The story below is excerpted from our Sept./Oct. 2014 issue. For the full story download our FREE iOS app or view our FREE web-based digital edition today!
The interior and the vibe haven’t changed much since the 1972 opening. But that doesn’t preclude an open, inviting, clean atmosphere, and great takes on classic dishes.
I am unabashedly a fan of 1950s and 1960s kitsch. If you asked me to name my favorite period of furniture, mid-century modern would be my immediate reply. Those robin egg blue bathtubs and bubblegum pink toilets in ranch houses? Love them. “Mad Men”? Obviously one of my favorite shows. And as a native Atlantan who lived less than five miles from the east coast outpost of Trader Vic’s – the California-based tiki restaurant that single-handedly introduced Americans in the 1930s and 1940s to fruity cocktails and Polynesian cuisine – I hold a soft spot in my heart for Mai Tais and pu pu platters.
Enter Fiji Island, Roanoke’s own Polynesian restaurant. Opened in 1972, Fiji Island has been upholding the Trader Vic’s tradition for well over 40 years now. Charles “Charlie” Chang took over the restaurant from his brother in 1975 and manned the kitchen for several decades, deftly crafting and serving Chinese-Polynesian fusion along with a side of his friendly cheer. These days you’ll find him greeting guests at the front door and circling the dining room, striking up conversations with diners. It’s not unusual to overhear the inside jokes between the regulars and Charlie, and if you’re lucky you might even be invited to share a table and drink with some of them.
Upon entering the dining room, it’s hard not to notice how unchanged it feels from when it first opened. Nothing is shabby or dirty, it just holds an air of knowing about it. After all, the dining room has seen the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, among other more local celebrities. Black walls host back-lit vibrant Polynesian paintings depicting dragons, tiki totems dot the service floor, and every table is set with not just cutlery and napkins, but also a plastic lei for each guest to wear. It’s impossible not to feel like every meal is a party at Fiji Island – and that’s a good thing.
To fully experience Fiji Island, ordering a pu pu Tray for the table is a must. The appetizer features shrimp tempura, crispy crab rangoon, sticky sweet short ribs and beef cho cho. While the tempura, rangoon and short ribs are wonderful, the cho cho steals the show. Balanced in the middle of each platter you’ll find a pink sterno-filled goblet deftly lit by your server. You are then invited to pick up each cho cho skewer of marinated medium-rare beef and hibachi it to desired char and doneness. It keeps well with the tiki party theme and, frankly, it’s just a lot of fun to sit around a table and cook your own appetizer (who doesn’t love playing with fire?).
The entrees, while not as interactive, are just as delicious as the pu pu tray. Although the servers can be noncommittal about the best dishes at the restaurant, the general suggestion of “anything from the Chef’s Specialties section is good,” isn’t wrong. Shrimp and Pork, Hunan Style, features shredded pork served in a rich, soy-based brown sauce along with shrimp sautéed in a sweet chili sauce. Accompanied by rice, it’s a fun, fusion take on surf and turf. Similarly, Young-TZE Shrimp offers a tasty take on American-Chinese cuisine. Served in a silver tureen, the dish features jumbo shrimp and broccoli, straw mushrooms and bamboo in a sweet and slightly spicy sauce. If you like seafood, this dish is the one for you at Fiji Island.
For something straight out of Chang’s imagination, order the Bora Bora Steak. A fairly straightforward sirloin, the Bora Bora is marinated in a bit of soy and other proprietary seasonings and broiled to perfect doneness. When ordered medium-rare, it arrives with just the perfect amount of red-pink in the center, something I wasn’t sure would be a done deal considering that Fiji Island isn’t a steakhouse. But maybe it ought to be known as one because that steak was one of the better I’ve eaten in Roanoke. Served with mixed vegetables and rice (everything on the menu is served with rice), the steak isn’t for the light eater, but it is a fantastic deal ringing in under $20.
Other favorites from the menu include the gargantuan eggrolls – fist-thick fried wrappers filled with cabbage and pork – and the fried Crispy Duck. Although the duck could use a little vegetable accompaniment, each order serves up half a bird with more than enough tender meat to enjoy, and the crunchy skin is what really makes the dish shine. Either dip each bite in the sweet plum duck sauce or eat it plain – either way, it’s a solid entrée if you’re interested in something other than seafood or beef.
More than anything, though, the drinks are why I visit Fiji Island. Smack dab in the middle of my home bar is a copy of Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide and I’d like to think that I know a thing or two about crafting a fine tiki drink. First, glassware is of utmost importance and Fiji Island’s rotation of small punch bowl-sized glasses for drinks like the Scorpion (rum, brandy, orange juice, lemon juice, orgeat, and rum) to hula dancer tumblers for Yellow Birds (light rum, dark rum, Galliano, orange juice, lime juice) are playful and perfect for the boozy offerings. Second, a tiki drink must feature the perfect balance of fruit and alcohol, heavy on the alcohol, and, across the board, the restaurant’s cocktails fit the bill. Stick with anything traditionally tiki and you’re good to go – just maybe only order one or two, as you’ll be surprised at how much of a punch they carry.
If you’re looking for a fun date-night restaurant or a place to take a group of friends for a round of drinks, Fiji Island has been and still is the place to go. It’s retro and kitschy, as all tiki-themed restaurants are, but nothing about the food or the service is dated. In fact, I’d offer that it’s more relevant than ever before with the resurgence of mid-century design and culture. So head over, order a pu pu tray and a Zombie and hang around for the every-day-of-the-week (except Tuesday) party of Fiji Island.
627 Townside Rd SW, Roanoke