Restaurant Review: Spare some time for the Gardena Bowl Coffee Shop

By Merrill Shindler, Daily Breeze
POSTED: 09/30/15, 10:05 AM PDT | UPDATED: ON 09/30/2015

So, here I am in a bowling alley just down the street from the Hustler Casino in Gardena, trying to decide between fried bologna on rice, and fried rice mixed with bacon and kimchi — not exactly the choice I thought I’d be facing at this point in my culinary life.

But then, life is filled with surprises and eating out with regularity on the edible fringe of the South Bay never ceases to amaze, especially when you consider the coffee shop (more in name than in actuality).

And so I found myself at the Gardena Bowl, which is packed every night, with a broad demographic. You want to get a sense of Gardena, this is where you go.

I have to admit I haven’t been in a bowling alley in a while. Last I was in one, you got a large sheet of paper and a tiny pencil, and someone volunteered to keep track of the score with whatever limited mathematical skills they might have. The result was usually wrong, and often comically so. Now, it’s all done by computer — the scores appear on an overhead screen, and the algorithm knows the difference between a strike and a spare. Which frees the bowlers — many in leagues — from having to worry about whether the score keeper can properly add or not.

On as recent night, the alley was filled with bowlers who have their own shoes and their own monogrammed bowling balls. They wear fancy bowling gloves and arm braces. When they want a beverage, they go to the bar in the Bowl. But when they want something to eat, they go to the Coffee Shop — along with folks who haven’t picked up a bowling ball in years, if ever. Certainly, when you consider that the Coffee Shop opens at seven in the morning — an hour before the balls start rolling (who bowls at 8 a.m.?) — it’s clear that the Coffee Shop has a life in the community all its own.

While the lunch and dinner menu is an Asian Fusion/Hawaiian deal, breakfast is mostly American traditional, though with small excursions. Of the 11 omelettes listed, only the one made with Spam, onions and spinach counts as an Island dish. You can get your eggs any style with bacon, ham, corned beef hash and a flock of Vienna sausage (there are seven in an order). But you also have the option of Hawaiian-style Portuguese sausage, teriyaki beef and pork chashu, which is very tasty with scrambled eggs.

Breakfast is served all day, which means at any time the Coffee Shop is open, you can tuck into two of the best dishes on the menu. One is called Hawaiian Royal, a funny name for a mishmash of sausage, chashu, scallions, eggs, rice and teriyaki sauce. It looks a bit of a mess, but it tastes absolutely terrific. It’s the sort of dish you luck into when there’s nothing much left in the fridge. It’s a cousin to the Portuguese Sausage Mix, which is kid of an abbreviated version — sausage, eggs and scallions with rice or potatoes. (The rice seems to fit better than the potatoes, but that might be me.)

One night, trying to keep the sodium hit under control, I opted for the miso salmon. It was an OK dish, with overcooked salmon and a sense of being a diet dish that isn’t found on so much of the menu. Eating big here is the fun of the place.

Which brings me to the fried rice tossed with kimchi and bacon, a lot of food with a lot of flavor for not a lot of money. A big order costs all of $8.15; it’s the size of a bowling ball made of rice.

There are all the usual Hawaiian suspects: loco moco, lau lau, lomi lomi, kalua pork, poke. There are thin saimin noodles, both hot and cold. There’s old school chow such as egg foo young, done sundry ways. There are combos that include tsukemono salad, miso soup, rice and green tea. And yes, there’s Spam musubi, which is essentially sushi topped with Spam rather than seafood. It’s easy to eat while you work on a 7-10 split. And hopefully not miss both.

Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Send him email at [email protected].