“We use all the body parts,” the server says with great satisfaction. This is what I like to hear.
I first wrote about ‘aina — Hawaiian for “land” — when it began as a pop-up in Bernal Heights two years ago. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’d eaten there on opening day — and it was damn near perfect. Now that chef-owner (and Big Island native) Jordan Keao has his own space, which opened for lunch service earlier this year before expanding to dinner, it’s like the restraints that hold the Space Shuttle vertical on the launchpad came loose, and he can fly faster and higher. (Note: This metaphor applies only to the shuttles Atlantis, Discovery, and Endeavor.)
Hawaiian food has an iffy reputation: scoops of rice with a slab of a meat product of dubious prominence. To counter this, you might think ‘ina would go “rustic,” because that’s what you do when you’re reclaiming something that later got bastardized and it’s easy to retreat into a nebulous buzzword besides. Although it chases its influences back to their homelands, ‘aina the brick-and-mortar is not rustic; it’s anything but. There’s a level of precision that extends even to the Brussels sprouts, each of which is exactly as browned and flaky as the others. When it comes to loco moco ($19), the burger-with-gravy-and-egg-over-rice dish that’s as common in Hawaii as shave ice, the eggs — like all the eggs, on every dish — have identically cooked yolks that can withstand a gentle flopping-over, without breaking. It’s a “zhuzhed-up California version, with no hamburger patty,” another server said. That is to say, this loco moco comes with a perfect hunk of instantly disintegrating short rib. Portuguese sausage hash ($18), another brunch-hour obligation, comes with that made-from-everything sausage with its marvelously crumbly texture, micro-cilantro and radish shavings, and furikake on the egg yolks like a kelp pesto.
Fastidiousness marks Keao’s approach. Even a hash, in which you expect everything to be cooked to a mush and portioned out, separates its components with the zeal of a zoning board. Nowhere on the menu do you find the word “deconstructed,” but Keao takes pride in sourcing his ingredients, many of which are flown from Hawaii, and with every dish, takes pains to make sure everything remains distinct.
The one exception is the malasadas, Portuguese-style doughnuts injected with guava custard. What is it about a doughnut with a hot filling that basically guarantees happiness? In spite of the healthy — or unhealthy, as it were — coating of coconut sugar, the malasadas (three for $7) aren’t particularly sweet. They’re the one thing where the execution might not be tweezer-perfect, either. They’re kind of squirty. I’ve probably had 10 since ‘aina opened in Bernal Heights, and one or two have had an oily-crispy bottom, like a piece of calamari that turns out to be nothing but fried batter. I strongly resist the idea of ever eating a doughnut with a knife and fork, but if I ever do, it’s gonna be these. They’re available by the dozen, with 48 hours’ notice. If you like breakfast carbs without excess sugar, the French toast ($10/$17) is a good bet also. It’s more toast than French toast, really, giving little indication that it absorbed a lot of liquid, and it comes with vanilla whipped cream and chopped macadamia nuts, as well as bacon.
Brunch is very good, dinner is better. The shoyu-cured pipikaula ($15), a plate of thin-sliced beef that’s marinated for one week and then dry-aged for another, sits atop an Okinawan focaccia with plenty of greens and heirloom tomatoes to pull it back from charcuterie territory. The spam bao ($8) isn’t a Hormel hot dog, but pork from Stone Valley Farms further prettified with trout roe and a bun dyed macaron-pink pink from beet juice; it couldn’t be more telegenic if it tried.
The charred octopus luau ($16) was regrettably rubbery on one visit, although the vadouvan almonds add to the estimable heat no matter what. It, along with the extraordinary cauliflower steak ($9), is grilled over binchotan, the mysterious Japanese white charcoal that produces a freakishly high heat but little fire or smoke. So even when it’s less than perfect, it has an X factor. Like the hash, the Portuguese butter bean cassoulet ($28) looks more like an assembly of individually prepared ingredients rather than a slow-cooked stew. Even the panko is all by its lonesome. Even if you reflexively want to stir it all together, you can’t, so best to just appreciate the Iacopi beans bean by bean. Give in; it’s good.
Still, my very favorite plate of all is available only during brunch and lunch: the smoked hon shimeji and king oyster mushrooms ($17). It’s another texture orgy, with a different, Chinese sausage (lap cheong) and purple sweet potato puree under the poached eggs. Mop it up with Portuguese sweet bread, but do appreciate the buttery mushrooms and the fact that — rare for anything other than portabellas or hallucinogenic trips — they’re the centerpiece. Drinks are all low-ABV, and while it’s getting harder and harder to stake a claim to much originality as that type of liquor license proliferates, the Zephyr ($7) has a gentle tang of basil-infused Dolin Blanc that’s sexier than most. There isn’t a trace of tiki, except maybe in the large-format Punch “Bowl” for 4, a $22 blend of lime and guava with Cocchi Americano and Cappelletti — the aperitif that falls roughly between Campari and sweet vermouth — as the bases. But no rum, no umbrellas, and definitely no drinking vessels shaped like Easter Island moai. If anything, the china is conspicuously posh. (It matches!)
You know a place is well-received when the line is long at 10 a.m. on a very wet Sunday morning only weeks after opening. And pardon any implied condescension, but notwithstanding nearby Piccino, Magnolia Smokestack, Recchiuti Confectioners, this is Dogpatch, not the Mission. Unless you live in one of the loft buildings near here, you probably didn’t walk over; you had to do the one thing San Franciscans hate the most: commit. And you should. ‘aina is no niche restaurant catering to expats from Hawaii, marooned on the continent and homesick for li hing mui powder and POG. It’s a significant arrival and it’s going to get big.