Review: Meatball Hawaii

From the minute word got out that chef Robert McGee was working on a meatball-themed eatery, we couldn’t wait to get our balls on. Because if the burger at his former spot, The Whole Ox, was any indication, we knew were in some seriously delicious balls of meat. 

Meatball opened in March on Kapahulu Avenue in the former home of Mac Nut House (and before that, La Bamba) as a tiny white-washed casual dining restaurant that does one thing well. The concept goes like this: you pick your kind of meatball (beef, spicy pork, chicken, seafood and veggie), your sauce (marinara, kimchee marinara, mushroom gravy and bacon alfredo) and your starch (spaghetti, shells, risotto, polenta, fries, rice or a hoagie), and any add ons (calamari, fried eggplant, wings or crispy rice balls). You can even build a meatball loco moco with the option of adding a fried egg to your dish.

After a few visits to Meatball, the approach to the grind is less about all the individual components, and more about finding your perfect combo. Not that the individual components aren’t good, but the good chicken balls are extra good smothered in the bacon alfredo sauce. We chose to eat our chicken and alfredo sauce over shells, but next time, we’re picking the polenta because we are 100 percent sure that the creamy sauce will take the creamy, rich polenta to a whole new level. Too much? Never. 

Winning combo no. 2: The spicy pork balls with the kimchee marinara on a hoagie with provolone cheese. It’s New York by way of Honolulu — super East-Coasty hoaginess with the familiar bite of the kimchee. And rounding out our top three favorite Meatball combos is the seafood balls with spinach pesto, an off-menu sauce that we hope becomes a regular. We got ours with the risotto, but next time we’ll match it with spaghetti or shells. We like our risotto rich and creamy, though still light, with al dente rice and a good hit of cheese. Our risotto wasn’t quite there, and left us wishing instead for its perfect polenta counterpart. Have we mentioned that the polenta at Meatball is downright dreamy?

Next time, we’ll try the beef balls with the mushroom gravy over fries with a fried egg. Because how can that be bad?

All the balls, the meaty ones and the not so meaty ones, are savory and flavorful (we especially dug the tarragon rich seafood balls and the smoky-spicy pork balls). The secret to any meatball is finding the balance between keeping the meat pure and risking dryness and adding non-meat elements like bread or milk and risking mushiness. Here, McGee seems to have found the happy middle ground. The sauces and starches — and starch-free options like greens and salads — complement the balls beautifully, and if you can stand to add yet another element to your meal (you know what they say about too much of a good thing, though we don’t ascribe to that), add the crispy calamari because they do that thing where they toss peperoncinis in the fryer with calamari, and it is so, so good.

Meatball Hawaii, 847 Kapahulu Ave., Balls and sauce from $8.50, Hoagies from $11.25, Add-ons and side dishes from  $3,