I've yet to have the honor of visiting Hawaii, although I might go there for my honeymoon. (Anyone know of a hotel with an awesome water slide, but not that many kids? I'm having a hell of a time finding one.) But I've known Hawaiians most of my life—of the Portuguese, Filipino, Japanese, Samoan and haole variety, as well as regular ol' natives. I know they're all about joviality and food and swear by an unpretentious nature out of Cannery Row. So I'm confident in stating that the closest approximation to our nation's only island state in OC is Da Hawaiian Kitchen in Huntington Beach.
Here is a place that's proudly Hawaiian, but not over-the-top garish like so many of its competitors. The music is not Izzy Kamakawiwo'ole, but a streaming reggae station. There are photos of surfing on the wall alongside outrigger-canoe trophies and a University of Hawaii flag, but also magazines that only islanders care about. And while the copies of the 25th-anniversary edition of Pidgin to the Max is a bit too perfect, it does make for gripping reading—and you'll hear such lingo every once in a while from the kitchen.
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The room is narrow, with just a couple of tables; the prices are cheap. And the food, of course, comes in large, larger and largest portions. All the Hawaiian favorites are here: lunch plates and loco moco and kalua pig and Spam musubi slabs so dense you can throw them through a window. Da Hawaiian's star platter is the "chili peppa" chicken, essentially hen marinated in sauces, then fried so perfectly I swear the kitchen must have used a broaster, so crackly and tender and perfect the results are. The plastic knives the staff give you to cut through it are almost pointless; just grab it with your hands and tear into it, just as all the natives and surfers alongside you do. There are even specials I've never seen in OC—the haupia, essentially a block of coconut Jell-O, is chilled and light, perfect after the onslaught of meat and rice.
All meals come, of course, with a scoop of white rice and better-than-average macaroni salad. I want to go to Hawaii this winter, but in the meanwhile, I'll imagine it here. And the Hawaiian French toast? Divine.
Da Hawaiian Kitchen, 9842 Adams Ave., Ste. 104, Huntington Beach, (714) 968-8900; www.dahawaiiankitchen.com.