and flaky. It was a nice-sized filet.
I opted for the Filipino plate ($8.99). It came with pork and peas, pancit and a single lumpia. Instead of the double-scoop of rice, I got a single scoop and a small container of poi ($1.25 extra). The pork and peas were cooked in traditional Filipino-style, in an adobo-like sauce; the pork strips were tender and flavorful. The pancit (a general term for noodle dishes) consisted of thin egg noodles with ground pork, tiny bay shrimp and mushrooms, and was delicious (especially after a squirt of sriracha). Poi has a unique flavor, and although I'm not an especially big fan of it, the poi at Lani's was not bad—and if you actually like the stuff, you'd probably think it was quite lovely.
Lani's Luau definitely has the friendly island vibe in its service, and the food is probably the closest thing to delicious and authentic Hawaiian luau cuisine that you're apt to find in this desert city.