Last year was big for Hawai‘i food in the Bay Area. It ended with the opening of San Francisco’s biggest and splashiest Hawaiian restaurant to date, the 7,000-square-foot Trailblazer Tavern from renowned restaurateur Michael Mina. Earlier in the year, Sam Choy’s Poke to Max opened, bringing much more than poke bowls to San Bruno; Outer Orbit debuted with Hawaiian-influenced comfort food and pinball machines in the Mission; and malasada and shave ice pop-ups started filling Instagram feeds. Shortly before that, Morning Wood drew long lines for its loco moco and other Hawaiian-inspired brunch fare, and Aina expanded beyond brunch with its ambitious tasting menu of contemporary Hawaiian flavors.
Clearly, there’s something about Hawai‘i food that strikes a chord with Bay Area diners — and it’s not just our geographic proximity to the islands. A delicious swirl of Asian, European, and indigenous flavors influenced by waves of migration, Hawai‘i cuisine is the ultimate immigrant story — and by extension, as American as it gets. What better time than in the age of Trump should the liberal bastion of the Bay Area so fully embrace it?
But what exactly is Hawaiian food?
Bay Area chefs all point to Liholiho Yacht Club as the first San Francisco restaurant to show a fresh side of Hawaiian flavors. While small spots serving plates of chicken katsu and macaroni salad in the vein of L&L Hawaiian Barbecue (a prolific, Honolulu-based chain) have dotted the region, Liholiho was the first to showcase an elevated experience informed by chef-owner Ravi Kapur’s Hawaiian heritage — but Kapur has been careful to never call Liholiho a Hawaiian restaurant, despite what other chefs and the food media might say. That’s because “Hawaiian food” is a complicated term.
“Being Hawaiian and having grandparents who are native Hawaiian, I take a different approach to it,” Kapur says. “Is this food my ancestors ate? Or is this food that tells a migrant story?”
For Kapur, the term “Hawaiian food” should refer to dishes indigenous to the islands that use native ingredients, like poi, kālua pig, and laulau. Stateside, dishes like loco moco, poke, and Spam musubi feel synonymous with Hawaiian food, but it might be more accurate to call them Hawaiian style than truly Hawaiian. “None of that stuff is from Hawai‘i,” Kapur explains. “Is Hawai‘i the second-largest consumer of Spam? Yes. But that doesn’t make it Hawaiian food.”
Humans arrived on the Hawaiian islands about 1,000 years ago, catching fish, mashing taro into poi, and cooking meat in underground pits. Missionaries and whalers from Europe and the mainland came in 1778, introducing the likes of pineapple and pumpkin. It wasn’t until the 1850s when people from China, Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Portugal started immigrating in droves to work on booming plantations. They brought along seeds and recipes from their homelands that would merge together into “local food” — plate lunches heaped with short-grain rice and Korean kalbi or Japanese teriyaki chicken, followed by a dessert of Portuguese malasadas.
“Local food is people coming from where they were born and coming to a new place and assimilating through their food,” Kapur says. “That’s the beauty of local food and the food of Hawai‘i: the intertwining and the acceptance of other cultures through food.”
Contemporary Hawaiian cuisine grows up in the Bay Area
What we’re now seeing in restaurants across the Bay Area is a natural evolution: Hawaiian chefs living on the mainland are getting back to their roots.
At least, that was the case for Chad and Monica Kaneshiro, who opened hit Hawaiian-influenced brunch restaurant Morning Wood in San Bruno at the end of 2017. The husband-wife team had spent more than two decades working “for your typical James Beard, Michelin restaurants,” says Chad, who was born on Oahu.
“As you get older in your career, your food comes full circle. We’ve seen everything come and go as far as food trends — the 13 components on a plate, molecular gastronomy crap,” he says. “When you’re in the industry long enough, you want to do food closer to your heart.”
At the time, Chad wasn’t sure how folks would respond to matcha mochi pancakes and kālua pork loco moco. There wasn’t anything else quite like it in the South Bay, with Aina being the only success story for Hawaiian-style brunch in San Francisco. Chad recalls welcoming very few customers for the first two weeks, and then suddenly, word got out and a line formed out the door. The lines have been constant ever since. “We didn’t anticipate this at all — it just blew up in our face,” he says.
When Christian Gainsley moved from Oahu to San Francisco for art school 15 years ago, he had a hard time finding well-executed Hawai‘i food — there were only L&L-style fast-food spots. When he decided to open Outer Orbit, the pinball bar serving contemporary Hawai‘i food that debuted in the Mission last summer, he and his wife, Elisabeth Kohnke, knew the menu should reflect Gainsley’s heritage as a fourth-generation Hawaiian. Seeing the success of Aina and Liholiho emboldened them, and now Outer Orbit’s chef Sam DeCamp whips up house-made Spam musubi, lomi lomi guacamole with sustainable trout, and kālua pig melts.
“In Hawai‘i, food continues to evolve. A lot of conceptions people have of Hawaiian food is L&L and Hawaiian barbecue, which is not inaccurate,” Gainsley says. “I think there are a lot of chefs in Hawai‘i that were trained in places like SF and New York and came back and brought their technique with them. So the evolution of food has really taken off. That was part of what we were trying to do, is bring a taste of what’s going on in Hawai‘i right now.”
