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Tropical Reigns 

Wednesday, Feb 25 1998
Punahele Island Grill
2650 Judah (at 32nd Avenue), 759-8276. Open Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Reservations accepted. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Parking: no problem. Muni via the N Judah and the 29 Sunset.

Rick's Restaurant & Bar
1940 Taraval (at 30th Avenue), 731-8900. Open Monday through Thursday 4:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 4 to 10 p.m. Reservations advised. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Parking: usually easy, or $2 at the nearby 76 station (pay at the restaurant). Muni via the L Taraval, 48 Quintara, and 66 Quintara.

Tita's Hale Aina
3870 17th St. (at Noe), 626-2477. Open Tuesday through Saturday 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed on Mondays. No reservations. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Parking: unlikely. Muni via the K, L, and M Metro lines, and the 24 Divisadero, 33 Stanyan, 35 Eureka, and 37 Corbett.

The difference between here and there is, in Hawaii the rain is warm, and the spigot goes on and off all day instead of running nonstop. And the cooking was "fusion" (American, Pan-Asian, Polynesian, and Portuguese) back when "fusion" meant bombs, not food. Oh, I wanna go, you wanna go, we all wanna go to Waimanalo. But even if the air fare's too steep, the table fare's plain cheap at two new Hawaiian restaurants in town, and only a little higher at a slightly older eatery with a semi-Hawaiian menu and monthly luau.

Punahele Island Grill
On one of winter's wettest nights, we began with a full immersion at Punahele Island Grill. This newest entry, with the longest, purest Hawaiian menu, was opened in early January by the owners of the Hawaii Store across the street. We were guided through the downpour by the neon beacon of the adjoining 32nd Avenue Bar, which furnishes the alcohol. (Trust me, don't order any umbrella drinks.) The interior, the menu, and the attitude could have been transplanted directly from one of the non-beachfront neighborhoods of inner Honolulu. In the simple, spacious room, the few other diners who'd braved the storm all sat facing a high-hung TV near the kitchen, watching a videotaped broadcast, from Hawaii, about a quarter-ton musician who died young. We were the only haoles (gringos), and the young waitress was visibly impatient when we lingered over the extensive menu, which includes all-day breakfasts (egg-meat combos) and numerous burger variations along with dinner entrees. I think we were interrupting her homework.

For pu-pus (appetizers) we started with aku (octopus) poke ($2.50), a salad of tender little octopus pieces, soy-soaked and spicy on shredded lettuce. For Spam-lover TJ, we got a Spam musubi ($1.85), a huge nigiri sushi made with a slab of this beloved island meat (probably a legacy of Pearl Harbor's wartime K rations -- Spam was part of that package). A girdle of nori seaweed bound the meat-hunk to a wedge of unflavored short-grain rice. Punahele is unique in offering poi ($2), the infamous taro-root paste. Theirs still tasted like wallpaper glue, despite a nice lemony tang that was absent from the poi dixie-cup I once sampled at the now-vulcanized Walter's General Store in long-lost Kalapana. Poi is obviously something you have to grow up with; just as we were two-thirds of the way through researching this review, Patricia Unterman's article on Hawaiian food in the Sunday Examiner Magazine provided some enlightenment: In old Hawaii, poi was almost the only food not taboo to women.

Most single-item dinners run $7.50 to $9.25; TJ and I ordered combination platters to increase our sampling. As my Punahele Lu'au Plate ($13) arrived, a TV comedian exhorted, "Don't eat McDonald's, eat laulau -- we might get the islands back." The laulau was a big, black inedible ti leaf package wrapped around earthy-tasting, tender chopped taro greens (resembling spinach) and a mixture of chicken, pork, and fish, all overcooked. (A vegan laulau luau is available for $2 less.) The shredded kalua pork (also cooked in ti leaves) was pretty dry, too. But the sevichelike lomi salmon was delicious, with flavorful cubes of raw fish, underripe winter tomatoes, and zippy chopped scallions. The classic island macaroni salad had perfectly cooked pasta with creamy mayo dressing. (The rice was just rice.)

TJ got the Kolohe Mixed Plate ($10.50), your choice of three "local items" with rice and mac salad. Chicken katsu had airborne chicken fillets deep-fried in panko, ethereal Japanese bread crumbs. Pork teriyaki was subtly sweet and very flavorful. Kaka'ako chili was billed as "lunch wagon style ... spicy but not too hot." It was more snappy than spicy, slightly sweet and hearty with beef shreds (not ground beef) and red kidney beans cooked just right, served over rice. After these repasts, despite the comedian's inspiring song, "Hawaiian Superman," our appetites wimped out, and we regretfully passed on haupia (coconut custard) cake.

