Review: Buzz’s Hawaiian Grill Brings Delicious Island Fare to St. Louis

You can almost imagine you are languidly lounging at a bayside cafe in Hilo

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click to enlarge Buzz's Hawaiian Grill
Mabel Suen
Buzz’s Hawaiian Grill serves an assortment of pupu (appetizers), small dishes, main plates, sandwiches, poke, dessert and more.

A few years ago, the newly launched Buzz's Hawaiian Grill (3457 Magnolia Avenue, 314-875-0076) was featured on the Food Network Show "Food Truck Nation," and the host lobbed a softball question at owner Thomas "Buzz" Moore about why he founded the brand. Moore thought he knew the answer, replying with some superficial musings that seemed to satisfy everyone involved, even as he knew, deep down, he hadn't gotten to the heart of the matter. That clarity would come to him a few years down the road, when after some serious reflection, Moore came to understand the real reason he opened Buzz's was not simply to bring Hawaiian food to St. Louis; it was because of his sister.

Growing up a military kid in cities around the world, Moore developed an appreciation for different cuisines. He was blessed with a mother who was a tremendously talented cook, and she would soak in these different traditions, passing on everything she learned to Moore and his siblings. Moore carried this passion for food with him throughout his military service and during his career as an air traffic controller, which took him to Hawaii in the 1980s. There, he became immersed in the culture thanks to his ex-wife's indigenous Hawaiian family and his own children, who they raised with those traditions. He held onto that passion and respect for Hawaiian culture after moving back to St. Louis, as it was a way to remain connected with his family back on the islands.

Moore loved Hawaiian cuisine — so much that he and his second wife developed a reputation in their family and friend group for their traditional Hawaiian spreads, which they would put together any chance that they got. Moore always felt he was meant to make something of his talents, but he never found the courage to do so until his sister passed away of cancer when she was in her mid-50s. As he grieved her loss and thought of all the life milestones she would miss, he felt a sense of urgency to live a life without regret. Deciding it was now or never, Moore took the leap and launched Buzz's Hawaiian Grill as a food truck in 2017 as much as a celebration of Hawaiian food and culture as a tribute to his late sister.

click to enlarge Thomas “Buzz” Moore opened his brick and mortar last July.
Mabel Suen
Thomas “Buzz” Moore opened his brick and mortar last July.

Buzz's found great success and established itself as one of the city's most beloved food trucks. Moore was thrilled with the reception, but over time, he realized that having a brick and mortar would give him the opportunity to expand his menu and create a warm gathering space that would capture the spirit of Hawaii. He found what he was looking for this past summer at the former Steve's Hot Dogs spot adjacent to the Tick-Tock Tavern in Tower Grove East. After a series of renovations — a fresh coat of cream and pale-sage green paint and vintage Hawaiian travel posters — Moore welcomed his first guests to the new Buzz's last July.

One of the main reasons Buzz's has resonated with diners over its five years in business is not simply that the food is good; it's that you can taste Moore's love and passion for Hawaiian cuisine and culture in what he does. This carries through in the new brick-and-mortar storefront. Not at all a kitschy theme restaurant, Buzz's is deeply reverent when it comes to Hawaiian culinary traditions, as Moore prepares a host of dishes that give guests the experience of what it's like to dine in Hawaii beyond the tourist traps.

The musubi illustrates this intention. A staple of Hawaiian snack time, the handheld savory treat, sometimes called Hawaiian sushi, consists of sticky rice, caramelized spam and sweet egg pancake all wrapped in a sheet of nori, or seaweed. Wrapped into a thick, roughly six-inch-long rectangle, it's a fun taste of salt and sea.

click to enlarge Buzz's Hawaiian Grill
Mabel Suen
The tofu katsu sandwich is served on a Hawaiian sweet bun. |

Bite-sized pork hash "shumai" are another delightful pupu, or appetizer, consisting of ground pork, shrimp and water chestnuts ground up and filling an open-topped steamed wonton. The sweetness of the pork and salt from the shrimp marry beautifully, while the crunchy water chestnuts add texture. A similarly Chinese-influenced dim sum dish, manapua, is a large steam bun filled with sweet char sui pork; though it looks like a larger version of a bao, the bun has a bit more sweetness and is a little fluffier in texture. It's a lovely illustration of how dishes evolve with local influence.

Lumpia, however, retains its quintessential Filipino form at Buzz's. The cigar-sized spring rolls are filled with carrots, cabbage, bean sprouts, ground chicken and pork, then rolled into a paper-thin wrapper and deep-fried to a golden crisp. Dipped into Buzz's chili sauce, they are an outstanding appetizer. Buzz's other handheld appetizer, the poke bombs, are a finger food version of one of Hawaii's most popular dishes. Here, cubes of ruby-colored tuna are dressed in soy and ginger, then tucked into an open beancurd pouch. They are probably just a little too large to fully stuff into your mouth, but they're so flavorful you will be tempted to try.

Buzz's main courses are equally successful. North Shore Garlic Shrimp are so coated in the tart allium, they're almost spicy. It's a glorious feeling. Chicken yakitori makes you understand why the thigh is the bird's finest piece. The boneless dark meat is grilled so that its exterior develops a substantial char; this bitterness beautifully contrasts with Buzz's sticky soy-ginger glaze.

click to enlarge Buzz's Hawaiian Grill
Mabel Suen
Buzz’s sweets include haupia pie, banana bread, macaroons and lilikoi bars. |

However, the restaurant's Kalua pig is its calling card. Tender, slow-roasted pulled pork is outrageously succulent; the experience of getting an interior fatty piece in the same bite as a caramelized exterior crispy bit is otherworldly. Moore offers the pork as a platter served alongside sautéed spiced cabbage, or on a Hawaiian sweet-bread bun and paired with tangy passion-fruit barbecue sauce; that mixture of sweet, tang and salty pork is a match made in paradise.

Noshing on that passion-fruit pork with a side of creamy mac salad, you could almost imagine you were languidly lounging at a bayside cafe in Hilo rather than a storefront in the middle of the Midwest. That Moore can evoke such feelings of joy, even in the depths of the dark Missouri winter, is as beautiful a memorial to his sister as he could create.

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About The Author

Cheryl Baehr

Cheryl Baehr is the dining editor and restaurant critic for the Riverfront Times and an international woman of mystery. Follow her on the socials at @cherylabaehr
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