Beyond local food, the cuisine of Hawai‘i took a major turn in 1991, when a dozen chefs created an official denomination — Hawaii Regional Cuisine — championing local ingredients prepared with classic techniques in high-end settings. These chefs, including Alan Wong, Roy Yamaguchi, and Sam Choy, are now legends — but their once-exciting style, often also called Pacific Rim, has fallen out of favor in recent years. Michael Mina points to Asian fusion as the main culprit.
“When fusion got a bad rap because people weren’t doing fusion right, I think Hawai‘i got lumped into it for a while. But when you think about what [Trailblazer Tavern chefs] Michelle [Karr-Ueoka] and Wade [Ueoka] do or what Ravi does at Liholiho, the dishes have different Asian influences in them but they’re pure in what they are,” says Mina. (Mina doesn’t have any Hawaiian roots, but Trailblazer Tavern’s chefs are from the islands.) “They take the Hawaiian spirit and some products from there and bring these Asian dishes to life and put their own spirit on it.”
So what’s driving this fusion infusion?
Chefs understand why they’re cooking their food, but they have different theories as to why it’s resonating so strongly with Bay Area diners.
Stephanie Iwasaki, who started Hawaiian-style shave ice pop-up Always Aloha last summer in Oakland, points to the power of social media influencers. Instagrammers post gorgeous images of sparkling blue waves and pristine beaches in Hawai‘i along with appealing runny eggs on top of loco moco, neon-colored towers of shave ice, and vivid scoops of tuna poke. People see the photos, and they want the dishes. The teams at Morning Wood and Outer Orbit, meanwhile, both look at Hawai‘i dishes as comfort food, and more and more diners are seeking out that kind of comfort and nostalgia these days. Mina sees local diners as being attracted to Hawai‘i’s “spirit of relaxing and unwinding,” which can come through the restaurant’s vibe and hospitality.
But chefs usually agree on two points: First, modern Hawaiian food is relatable to large swaths of people because it contains so many different cultural influences. And along those lines, the Bay Area loves Asian food, and these Hawaiian restaurants showcase well-loved ingredients from Japan, Korea, and China in fresh, exciting ways.
It’s also hard to talk about Hawaiian food in the Bay Area without at least mentioning the poke trend — while it’s slowed down, there are still dozens of thriving poke bowl shops in San Francisco alone. “People associate poke with good health and I think that’s really on trend right now for almost everybody,” says Mina, who thinks the fervor over poke contributed to a wider interest in Hawaiian cuisine among diners.
Others, like Outer Orbit’s Gainsley and Kaneshiro, think most folks probably don’t make the link between poke and Hawaiian food at all, especially since the mainland’s poke shops — with their imitation crab and squirts of mayo — share little resemblance to most of the poke in Hawai‘i. “It kind of stands alone,” Kaneshiro says. “I don’t think there’s a lot of effort to incorporate other parts of Hawaiian cuisine.”
The extreme popularity of Tiki bars right now might also be influencing diners to explore Hawaiian fare. Chefs like Kapur see no correlation between the Tiki trend and Hawai‘i — after all, Tiki was invented in California as a white man’s vaguely Polynesian fantasy.
“You know what people drink in Hawai‘i? They drink beer,” Kapur says. “There’s no one in Hawai‘i drinking mai tais and pina coladas.”
That may be true for locals, but tourists are certainly drinking mai tais in Hawai‘i — and many probably aren’t familiar with the origins of Tiki culture. But for Mina, the rise in Tiki was a boon for opening Trailblazer Tavern — the combination of tropical, fruity cocktails and pūpū like ahi poke nachos and Dungeness crab lumpia are proving to be a hit. Then there’s the proliferation of Spam musubi, now frequently seen at random delis near the cash register, and butter mochi, thanks in part to the explosively popular mochi muffins from Berkeley’s Third Culture Bakery. Versions — or bastardizations, depending on who you talk to — of loco moco are appearing on brunch menus of all kinds. Whether they’re all directly related or not, these individual trends are contributing to the sense that Hawaiian flavors are suddenly everywhere.
While Kapur still wrestles with the definition of Hawaiian food — and if Liholiho Yacht Club should be called a Hawaiian restaurant — he has recently come to his own personal understanding. For him, Hawaiian food has nothing to do with dishes and ingredients. It’s about intention and the aloha spirit — the desire to bring people together and connect. You won’t find Liholiho’s octopus with curried raisins or baked Alaska featuring pineapple ice cream in Hawai‘i, but you might find its spirit. “If somebody is going to say Liho is a Hawaiian restaurant, I hope it’s not because of what they ate but because of how it made them feel,” Rapur says.
“I think Hawai‘i is just representing itself in the same way as Cambodia or the Philippines might be right now. It’s not just a trend — the world is ready for it now,” Kapur says. “French, Italian, and Mediterranean were dominating everything for quite a bit and that was the pinnacle. You had people denying their ethnicities and heritages to cook something they thought was the best way and then realizing their experience is valid and good enough.”
Check out 10 of the Bay Area’s best restaurants with Hawaiian influences right here.