The San Francisco Bay Area has always had an affinity for Hawaii, and there’s a sizable Hawaiian contingent on the Mainland, as evident by the annual Aloha Festival. But replicating popular Hawaiian food (or “grindz” as the locals call it) has mostly been relegated to BBQ teriyaki plates or some kind of pineapple drink.
Lately, though, there’s been a sophisticated look at Hawaiian food from people such as Chef Ravi Kapur of the popular Liholiho Yacht Club, and most recently, Chef Jordan Keao of the new Āina restaurant in San Francisco’s Dogpatch.
Similar to Kapur, Chef Keao grew up in Hawaii (specifically the Big Island). His restaurant (” ‘āina” means “the land” in Hawaiian) specializes in brunch, which means most tables at the contemporary but tiny spot are filled on the weekends. About half of the tables are available for reservations, and you have to grab the weekend slots a month in advance to ensure you get prime seating for brunch. (The rest is reserved for walk-ins.)
After snagging reservations exactly a month in advance, I went for brunch this afternoon with my niece Margot. The location, which is in the popular 22nd Street corridor that’s home to places like Piccino across the way, is perfect because it’s often sunny in the Dogpatch so the light fills the sleek wood trimmed space.
While there’s an extensive bar program, I stuck with a latte with my meal (coffee provided by St. Frank Coffee of San Francisco). And then Margot and I dove into the menu, starting with the popular malasadas, which are the Portuguese-style donuts (3 for $6). At Āina , Keao fills them with guava-flavored cream in the center.
The malasadas were light and airy, like they should be, and the guava filling was delicious, not overly sweet but giving you a sense of the tropics. These are messy to eat, though, because it’s overly coated with sugar.
We also tried the Spam musubi “ssam style” ($4.50), which is a nod to the extremely popular rice ball made with Hawaii’s favorite canned meat. But Keao elevates it by first making his own version of Spam, and then serving it like the Korean ssam with bibb lettuce and kimchi, and rice with an egg yolk. We both enjoyed it, although I felt the “Spam” from Stone Valley Farms didn’t have the same saltiness I recall from actual Spam. Still, this house-made version definitely will make you crave Spam musubi.
Margot and I shared three entree dishes: Portuguese sausage hash ($17), kalua pork belly ($18), and smoked McFarland spring trout ($16.50).
I’m going to address the elephant in the room, which is the protein-to-carb ratio on the plates seem to be 1-to-2. You get more rice or bread than the protein, which is often tasty but I feel the portions a bit small for the price.
For example, the smoked spring trout had a marvelous smoke flavor, and was nice to eat. But it seemed small on top of a pile of baby greens. This really seemed more like a salad, served with black quinoa, pickled shallots, slices of pluots and grilled peaches. An accompanying taro sweet bread was light an airy, and definitely like Hawaiian sweet bread except with a slight purple tinge from the taro.
My favorite dish was the kalua pork belly (of course), which had just two pieces of pork belly that were cooked to perfection, so tender and soft it was like eating butter; my fork easily cutting through the pork belly fat. There was a definite smokey flavor, a play on the kalua pork typically made by slow cooking pig in a smoking pit. The pork belly was served with rice and two slow poached eggs and a fennel puree, topped with a piece of chicharron.
The housemade Portuguese sausage in the hash was loose and tasty, but both Margot and I wished it had more spice for more heat like the Portuguese sausages served back home in Hawaii. My confusion, though, was how the plate of sausage served with roasted Brussels sprouts and rice with two sunny side up eggs could be call a “hash” since there were no potatoes mixing with the sausages?
The last bite
Once you get past the frenzy of getting a table, Āina is a relaxing and welcoming spot for brunch, with a friendly staff acting as Aloha ambassadors. I found more touches of home than I did at Liholiho, but I feel the proteins seem to be dwarfed or overshadowed by the other items, especially the carbs. Still, the food is expertly done, presenting a modern and sophisticated take on Hawaiian cuisine.
The rating: 3 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: Āina , 900 22nd St. (off Third Avenue), San Francisco. PH: 415.814.3815. Open for brunch, Wednesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; and weekends, 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Reservations, major credit cards accepted. www.ainasf.com
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