This Hole-in-the-Wall Life

Oh my oh my. Photo by Heather X

I remember shrugging when the Hawaiian restaurant ONO ONO opened about three years ago in Tustin. The food was good but unmemorable, mostly barbecue, ribs, rice bowls and Izzy Kamakawiwo'ole tunes on the radio. I visited three or four times, then found better places.

A couple of weeks ago, an island native urged me to reconsider. He said Ono Ono had expanded to Rancho Santa Margarita and now boasted a bigger menu. I was skeptical, but the brah was right: Ono Ono has improved dramatically. In fact, it's now the most comprehensive Hawaiian restaurant in the county—and damn delicious.

The feast, then and now, starts with the barbecue: kalbi ribs fat with spiced, charred meat that drips from the bone; baked Kalua pork rubbed with ginger and hickory sauce; chicken marinated, battered or slathered with a Korean hot sauce that, in a pinch, you could use to distress concrete. Other Hawaiian standards—poke tuna, saimin noodle soup, the taro-spiked lau lau—are delicious and plentiful.

But what's most exciting about Ono Ono are the rarities. It's one of the few restaurants in Southern California that offers Portuguese entrées, and the rustic beauty of the Portuguese bean soup—tomato broth heavy with linguiça, ham, kidney beans and vegetables—ensures the underserved Portuguese communities in Artesia and Cerritos will make the long drive south. Although there's little coconut flavor in the coconut shrimp, its hefty size and fried crunch make up for the overlook. Chile flakes pepper the pineapple marmalade that accompanies the shrimp, begetting the best combination of sweet and spicy since the Mexican tamarind lollipop.

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Everything excels at Ono Ono, but I return for two reasons, and one of them is a trio: coconut, macadamia and banana pancakes stacked high, their respective toppings hugging the pancakes' edges like a crescent. The coconut, macadamia and banana seep through the batter of their respective pancakes to lend a great, even flavor to the buttery flapjacks.

The other meal that beckons me is the notorious loco moco, a massive porcelain bowl of steamed rice topped with a succulent hamburger patty under two over-easy eggs; brown gravy drowns the bulk. Dealing with the loco moco is like forking through a pillow, but it's comfort food with no equal. And when you're done, all you want to do is sleep—then wake up and eat it again and again.

ONO ONO, 17582 E. 17TH ST., TUSTIN, (714) 505-0750; ALSO AT 22205 EL PASEO, STE. A, RANCHO SANTA MARGARITA, (949) 888-1230.

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