I have to be candid and admit that I didn't know much about Guam before setting foot into the Guamanian restaurant Islander Grill. The little I do know was gleaned from early geography lessons, a school project on the first explorers and hazy recollections from history textbooks. Most of that knowledge has since been pushed aside to make brain room for random food facts and trivia, but I do remember that Guam's one of the largest in a group of islands in the western Pacific, near the Philippines, and has been a U.S. territory since the mid-1940s, though there has been a passionate movement toward its decolonization.
History aside, I've liked Guam's flag since finding a drawing of it in an almanac as a child. The scene depicting a palm tree shading a sandy beach while an outrigger canoe sails into shore in the background looked to me like the emblem of some kind of paradise. Though located on busy Park Boulevard, in the bottom corner of a modest hotel, entering Islander Grill is like stepping into the Guamanian flag; it's a friendly and relaxed little restaurant that's on leisurely island time.
My first visit was a long time coming; I'd been curious about the place for years and have a good friend who lives just across the street. We'd tried to go previously, but the restaurant closes at 8 p.m. most nights. I'd seen the cooks tending their huge, sidewalk-adjacent outdoor grill and always wondered what goodies were smoking away under the hood, so I was glad when we finally made it in.
It's a cheery, tropical-themed spot, a hodgepodge of tiki souvenirs and island mementos, dominated by a thatched-roof bamboo hut that covers the entrance to the kitchen. The hut's doors are flanked by two latte (pronounced “laddie”) stones, goblet-shaped pillars—used by the indigenous Chamorro people of Guam and its surrounding archipelago—to support their ancient homes and structures. These iconic shapes are now sort of the symbol of the island and the reason Islander Grill has a ring of latte stones painted along the walls of the restaurant. This history, and much more, was imparted to us by Vivian, the soft-spoken, smiling owner who runs the restaurant with many of her family members. She helped steer us through the menu board, an eclectic mix of Spanish and Asian flavors with an island accent that defines Guamanian cuisine. The lumpia, crunchy and greaseless, owe a nod to the Philippines. The spring-roll wrappers are filled with the traditional mix of ground beef, peas and carrots and served with a sweet, slightly spicy, sauce. Pancit, a Filipino-style noodle dish that's Chinese in origin, is a soy-sauced stir fry of rice vermicelli with bits of veggies and meat. Estafao manok and kadon pika manok are like mild and spicy versions of a chicken stew, simmered in a piquant blend of soy sauce, lemon juice, onions and garlic.
We also shared the Islander Combo No. 1, a takeout container nearly bursting with Chamorro barbecued chicken and beef short ribs cut into flat planes similar to Korean kalbe. Pork ribs and boneless barbecued beef are also offered. The combo comes with a scoop of kelaguen, a cold dish of chopped chicken that's been marinated in lemon juice, green onions and chilies. The sharp tang of the dressing on the meat took a minute to get used to, but once I adjusted my taste receptors to think of kelaguen as a sort of ceviche, I was just fine—I imagine that it's just the thing to eat in Guam's tropical heat.
The combo also included a mound of creamy, sweet-relish-laden macaroni salad and a round scoop of Chamorro red rice, a Guamanian staple of short-grain rice that gets its distinct color from achiote seeds that lend more in appearance than taste. We were encouraged to give everything a sprinkle of finadene, a sort of all-purpose condiment with the blend of tart and savory that's a Guamanian trademark.
For balance, we drank sweetened Assam black tea and delicious coconut juice. My friend's daughter, a budding foodie, gamely tried it all and deemed the barbecued chicken her favorite, and I agree. I'll be back for more of the moist, sweet and salty dark-meat chicken, smoky and charred from the barbeque. Islander Grill, 3645 Park Blvd. in Hillscrest, is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday.