There’s always been a touch of Hawaii along Clement Street in San Francisco’s Richmond District, what with the Asian community’s fondness toward the 50th state. But with last year’s opening of Grindz, Hawaiian food has been polished and reinterpreted for Californians.
I stumbled upon Grindz a few weeks ago when I was looking for lunch in the area. The couple of fast-casual Hawaiian spots were gone, but I couldn’t miss the Grindz name outside this spot. Being a local Hawaii boy, I knew “grindz” was pidgin for “eats.” (The restaurant originally opened as “Ono Grindz,” which is Hawaii slang for “delicious eats.” But I guess a legal dispute prompted the owners to drop the “ono” part although the food can be delicious in its own right.)
Walking into the contemporary and casual restaurant, the vibe didn’t necessarily strike me as Hawaii. There were the requisite potted plants to give it that island feel, but the décor with its oddly dark slant gave it more of a Polynesian feel (think Tahiti or even the Philippines).
Not that I was expecting the stereotypical hula dancers and surf boards, but it didn’t translate as being on point. I dwell on the décor because I think it’s symbolic of the food. There were touches of ingredients that scream Hawaiian, but the flavor somehow lacks the soul of Hawaii.
Grindz seems to be a popular brunch place, and the menu definitely slants that way with the selection of breakfast items like eggs, huevos rancheros platters, French toast and waffles. All items are given an island twist, with recognizable Hawaii favorites like Portuguese sausages, kalua pig, li hing mui, haupia, or Spam.
Others are re-interpretations by Chef/Owner Bradley Lum of Hawaiian classics like the Loco Moco, saimin, or katsu. But in everything, you can expect fresh ingredients with simple plating. While the portions are generous for the price, don’t come in looking for the typical “plate lunch” layout of two scoops of rice and macaroni salad. Think streamlined and slightly refined.
The items I tried (one visit by myself; another visit with my friend Vera) were dishes I probably wouldn’t find in the Honolulu of my childhood. Take, for example, the Kalua Huevos Rancheros ($11), a mashup of the Hawaiian kalua pig dish with the Cal-Mex breakfast of tortillas, rice, eggs, and salsa.
Lum’s kalua pig huevos rancheros was a nicely layered plate of traditional salty slow-cooked shredded pork sandwiched between crispy tortilla along with kimchi fried brown rice, salsa, avocado, and an over-easy egg. The crispy tortilla was so crispy that the plate actually gave off a crackling sound as the tortilla shells shifted as I was snapping a photo of it. This is the first time a plate actually made noise before I ate it.
While all the flavors were nice, I did yearn for more of the saltiness of the kalua pig, which probably could be solved by upping the proportion of pork to fried rice.
An off-menu special of Ahi Tostada ($8) was like eating delicious crunchy street tacos, except the filling was tuna marinated in the Hawaiian “poke” style of soy sauce and sesame oil.
Vera’s breakfast dish of Hash & Eggs ($10) also came with kalua pig along with a nicely cooked poached egg. She especially liked the potatoes, which I thought looked more like home fries than hash.
Growing up in Hawaii, I didn’t like coconut but I loved haupia, which is coconut pudding. (I think it’s the texture of coconut flakes that I dislike.) So I was looking forward to trying Grindz’s unique Haupia Bread Pudding ($7). The dessert came to the table almost the size of a little log cabin, with layers of Portuguese sweet bread coated with a coconut crème anglaise topped with macadamia nut bits.
Vera and I enjoyed the bread pudding, but couldn’t finish it because there was so much of the bread. I also wanted more of the haupia sauce, which really should have gone in between the layers of bread and not just a scoop on top. The coconut crème anglaise also gave the “haupia” more of a custard look and feel and not very authentic.
Side note: There’s a chalkboard to sign your name because there can be a wait at peak brunch times, but I’ve found that the servers don’t really pay attention to the board. So you need to be aggressive while you’re waiting to make sure they notice you and remember your turn. Once you’re at the table, though, service is friendly, led by Lum’s wife/co-owner Josefa Carballo Lum.
The Last Bite
Even though the haupia wasn’t authentic in flavor, it was still an overall nice dessert. And that’s how I felt about many of the food at Grindz — they all seemed familiar but always seemed to miss the mark on authenticity. Still, just because they don’t taste like Hawaii doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy them. The malasadas weren’t shaped like the popular ones in Hawaii, nor airy in texture, but still pretty darn good doughnuts freshly made to order and dusted with cinnamon sugar.
Chef Lum’s dishes aren’t what I’m used to eating in Hawaii, but they’re solid dishes that satisfy. They may not transport me to the islands, but whenever I’m feeling homesick, I know of a pretty good alternative to the cost of a plane ticket.
Grindz, 832 Clement St. (between 9th and 10th), San Francisco. PH: 415.221.4746. Open Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday, Saturday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. No reservations. Major credit cards accepted.
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