Homesick in San Francisco? Head to ‘Āina

Former Hawai‘i residents open an Island-inspired brunch spot in San Francisco.


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The kalbi loco moco came with smoked honshimeji mushrooms jus, rice, sunny eggs, hearts of palm pico de gallo, cilantro and pea tendrils—but no gravy. And that’s OK.
Photos: Katrina Valcourt

 

When I planned to meet up with a few former Honoluluans during a quick trip to San Francisco and they suggested we have brunch at ‘Āina, I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend one of my few Bay Area meals eating something I could get at home. And there’s no way a Mainland restaurant would have the same charm or flavors as a local joint, since it wouldn’t be using Shinsato Farm pork or Mari’s Gardens lettuce.  But it seems SF has a way of putting its own spin on things and we were curious, so we wandered into the recently opened restaurant around 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning, hoping to score an unreserved table.

 

Nope. The wait was more than an hour. Given that the restaurant only opened three months ago, had no reservations available and is already getting rave reviews from local SF media (including getting picked as San Francisco Magazine’s best brunch), we should’ve seen this coming, especially with poke having a moment. (The day after we went, the city even hosted an “I Love Poke” festival.) Even though there were other brunch spots nearby, now we were determined to see how SF did Hawaiian food.

 

The chef of ʻĀina is Jordan Keao, who’s from Hilo, and the menu is full of Hawai‘i-inspired dishes and drinks, including the Hawaiian Vog and a guava mimosa.

 

Inside, a photo of the Hilo waterfront hangs above a bar seating six. It’s a small room, with space for a few dozen diners at a time, but warm wooden furniture, cute succulents and large windows make it feel more spacious. When the waitress came by, we asked her what the deal is with this place—turns out the chef, Jordan Keao, is from Hilo, and his wife, Cheryl Liew, is from Singapore. The two of them co-own the restaurant with general manager Jason Alonzo, known for his specialty cocktails. After hearing we had all lived in Hawai‘i, Keao came over to say hello and share a bit of aloha spirit we’d been missing.

 

We started with the three most Hawaiian-sounding drinks on the menu: the Hawaiian Vog, featuring Lillet, Byrrh, Earl Grey-infused caramelized banana, spices and a malted black sesame foam top ($8); the Coconut Milk Punch, with Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, Cardamaro, coconut milk, hibiscus and rose petal powdered sugar, vanilla and spices ($7); and a straight-up guava mimosa ($7). Except for the mimosa, the drinks were served in ceramic vessels—not something you’d really see in Hawai‘i cocktails, but perhaps Singapore-influenced. I’m not a fan of coconut or banana-flavored drinks, but my dining buddies enjoyed the playful tropical themes and presentations.

 

The brunch menu was a challenge for our vegetarian friend, whose only option seemed to be the Kennebec potatoes with aioli, furikake, compound butter, Japanese pickles and micro cilantro ($7), until the waitress recommended the mushrooms dish without lup cheong. The smoked honshimeji and king oyster mushrooms accompanied slow-poached eggs, Okinawan sweet potato puree, Portuguese sweet bread and rice for $16. Our other friend ordered the kalbi loco moco ($19), which also came with smoked honshimeji mushrooms jus, rice, sunny eggs, hearts of palm pico de gallo, cilantro and pea tendrils—but no gravy. A loco moco without brown gravy isn’t a loco moco at all, if you ask us, but she still devoured the slow-braised short rib dish.

 

Though tempted by the Punalu‘u Bakery taro French toast ($10), I went with the melt-in-your-mouth kālua pork belly, poached eggs, pickled onion and rice ($18). Instead of cabbage, kālua pork’s BFF, the dish came with a creamy fennel puree and a basil-and-arugula salad wrapped in shaved squash. The Hawaiian influence was obvious, and I have to say I appreciated the lightness of the dish thanks to the fresh veggies, which are sourced from local California farms. The skin was crispy, the meat tender, and all the flavors a surprisingly perfect combination that I wish I could order again. Unlike a lot of local food, it didn’t make me feel particularly heavy afterward.

 

Which meant we had room for malassadas.

 

The melt-in-your-mouth kālua pork belly is served with poached eggs, pickled onion and rice topped with furikake. The veggies are from California farms.

 

Save room for malassadas. One order comes with three guava-custard-filled fried balls of dough that hit all the marks.

 

One order comes with three guava-custard-filled malassadas rolled in coconut sugar for $6. The warm, sweet treat had the right buttery, chewy dough and a tart, creamy center but was smaller than we would’ve liked. Maybe we were just missing home.

 

But sitting in a sunny window with old Hawai‘i friends, licking sugar off our fingers and talking about the rail project, it wasn’t that different, after all.

 

900 22nd St., San Francisco, open Wednesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and Saturday to Sunday, 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., ainasf.com

 

READ MORE STORIES BY KATRINA VALCOURT

 

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