By Frank Sabatini Jr.
When mentioning to a relative in a phone conversation that hubs and I were about to head out for a meal at a Guamanian restaurant, she responded, “Guam has its own cuisine? I thought it was just a military base.”
Before ending the call, I shared with her the little I knew at that point.
As part of the Mariana Islands in the western Pacific Ocean, the U.S. territory of Guam and its indigenous Chamorro people are privy to a confluence of culinary influences from Japan, China and the Philippines.
Hawaii factors into the equation as well, when you consider that Spam and ahi poke weave their way into Guam’s modern-day diet.
We came for the more unfamiliar stuff like chicken kelaguen, a Chamorro dish with the citrus level of ceviche and the heated punch of a spicy Thai salad.
The finely chopped thigh meat is flavored with green onions, bird’s eye chilies and lots of lemon juice. It’s served here as a chilled starter with two scoops of “red rice,” which translates to white rice tinted and flavored with powdered achiote seeds. Priced at $6.99, it’s well worth the price.
Lumpia is served four to an order and tasted almost exactly like its Filipino counterpart. Think crispy Chinese egg rolls filled with the usual mix of cabbage and carrots, but with ground beef instead of minced pork.
Setting them apart, however, was the accompanying Chamorro sauce known as finadene, a salty-sour admixture of soy sauce, vinegar, green onions and tomatoes. We actually dribbled it over everything as we ate along. The lumpia also came with a sweet-and-spicy sauce that was cloying up front and kicky on the finish.
Hubby initially wanted kadum pika for his entree, a chicken stew simmered with onions, garlic, coconut milk and vinegar. But he stopped short of ordering it when learning that red Thai chili peppers are also used in the dish.
He’s a scaredy-cat even at the faintest suggestion a dish might be spicy. So he turned his attention to the Guahan udon noodles, which are stir-fried with broccoli, zucchini, onions, garlic and a mildly tangy house sauce. The meat options are chicken or shrimp. He chose both for $2 extra.
The thick wheat noodles offered a bit more verve compared to those bathed merely in soy sauce or earthy dashi soup in Japanese restaurants. These possessed whispers of garlic while picking up the addicting essence of the chargrilled chicken.
That same chicken — all thigh meat — showed up in the “the bowl” I ordered. The wooden vessel was filled simply with red rice and the smoky tasting poultry. I loved every bite, especially when feeding it spoonfuls of the finadene sauce.
Other grilled-protein options are pork spare ribs, beef short ribs or salmon, any of which can also be incorporated into meal plates that include a single lumpia or empanada. (The latter use corn masa shells and contain chicken and hot peppers.)
The menu also features a fair share of items that are deep-fried, such as Chamorro-style pork ribs, marinated chicken thighs, crispy shrimp wrapped in rice paper and Spam rolls in seaweed casings.
Guahan Grill’s atmosphere is casual but with full wait service. Its design is somewhat plain except for a bright-orange wall backing the bar, four flat-screen TVs, and a deep-blue wall showing off a row of wooden boat paddles.
The staff was young, swift and cheerful, and we guessed most were of Guamanian descent based on their keen knowledge of the cuisine.
This is the restaurant’s second and larger outpost, which opened in January. The original location is at 4259 Oceanside Blvd., Suite 104, Oceanside.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at email@example.com.