Meeting Justin Shea at a busy coffeehouse one morning, I thought for a split second he would kick my ass if our interview weren't to his liking. But he reminded me of a friend I knew, a sort of gentle giant. Of course, there begins the questioning: What does a Newport Beach native know about island cuisine? After living in Hawaii, much more than you'd expect.
Your earliest food memory:
Taco Night. My dad would let me have a sip of beer.
Favorite meal growing up:
Mom's meatloaf. There was bacon and ketchup on top, making for a nice crust. I just had it two nights ago.
Your best recent food find:
Anjin in Costa Mesa. I like that it's small. It's hard for me to get in the table, and I actually like that. You're just so close to everybody. There are different flavors; everything's so fresh. Yeah, you're cooking it yourself, but it's awesome. It's Japanese, but I've eaten some of the best kimchi I've ever had in my life. It's cool, and it's open late.
Most undervalued ingredient:
I love salt. I like the high-end sea salts. We don't put salt on our tables, but when you want it, we've got the red sea salt from Hawaii.
Tell us about the “I Love Poke” festival in San Diego.
Our main man, Nino Camilo, founded this two years back. He also runs ilovemusubi.com. He just wanted to get a lot of good people together and make good poke, as well as showcase island retailers and entertainers. We love it because we cruise down there with 40 strong as a family and have a good time. You feel like you're back on the islands, which is always a good thing.
Who is Aunty Blanca?
Aunty was our original tortilla maker. She has since retired; we now have Aunty Sonia. They both worked extremely hard. During the summer, I pick up 130 pounds of masa for them to press tortillas with. That translates into 1,100 tortillas in five hours. They rock.
What are Li Hing Mui seeds? Are those used in the plum-wine ice cream?
Salty dried plum. They make it in powder and seed form. Extremely popular in Hawaii, they use the powder with everything from gummi bears to tequila. It's like kimchi: You're either about it, or you hate it. You can get 'em anywhere over there: ABC Stores, 7-11, movie theaters, etc. It is not used in the plum-wine ice cream, but whatever they do use for that ice cream is unreal.
Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best:
Fast food, across the board. Like Alejandro's [see next question] near the DMV. And In-N-Out.
What fast food do you admit to eating?
Three rolled tacos from Alejandro's on 19th Street in Costa Mesa because it's a must when it's late at night, and you're feeling awesome.
What is your beverage of choice, and where do you get it?
Bourbon or ice-cold Primo Hawaiian Lager at Hapa J's.
You have some interesting items on the menu, such as Pasta Wednesdays or shaken beef as a plate lunch. Care to elaborate?
The thing we love about the islands is the various cultures that are represented there. And it is displayed best through the food of Hawaii. So we use that as inspiration when creating menu items.
We love the pineapple wine! What's the most popular cocktail?
We use it for our Robinson Island martini, made with all island components. We use Li Hing Mui powder to balance out the sweetness.
One food you can't live without:
Bread because it's bread. I can't even go two days without it. What are you supposed to eat besides bread?
Where was your most recent meal? What did you have?
Egg sandwich on toasted sourdough with grilled onions and avocado at Pipes in San Clemente, across from Hapa J's.
Best culinary tip for the home cook:
I'm not really a cook, but I would have to say keep it simple, don't overcook it, and make sure to season your food. Montreal Steak Seasoning works on everything.
That's an impressive Taco Tuesday menu. What are the hours?
4:30 to 9:30 p.m.
What do you think of people who take photographs of their food?
I just think it inspires people. I've seen some stuff, too, that I want to try. I'm absolutely on board with people who take pictures.
Chef Aaron Lee — O.G. chef of Hapa J's — because he represents Hawaii so well in his cooking, paying respect to the traditions of the islands, but making it modern and look real good.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten:
Opihi shellfish in Hawaii. They go for $18 per pound, and dudes will risk their necks to go out and pick 'em from the ocean. They go out into the reefs and cliffs, and waves are coming at you. Very salty and slimy and crunchy. They're good, but you gotta wash 'em down with beer. If you like tako [octopus], you'll like 'em. It tastes like the sea.
Sweet or savory?
Both. For sweets, I love any of those sweet breads at 85 Degrees. Any Hawaiian sweet bread. They combine my favorite things: sweet and salty. Fried Snickers at the fair is ridiculous. You gotta be balanced.
Favorite places to eat (besides your own):
El Campeon in San Juan Capistrano, Pho 54 in Little Saigon, and Crab Cooker in Newport Beach.
You're making breakfast. What are you having?
Two over-easy eggs, Portugese sausage, banana flapjacks, rice and a side of papaya. It's part of my South Beach diet.
Weirdest customer request (and did you do it?):
Sliced chicken breast, no seasoning, lightly cooked. It was for a sweet, elderly woman.