(Published by South Bay Accent magazine in February, 2017)
It might take five hours to fly to the Hawaiian Islands from the Bay Area but for many of us, the gorgeous 50th state feel like it’s almost next door given how nui (that means “big”) Hawaii is as a popular vacation destination. But in recent years, we can get a taste of the islands without any air travel whatsoever because Hawaiian music, drinks and — particularly — food have become a sizzling trend on the mainland. Too bad the trade winds and sub-tropical sunsets aren’t as easy to transplant.
The South Bay these days almost seems like an honorary Hawaiian island given the plentitude of Hawaiian barbeque spots, plate lunch places, Hawaii-themed restaurants and the hottest craze, poke bars. Pronounced poh-kay, this healthful, delicious meal-in-a-bowl features pristine raw fish tossed in soy and sesame and can be garnished with a slew of items including rice, seaweed, veggies and much more. Poke is everywhere in Hawaii, from grocery stores to gas stations, and the mania has hit the continental United States from coast to coast. No surprise because as they say in Hawaii, poke broke da mouth (tastes great)!
Popular Hawaiian eats reflect the cultural melting pot that is the state of Hawaii. Starting with the original 18th century haole (Caucasian) explorers who joined the Polynesian natives in this island paradise, waves of laborers from all over Asia and elsewhere came to the islands, bringing their food traditions with them. On the pineapple and sugarcane plantations in the early days, the plate lunch (evolving into scoops of rice, macaroni salad and a protein item) and saimin (a bowl of noodles with add-ins) were cheap, filling fuel. Both are plentiful in the Bay Area of late.
Besides their love of pork, Portuguese field hands in Hawaii imported the malasada (a rich donut), which is now a beloved Hawaiian delight — and available in the South Bay at the Portuguese Bakery in Santa Clara. Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Puerto Rican and Vietnamese laborers added things like stir-frying, spicy dishes, raw fish preparations and ingredient staples such as chiles, lemongrass and ginger to the cuisine blender.
Ironically, high-end restaurant food in Hawaii was mundanely European until a dozen local chefs including Alan Wong, Sam Cho and Roy Yamaguchi created Hawaiian Regional Cuisine — foodies in Hawaii now just call it HRC — in the early ’90s. They collaborated with farms and fishermen to popularize local ingredients and showcased Hawaii’s multi-ethnic styles in their soon-to-flourish restaurants. Yamaguchi, in particular, has seen enormous success. He has a posh chain of 28 namesake restaurants spread across Hawaii, the continental United States, Japan and Guam. South Bay residents can sample his delightful HRC creations at the Roy’s in San Francisco and Pebble Beach.
While serious Hawaii-born chefs with their craftsmanship and ingredient focus have helped get respect for HRC, thrifty diners from the South Bay and elsewhere are entranced by less-costly street food with a Hawaiian pedigree. They compare notes on which place makes the best loco moco (rice, a hamburger patty, gravy and an egg), Spam musubi (grilled canned meat and rice wrapped together with nori seaweed) or has the most authentic shave ice (definitely not a snow cone!). The most passion-inducing Hawaiian import is poke, locations for which have been multiplying like bikini wearers on a sunny day in Waikiki.
While ancient Hawaiians consumed raw fish, the term poke, meaning “cut into pieces” in Hawaiian, didn’t emerge until the late ’60s and it still took several more decades for the poke furor to travel across the Pacific. We’ve made up for lost time, with poke places here following a similar formula in which patrons shuffle past the bar to select their marinated protein of choice — primarily fish — along with some sort of rice or greens, sauce, toppings and add-ins. Poke is commonly served in a bowl but can also be piled into a box or put inside a wrap. The free-wheeling nature of the dish along with the health benefits of all those omega-3s have inspired poke entrepreneurs as well as infatuated customers all over the South Bay and well beyond.
Whether the dish is poke, Hawaiian street food or more ambitious HRC fare, there are plenty of choices for malihinis (Hawaii visitors) or kamaainas (those born in Hawaii) in our region to find some ‘ono (delicious) Hawaiian grub and a warm feeling of aloha (welcome, affection). Here are a few to start with.
