Taking Hawaiian Food To Another Level at Aina
When dear friends recently visited from the Midwest, I knew I wanted to take them somewhere to dine in San Francisco that would give them a taste of something new, fresh, modern, and fun.
The choice, of course, was Aina, because the odds were that they hadn’t experienced much Hawaiian cuisine in Wisconsin, and certainly none on this level.
This small gem in the Dogpatch neighborhood is always packed. In fact, at brunch, there is almost always a line out the door.
Owned by Chef Jordan Keao and his wife Cheryl Liew, and assisted by Chef de Cuisine Chris Yang, Aina’s flavors will be familiar to anyone who’s ever visited Hawaii. But the form that they take has been refined considerably, as our party found on a recent Saturday night when we dined and paid our own tab.
While the counter seats are reserved for Aina’s tasting menu, the regular dining room orders off the a la carte menu.
You must start off with the Misoyaki Spam Musubi ($11 for two pieces). You can get Spam musubi at every convenience store in Hawaii. But none that will make your jaw drop like this one does. The Spam is house-made of course, with a slightly coarser texture than the canned stuff and a whole lot more complex pork flavor. It’s topped with fried egg puree, smoked trout roe and crispy shallots for the perfect bite of softness, crispiness, saltiness and umami.
Heirloom tomatoes ($10) get an artful presentation with chunks circling the perimeter of a bowl along with dabs of creamy ricotta, charred avocado and Thai basil. A fruity-tangy li hing mui vinaigrette definitely gives it an only-in-Hawaii presence.
North Shore Street Corn ($11) gives an Asian twist to Mexican elote with the sweet Brentwood ears grilled, then smothered with umami mayo that’s like Japanese Kewpie and Korean chili flakes. You’ll want to replicate this at your next backyard barbecue.
Kiawe Smoked Char Siu Ribs ($16) are a rib lover’s dream, dressed with fermented red cabbage, puffed rice and a hail of basil. You don’t even have to get your fingers messy eating these. That’s because the meat is so tender, it really does fall off the bone in its entirety with a nudge from a knife tip. Smoky, sweet and moist, my husband, Meat Boy, could have made a meal out of these alone.
Charred Octopus Luau ($19) presents a tender, grilled leg with kalo (taro) cream, crunchy earthy tasting Vadouvan roasted almonds, smashed little marble potatoes, and dots of coconut gel. It would be almost Mediterranean tasting if not for the tropical sweetness of the coconut.
Saimin ($23) was nothing like we expected. Instead of a big bowl of noodles floating in an abundance of broth, this was a shallow bowl of ingredients with a bit of broth poured over everything at the table so that it was much more of an accent. The nicely chewy noodles were made with squid ink, giving them that unmistakable gray-black hue. Alongside were slices of lap cheong, beautifully rosy, shell-on Kaui shrimp, shaved bottarga and a shoyu tea egg with a yolk the color of a sunset.
Wagyu Beef Cheek ($27) was as succulent as expected, like the most tender short rib in texture. Koji mushroom barley soaked up all the wonderful smoked mushroom jus. The barley alone, with its rich earthy, meaty flavor and delightful chewiness, was a treat in and of itself.
For dessert, there are only two choices. So, naturally, we got both. The Haupia Tart ($15) is gorgeous and tastes intensely of coconut. It’s topped with an unusual sweet potato vinegar ice cream that’s sweet, creamy and has a subtle depth of tang that cuts through the richness of the tart.
Baked Black Sesame Mochi cake ($15) is tender and chewy like any good mochi should be with the added bonus of a deep nuttiness in flavor. It’s garnished with green matcha meringue shards, salted dulce de leche, fresh pluot slices and a scoop of macadamia nut ice cream.
My friends from out of town? They loved the place, of course, and had never experienced anything quite like it. It’s the best taste of Hawaii — and it’s right here in the Bay Area.