’āina’s brunch-time Hawaiian malasadas are no mere doughnut

In the annals of fried dough, malasadas deserve their own chapter. Until recently, it was hard to find the fluffy Portuguese-influenced spheres, which are yeastier and more substantial than doughnut holes, outside Hawaii.

As Hawaiian food finds a second life on the mainland, malasadas have started appearing on Bay Area tables. Let’s hope they’re all as good as the version at ’Aina, Bernal Heights’ twice-a-month Hawaiian brunch pop-up.

Chef Jordan Keao’s sugar-coated malasadas, which get their pink hue from guava, arrive warm in a pool of haupia (coconut) custard. They’re accompanied by a menu of elevated Hawaiian dishes like house-made Spam and Kalua pork belly. Ingredients like haupia, starchy Okinawan sweet potatoes and tangy li hing powder testify that Keao is working with the real flavors of the islands, not the faux-Polynesian ones from ’50s suburbia.

“I want to show people a new side of Hawaiian food,” Keao says. “I’m diving down into the classic dishes and breathing light into them.”

Keao grew up on the Big Island, the son of two Hawaii-born parents. His mother moved the family to the mainland when he was 13, but he still feels a deep connection to the island where he spent his childhood. At ’Aina, named after the Hawaiian word for land, Keao blends Hawaiian flavors with the California sensibility he learned working in kitchens at La Folie and Google.

Some ingredients are shipped from Hawaii, like the sweet, challah-like taro-guava bread he uses to make French toast and the fresh hearts of palm used in a pico de gallo that adorns his tender short-rib loco moco. Others, like the flash-fried Brussels sprout leaves in the Portuguese sausage hash, are obtained down the hill at the Alemany Farmers’ Market.

The chef plans to keep developing the menu as he finds sources for papaya, mango and the special ogo seaweed required for poke. This will please the Hawaiian expats who dine next to Bernal families in the blonde-wood dining room of the former 903 Cortland space. A sunny parklet out front offers more seating; legally the restaurant can’t serve the tables outside, however, so to-go orders are served on trays for easy transportation.

For Keao, who has an 18-month-old son and a day job as a chef at Airbnb, visiting the islands two weekends a month is enough for now — in fact, he’s going to start moving the pop-up around in June. We will see if it’s enough for malasada-hungry San Franciscans.