Gross oversimplification alert: On this side of the Pacific, there are exactly three types of Hawaiian restaurants. First, you have the lunch-plate purveyors. Think L&L and its brethren at which Styrofoam containers groan under heavy loads of sticky-rice domes formed by ice-cream scoop; mayo-rich mac salad; and protein piles ranging from the gravy-doused-burger-patty-and-fried-egg gut bomb called loco moco to the bone-in beef short rib called kalbi to the golden, deep-fried, breaded planks of chicken katsu. These are workaday, unfussy meals that make up in volume what they lack in refinement or breadth.
On the other end of the rainbow, you've got Roy Yamaguchi's empire, representing the romantic vision of island cuisine, what a mainlander might think of when daydreaming about Hawaii–quasi-Asian resort meals served by hula girls or shirtless guys that eat fire.
Somewhere in the comfy middle lies Da Luau in Irvine. Here, you'll find delicacies that represent a fuller picture of the real food of Hawaii. The raw cubed-fish dish called poke, for instance, is spot-on: free of gristle, just the right amount of sea salt to make each piece cooly luscious to eat with rice, even if they serve it with superfluous pieces of lettuce as garnish.
The unnecesary roughage is a cosmetic add-on to its poke bowls. But then everything is. In Hawaii, poke is typically sold and bought by the pound at the butcher's section of supermarkets such as KTA, brought home or consumed outside on the curb.
There's meat jun, thinly sliced shoyu-marinated beef dipped in beaten egg and fried on a griddle. The dish is rarely seen outside the islands and can truly be called indigenous. There's a theory it is Korean-inspired or at least invented by a local Korean cook. I can prescribe to this since I've only found it in Korean-owned restaurants in Hawaii. Da Luau, coincidentally, is also Korean-owned, and it serves it as good as the others–so tender you can tear it apart with a plastic fork.
Then there's the island chicken, which might be better known to the kama'aina as mochiko chicken, fried nuggets of hen deeply seeped of shoyu and sugar and coated in a barely -there batter of rice flour. It has similarities to Japanese chicken karaage, but it's much sweeter, much more playful, something you eat out of a lunchwagon with rice before you go off to swim and frolic in the sand.
And for dessert, what else but shave ice, available in a myriad of flavors poured on by bottles, with ice cream and drizzles of sweetened condensed milk, if you prefer.
There are restaurants just like Da Luau sprinkled here and there in SoCal. In fact, the owners of this newish place, where Fatburger used to be, previously owned Ono Ono in Tustin, which is another worthy option. And if you still crave the kalbi, the loco moco, it does those quite capably, too.
Edwin Goei was born on the island of Java, grew up in La Habra, studied in Irvine, and eats everywhere. Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, he went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.