Rick's Restaurant & Bar
Rick's is a love of a joint, a grandly comfortable room (serving "San Francisco Comfort Food") with an enormous mahogany bar and brass-circled "porthole" mirrors along the mahogany-paneled dining room wall. Silent TVs show pantomimes to bar patrons as Hawaiian music plays on the sound system; a mellow salt-and-soy Parkside cross-section ranges from nursing age to drinking age to dotage. Owner and head chef Rick Oku is Hawaiian; his menu is semi-Hawaiian. Although we missed "Luau Night" on the first Monday of the month, the regular menu and specials include constant infusions of "local items." Rick's is the only Hawaiian restaurant here that features island seafood entrees; that's what we checked out this time (but we'll be back, baby).

Poke ($8 to serve two) had luscious raw tombo tuna diced with (of course) unripe tomatoes in a soy-heavy dressing, improved by squeezing in the accompanying lime wedges. Also included were slivers of some pungent, soy-soaked mystery fruit; the waitress hadn't a clue. TJ and I finally guessed umeboshi, Japanese preserved plums. Goliah stew ($16.50), billed as "Rick's version of Hawaiian Fish Stew," was a spectacular bowl with half a Dungeness crab hunkered on top, and schools of prawns, Manila clams, black mussels, calamari, and mahi-mahi chunks in a coral sea. Although the squid bodies and prawns were overcooked, everything else (even the fish) was tender; the hot, sexy broth was a seafood stock ablush with red wine and tomatoes and (despite the little heart-healthy menu icon) something tasting mighty like butter. It left our hearts aglow.

Sauteed mahi-mahi ($13) was sublimely tender, piled with diced avocado, papaya, tomato, and cilantro leaves, which was all it needed. Both entrees included wonderful candied carrots and yellow squash, uncandied broccoli florets, and a few raw bean sprouts that brought everything together, plus starch of choice. From the smart, reasonable wine list, the "wine of the week" was a terrific buttery chardonnay ($4.75/glass). Our dessert special was a gorgeous haupia. A gold and red moire of strawberry and (probably) passion fruit syrups covered a brittle surface, under which lay an all-grown-up, barely sweet custard filled with fresh-tasting coconut shreds, topping a gooier, flanlike layer of yellow custard. The flavors hinted that Rick's coconut milk starts with a nut, not a can.

Tita's Hale Aina
In "sister's house of food," Honolulu-born Toni Lee brings "local food" to the Castro, where Hawaii is a favorite vacation site. Even with nearby Pond Street living up to its name, evident regulars trooped through to pick up takeout from the cafe's L-shaped counter, the center of a bright, airy space with seats for 30. Giant houseplants cast lacy shadows on pale coral walls bedecked with large B&W photos of Hawaiian solo dancers and tiny colorful folk-art prints. Next to the counter, a small wooden rack holds pineapples, the symbol of "welcome"; as we ate, a staffer took two symbols into the kitchen for sacrifice to the customer-gods.

Like Punahele, Tita's serves Hawaiian-style breakfasts at all hours, here including Portuguese doughnuts (malasadas) made to order, Spam and eggs, tropical pancake fantasies, and pao douce Portuguese French toast. Lunches and dinners include four "Da Kine Rice Plates" at $6 each, a two-item combo plate at $8, and (our choice, of course) the all-out King Kamehameha at $10, which has minitastes of everything, plus full-size portions of the inevitable macaroni salad (less luscious than Punahele's) and white rice. Among the beverages (all teetotal), for $1.25 you can get a bottomless glass of fresh lemonade or iced tea.

Enjoying another play of "Hawaiian Superman," we began with a side of teriyaki beef ($2.95), with good-quality beef, evidently cooked tender on a gas grill (since there was no charcoal aroma in the meat or the air). If you haven't been to Hawaii, the amount of beef on island menus may seem surprising, but Hawaii raises quite a lot of cattle -- the Parker Ranch on the cool, grassy lower slopes of Mauna Kea (on the Big Island) is larger than the King Ranch in Texas. What beef doesn't get shipped to Japan can be relatively less costly than mainland foodstuffs inflated by freightage.

On the King's plate, the kalua pig, pork slow-cooked in ti leaves and served shredded, was tender and faintly smoky. The chicken adobo was wonderful -- sharp, light, and piquant with fruity cider vinegar and hot pepper, not too much soy sauce. Khal bi, a couple of small Korean-style barbecued pork ribs, were juicy and just fatty enough for fun. The charbroiled mahi-mahi minifillet was tender, served plain. Lomi lomi salmon was our favorite version among the three restaurants, with decent-quality tomatoes despite the season, and a light marinade with a touch of spiciness. For dessert, we got to try out a new item slated to become "Toni's signature dish," haupia (which, like Rick's, had fruit syrups over shredded coconut custard over yellow coconut-milk flan) on a delicious crust of chopped macadamias and crushed bittersweet chocolate-cookies (like adult Oreos). Coconut and bittersweet chocolate is one of the Earth's great combos; add macadamias and it's Paradise found.

About The Author

Naomi Wise

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