Hapa J's Puts You In an Aloha State of Mind

In an idyllic, sparsely inhabited town named Hawi on Hawaii's Big Island, there's a breezy restaurant in a converted plantation house. I can't remember the name, but it doesn't matter, as it's practically the only eating place for miles, tucked in a lush tropical forest after you leave the lava fields, a discovery everyone who passes by inevitably makes. Its bright-green paint reels drivers in like a beacon. Even if you already had lunch, you need to stop in, take a breath, stroll through the swinging screen doors, and hear the wind chimes tinkle and the floorboards creak beneath your feet. And the food: a lot of fish, the bright crunch of colorful vegetables, scoops of rice, and a coconut curry sauce about which I curse myself nightly for not buying the recipe book that contained it.

Hapa J's in San Clemente reminds me of that place, of how I felt then, the elation of being somewhere far-flung yet familiar, and how I never wanted to leave. Absent is Roy Yamaguchi's corporate polish and Don the Beachcomber's tiki kitsch—this is a Hawaiian restaurant in the real world. Its wooden structure could conceivably exist near a sandy beach in the island state itself, the wall paint a soothing green, the sunlight flooding in from openings in the ceiling. A surf shop is next door; the ocean, a few blocks away. Bruddah Iz's creamy voice floats through the restaurant, his ukulele plucks tickling your soul. Flowers blossom from the hair of the pretty, young waitresses who carry meals seemingly extracted from my fondest Hawaiian-vacation memories.

The mini luau plate is such a dish. At the center of the plate is a mound of shredded Kalua pig dribbling with natural moistness and an unobstructed porky flavor, tasting as though it were freshly extracted from the imu. Easily mistaken for pico de gallo, the rendition of lomi lomi salmon here turned out to be as perfect as any I've ever had—as refreshing and effervescent as the included scoops of rice and macaroni salad were filling and earthy. But two things sent the plate to the heights of Mauna Kea. For a few minutes, the coconut haupia and the pickled mango made me forget where I was, that hula girls weren't anywhere near me and I still had work tomorrow. The haupia, squares of coconut-milk pudding, jiggles and melts to cream in the mouth, soothing it at the same time the pickled mango, a boomerang of sweetness and tart, jolts it. Considering the variety Hapa J's has managed to pile on to that one plate, the less-than-$10 price is more than reasonable, even if it's only available for lunch on weekends.

Dinnertime brings the crowds, tracking sand in with their flip-flops, surfboards drying on their roof racks. They come for kalbi ribs, steak moco, shrimp-truck shrimp, burgers with a slice of pineapple, nachos erupting with that Kalua pig heaped on in volcano-like mountains, poke served with plain steamed rice and little else, just how Hawaiians like it. The pig appears again with sweet melted onions as sliders under toasted King's Hawaiian rolls. The rolls, in turn, show up as the main ingredient in a dome-molded bread pudding garnished with a white-chocolate-sauce puddle, berries and crushed macadamias. The nuts unsurprisingly crust the mahi mahi, perhaps the most elegant meal the kitchen produces, plated in a way that makes food-magazine art directors drool. There's height and symmetry that starts with purple Okinawan sweet potatoes cut in rounds and arranged in a circular pow-wow around the entrée. Sauces appear as Pollockian dots and swirls, and not a garnish is out of place.

Thanks largely to its well-executed vanilla beurre blanc, the entire thing works even better on the palate than on the plate. The vanilla-scented sauce takes us dangerously close to the edge of dessert, but somehow manages to pull back before taking the leap. The presence of baby bok choy actually helped, acting as a grounding strip of green, cleansing the tongue for the next simultaneously sweet and savory forkful. And if I ever make it back to the Big Island and find myself at that restaurant, it's going to be memories of this dish that will make me homesick.

This review appeared in print as “An Aloha State of Mind: Hapa J’s will make you recall your fondest Hawaiian vacation memories.”

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