When it comes to smash burgers, you probably think of The Daley in Chinatown, Chubbies Burgers in Kakaako, or Betty's Burger Joint in Moiliili. But listen up, central Oahu: Aiea has its own smash burger truck.
You'll find Shay's Smashburgers' bright orange truck at the end of the In And Out Auto Sales used car lot in Aiea, directly across from Bostons Pizza. There's no signage for Shay's by the entrance, so don't speed by or you'll miss it.
Parking is limited — after all, you're in a used car lot where tons of cars are on display. If you can't find a spot, just park directly in front of the orange truck.
The reason behind this unconventional location: The lot is owned by a relative of business owner Shayla Ka'ai, who cooked at Fete and The Surfing Pig and was the sous chef at Livestock Tavern and head chef at Lucky Belly. When she got her food truck she considered opening in Waikiki, but ultimately decided to stay in the Pearl City/Aiea area to cater to the local crowd. In a sense this is about as far from Waikiki as you can get. While the truck has been open for several months, people are still just finding out about this hidden gem.
The menu is small, making it easy to order almost everything if you want to try it all. You can walk up and order at the truck, or order online if you don't want to wait. Everything is made to order, so I wait about 15 minutes. Right now, payment is via Venmo, CashApp or cash. Online pay with card or Paypal is coming soon.
Ka'ai makes her burgers from brisket and chuck that she grinds daily. She prides herself on keeping her prices low — the three burgers cost $5 to $7 — without resorting to frozen patties. "We try to do as much from scratch as possible, so you're still getting high-quality food at an affordable price," Ka'ai says.
See also: Tasting Moiliili's new burger joint
I love mushrooms so the Fun Guy is the first burger I try. It's made with a quarter-pound brisket patty, cremini mushrooms, Havarti cheese, bacon jam and black truffle aioli. True to its name, the burger is loaded with mushrooms that give it a wonderfully chewy texture. I love the salty-sweet, ultra-sticky bacon jam mixed with the creamy, umami-filled aioli. The melty Havarti, whose strong flavor is a nice change from American cheese, is the glue that holds this burger together. This is definitely my favorite. Next time I'm getting two.
Since the $6 All-American is the most popular burger, I order that as well. This is basically the loaded version of the Classic, with the same quarter-pound brisket patty, caramelized onions, cheddar and Shay's secret sauce — plus lettuce, tomatoes and more onions.
There's a lot going on in this burger. Given all the veggies, I feel like I finally taste the patty after several bites. This isn't a bad thing, but if you want something simpler, you're better off getting the $5 Classic. The crunchy veggies add texture and make me feel like there's some kind of health component to the All-American. The secret sauce, which is a relish-based, old school-style sauce, is amazing and drips out with every bite.
So how does this burger compare to The Daley? I've ordered The Daley's THIS burger and loved it for its simplicity. It's just patty, thin layer of cheese, bun and done. Shay's All-American is more layered with veggies, making it a good choice if you enjoy the crunchy freshness of veggies in your burger. It also has a lot of onions — a little too much for my preference, but the perfect amount for my onion-loving husband.
If you go to Shay's on a Tuesday, you have to get the fluffy tacos. They're on the menu every Taco Tuesday, but they might be running as a special on other days.
Choose between kalbi and kalua pork tacos that are filled with pico de gallo, avocado crema, queso fresco, cilantro and shredded cabbage. Since the truck isn't busy during my visit, I'm able to order one of each.
The flour tortillas puff up into a big ball once they're fried, creating a warm, soft shell for the filling. The meat is buried under all the toppings and everything is delicious. The creamy avocado crema and queso fresco are probably my favorite parts of the taco besides the meat. The kalua pork is tender and the kalbi has a hint of smokiness, which I love. I honestly can't say which one I like more, but at $5 for two, these tacos are a steal.
On the day I'm there, Shay's is running a $1 chicken wing special so I get three with the recommended creamy buffalo sauce. Chicken wings come in naked (seasoned with salt and garlic powder), barbecue or buffalo flavors, the latter two house-made. Ka‘ai gives out plastic gloves to avoid sticky fingers, which is a genius idea; I end up using the gloves to eat my burgers, too.
For $1 per wing this is a steal, but the buffalo sauce is too hot for me to handle. Next time, I'm getting the barbecue wings.
Burgers that range from $5 to $7 with a delicious taco side, all within 10 minutes of where I live? Smash hit, if you ask me.