One of the most upscale Hawaiian dining spots outside the 50th state, Roy’s is a popular chain with ambitious culinary objectives catering to well-heeled diners. While there’s a Roy’s in San Francisco, the scenery at the Pebble Beach restaurant is hard to beat — overlooking a prestigious golf course right on the ocean with million-dollar sunsets thrown in. Kilt-wearing bagpipers even march by occasionally. Roy’s swanky decor matches the large, well-executed menu that highlights sushi, seafood and steaks while the chef’s Hawaiian fusion orientation shines in dishes like crispy octopus with lilikoi vinaigrette, daikon sprouts and macadamia nuts or slow-roasted pork belly with coconut flakes, balsamic reduction and quail egg.
The Inn at Spanish Bay, 2700 17 Mile Dr., Pebble Beach, (831) 298-5907; www.pebblebeach.com/dining/roys-at-pebble-beach
Noelani’s Bar and Grill
A lively, comfortable, proudly Hawaiian spot featuring music as well as island cocktails along with a menu infused with the tropical theme, Noelani’s has touches like orchid drink garnishes and lots of friendly aloha spirit. Poke, plate lunches, plenty of pupus (appetizers) and island favorites like saimin bowls, loco moco and shoyu chicken are offered, but there’s definite creativity in the Hawaiian fare such as kalua pig (slow-roasted pork) quesadillas and poke nachos. Spice lovers go crazy for the signature hurricane fries tossed with sriracha, wasabi and sprinkled with furikake, a fish-based Japanese seasoning that’s ubiquitous in Hawaii. Homesick island natives and others looking for a fun time flock to Noelani’s, particularly on live music nights.
1037 Laurel St., San Carlos, (650) 394-8169; www. noelanis.com
An appealing, modern, seven-restaurant regional chain, Pacific Catch is nominally a seafood house but under respected executive chef David Gingrass, the fare frequently goes Hawaiian and the chain is particularly well known for its extensive poke. Beyond that, items like chicken yakitori, tempura sashimi and macadamia nut brownie sundae could easily be found on a Honolulu menu while the restaurants serve various rice bowls with fish, chicken or steak. Try the spice-rubbed mahimahi tacos with avocado salsa or one of the super-fresh sushi rolls like firecracker salmon with sriracha aioli. Thoughtful service and a family-oriented approach are a bonus on top of the quality ingredients.
1875 S. Bascom Ave. Ste 550, Campbell, (408) 879-909. 545 San Antonio Rd., Suite 34, Mountain View, (650) 941-1810. 243 South B St., San Mateo, (650) 389-2482; http://www.pacificcatch.com
Hula’s Island Grill
From the charmingly cheesy tiki lounge decor to the boisterous atmosphere and super-friendly staff, the two coast-side Hula’s locations at least have the nearby Pacific to echo the Hawaii theme. Hula’s also has a particularly appealing menu featuring tons of classic Hawaiian cocktails, lots of pupus, people-pleasing recipes and moderate prices. Start with treats like seared ahi tuna wontons with wasabi-ginger cream or kalua pig sliders with picked cabbage, followed by filling dinners such as a “luau pork plate” heaped with meat in soy glaze or grass-fed teriyaki ribeye or fish preparations that include Hawaiian favorites like ahi, ono and walu walu.
221 Cathcart St., Santa Cruz, (831) 426-4852. 622 Lighthouse Ave., Monterey, (831) 204-9270; http://www.hulastiki.com
Da Kine Island Grill
Named after the all-purpose pidgin English phrase meaning “whatchamacallit,” Da Kine is like a tropical breeze blowing through San Jose, featuring great drinks in hollowed-out pineapples, live Hawaiian music, the requisite tiki-and-surfboards decor and complimentary bottles of coconut wine and a lei on patron birthdays. The menu hits all the right notes — shoyu chicken, poke, loco moco and Spam musubi — but there’s plenty more to tempt guests like gut-busting bacon kalua poppers in which bacon-wrapped pork and cheese are stuffed into peppers and fried. Several iterations of nachos served with pineapple salsa are popular, as are the Sunday luaus.
