Restaurateurs and reinvention may go together like a burrito and a flour tortilla, but I really don’t understand the phenomenon. I can’t comprehend why a cook, after pouring so much of him- or herself into an eatery, suddenly decides to up and start another place almost exactly like what they had created. It happened with Martin Diedrich; it happened with Glen Bell. And it also happened with the people who created Ono Ono Hawaiian BBQ, for years one of the better island-style eateries in Orange County. A couple of months ago, one set of the founders opened Da Luau Hawaiian Grill in Irvine—why? Was there a falling out? Wanderlust? Better business opportunity? I don’t think much about it while I’m there, of course—the loco moco, runny and stuffing and comforting, turns me as apathetic about reality as a Lotus-Eater.
All of what you’ve come to expect from a mainland Hawaiian dive is here—the Mauna Loa-sized shave ice servings, the Izzy on the soundtrack, the artwork of luaus and leis (although kudos to Da Luau for commissioning stunning silhouettes instead of relying on photos or paintings like the competition). The poke, raw tuna cubes minimally dressed with sesame oil and sea salt, melts like a carpaccio and envelops every region of the human palate—the sweetness of the fatty fish, the slight tang of a dash of soy sauce, the calming saltiness and unmitigated umami of it all—but the dish is a standard at all Hawaiian eateries. Breakfasts feature macadamia nuts and greasy Portuguese sausage, as pork is king. Yum, but ho-hum.
Where Da Luau truly excels is in the items that, while Hawaiian faves, don’t always pop up in local restaurants. The mochiko chicken defies the laws of physics: It’s deep-fried in a sweet batter, but the resulting shell seems to hover around the soy-soaked hen, like the hide of a baseball. This results in nuggets that retain two distinct flavors and emit steam like chugging locomotives when you bite into them. Also battered is the beef jun, thinly sliced beef dunked into egg, then fried—a country breakfast via Hilo, one almost impossible to find stateside outside the Carson area. Oxtail soup wonderfully reeks of ginger; the obsession with buckwheat noodles hints at the Korean ownership of the restaurant, along with the canister innocently labeled “Hot Sauce” that features the kind of lava, redolent of garlic and soy, stocked at the best Korean barbecue houses.
Da Luau Hawaiian Grill, www.daluau.com.
Who knows why Da Luau’s owners left Ono Ono—does anyone really care? Now excuse me while I make like a lotophage and ride that third helping of the luscious Spam musubi to uncaring bliss. . . .
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This column appeared in print as "The Island of Bliss."