23 N. Market St., San Jose, (408) 568-9700; http://www.dakineislandgrill.com
While hukilaus are festive beach gatherings, this lively island spot — which has a sister restaurant in Honolulu — is far from the ocean in San Jose’s Japantown but that doesn’t deter those seeking a big dose of aloha. The Hawaii-born owners have imported their state’s greatest food hits and the menu is one of the biggest around, enriched with live Hawaiian music on weekends. Happy guests can get a luau plate better than what’s usually served to tourists in Waikiki, which should be preceded by a terrific pupu platter. To top it off, order a massive macadamia nut brownie topped with ice cream, whipped cream and chocolate syrup.
230 Jackson St., San Jose, (408) 279-4888; http://www.dahukilau.com
Ono Hawaiian BBQ
This large chain with locations all over the West Coast is a go-to spot for those seeking well-executed, abundant Hawaiian plate lunches at moderate prices. Making sauces in house, Ono Hawaiian offers plates with the usual scoops of rice and macaroni salad along with a main event like grilled chicken, teriyaki chicken, beef spare ribs, fried shrimp, kalua pig and a popular version of chicken katsu — a breaded, fried cutlet with a fruity, tangy sauce. Try the haupia, coconut pudding that’s drizzled with coconut milk and topped with shredded coconut. Clean and modern, Ono is a departure from the usual tiki bar decor.
1706 Oakland Rd., Suite 10, San Jose, (408) 573-8988. 1041 Cochrane Rd., Ste. 160, Morgan Hill, (408) 779-2688; http://www.onohawaiianbbq.com
Ray’s Hawaiian BBQ
The classic Hawaiian dishes here get high marks and the prices are right. A tiny spot with counter ordering, Ray’s offers plate lunches augmented with a few other things like rice bowls, burgers, sandwiches and saimin choices. Homesick Hawaiians love the huge Spam musubi and the delicious chicken katsu iteration. Pork katsu is also available, along with a much-praised loco moco wearing perfectly cooked egg and divine gravy. Even the macaroni salad receives praise. Not much to look at, Ray’s makes up for it with friendly staff and remarkable value.
Laurelwood Shopping Center, 1330 W. Hillsdale Blvd., San Mateo; (650) 212-0002
Located in the Clarion Hotel, this tropical-themed restaurant and nearby bar eschew the usual hotel cuisine with some interesting dishes like a starter of pepper-coated seared ahi with pickled ginger, seaweed salad and wasabi soy sauce. Guest praise the “kahuna breeze salad” that combines a choice of grilled fish, chicken or beef on a tasty mixture of tropical fruit, avocado and roasted nuts with greens in mango vinaigrette. Good entree picks are miso-marinated grilled salmon with ponzu butter, or kalua pork, or seared ahi with pineapple wasabi topped with furikake. No thatched edging or tiki torches decorate the modern facilities.
Wyndham Garden Hotel, 1355 N. 4th St., San Jose, (408) 392-2468; http://www.theislandgrill.com
Go Fish Poke Bar
Launched by Google’s former head sushi chef, this flourishing South Bay mini-chain gets big love from the scads of poke freaks who usually spill out the doors. The focus is on sustainable seafood, local ingredients and vegan or gluten-free options for those who want them. Naturally, the bowls are biodegradable. Besides the pristine fish (try the hamachi), bowls come with a choice of starch or greens, sauce and toppings. Guests rave about the spicy togarishi aioli sauce and furikake topping made with Gilroy garlic. Also available are hand rolls and chef’s specials.
1183 S De Anza Blvd #40, San Jose, (408) 343-0988. 660 Stanford Shopping Center, 244B Palo Alto, (650) 328-1170. (coming soon) 823 Hamilton St., Redwood City; http://www.gofishpokebar.com
This mini-chain with locations in San Jose and Palo Alto gets particular attention due to its lower prices compared to other poke bars, although there’s no skimping on freshness. The raw and cooked seafood choices include salmon, tuna, spicy tuna, yellowtail, shrimp and octopus paired with bases, sauces and toppings. As is typical, those who want additions like seaweed salad or avocado pay extra. A newer offering is popular Maven’s macaron ice cream sandwiches in yummy flavors like dark chocolate sea salt.
4750 Almaden Expy. Ste. 100, San Jose, (669) 247-7654. 81 Curtner Ave. Ste. 30, San Jose, (408) 610-9150. 2305 El Camino Real Ste. B, Palo Alto, (650) 561-3027; http://www.poki-bowl.com
Poke Poke Fish Bar
Another particularly popular spot, this poke bar offers more volume for the money including an extra scoop of crab salad in the basic price. Guests love the many topping options including crunchy choices like crispy onion flakes that add pleasing texture to a poke bowl. A condiment table inside lets diners get extra sauce including the popular spicy aioli, which has a kick. Seasonal toppings like mango show up along with specials such as a delicious lobster salad. Unlike many teensy poke joints, this one has a bit more seating.
2362 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, (408) 244-2110; http://www.pokepokefishbar.com
Coast Poke Counter
A handsome new place in San Pedro Square Market, Coast Poke looks like an elegant Japanese restaurant compared to the typical small, spare look of local poke bars. It also differs in that guests don’t puzzle over their choices among heaps of sauce, add-in and topping options but rather select from among a few house combinations designed to show off higher-quality, better-cut fish than what some competitors serve. No gristly scraps here. Wonderful is spicy yuzu salmon with shiso, cucumber and avocado. Try the “Hawaiian dessert,” which is a matcha rice crispy treat.
87 N. San Pedro St., San Jose, (408) 320-4372; http://www.coastpokecounter.com
Fish Me Poke
This poke bar is all about lots of options including fun garnishes like fried garlic, hot Cheetos, seaweed flakes and more. The fish portion is on the skimpy side and cut in small pieces but guests like the more expansive menu that includes non-poke choices such as chicken katsu and tempura shrimp. A particularly popular item is a “poke-rito,” which is a poke mix in a wrap with crispy coating. Spicy food lovers will appreciate tongue-searing sauce possibilities like habañero aioli and wasabi mayo.
3005 Silver Creek Rd. #186, San Jose, (669) 234-3483; http://www.facebook.com/fishmepoke
Slice Poke Bar
In Sunnyvale’s Murphy Avenue dining orbit, this poke bar also offers hot Cheeto toppings (which underwhelm some guests) and other extras while delivering generous portions and reasonable value. Besides the poke bowls, delights like hamachi kama (grilled collar), house-made fruit bars and chips with mango salsa are available. Poke wraps are also an option and this spot offers beer and sake, a welcome addition to the usual beverage choices. Slice is positively huge, seating wise, compared to most poke bars in the area.
1150 Murphy Ave. C, San Jose, (408) 326-2480; http://www.slicepokebar.com
This new spot has more choices than most of its competitors, including the poke ingredients as well as other offerings. Want your fish cooked? Seeking non-fish options like chicken or tofu? Hoping for different bases or sauces? No problem. All gluten free, sauces include rarities like sweet Thai chili, masala curry and Korean chile paste. If the copious possibilities are overwhelming, premixed poke is on the menu, too. Poke-hating dining companions can select items like a poached egg, miso soup or mac and cheese.
855 El Camino Real Ste. 9, Palo Alto (Town & Country Shopping Center), (650) 800-7388; http://www.pokelove.com
Departing from the norm, this limited-seating poke bar puts its concoctions in a box rather than a bowl and is creating happy customers by offering unlimited toppings and including two sides — seaweed or crab salad, spicy garlic edamame — in the base price. A welcome addition to the base items is zesty citrus kale salad, which has many fans. Also unusual is the drink options, which include Hawaiian tropical juices and freshly made lemonade. Finally, Pokeatery offers dole whip, soft-serve pineapple dessert that is otherwise only found in Disney resorts.
407 S B St., San Mateo, (650) 389-2672; http://www.pokeatery.com