Trailblazer Tavern — A Fantastical Taste of Hawaii, and Beyond
San Francisco’s Trailblazer Tavern — a collaboration between home-grown Chef Michael Mina, Honolulu chefs and husband-and-wife Wade Ueoka and Michelle Karr-Ueoka, and Marc Benioff’s Salesforce — is full of whimsy from the get-go.
Enter through the Salesforce East building’s lobby and be greeted by a lifelike LED-projection of fish swimming overhead, giving the impression of being at an actual aquarium. There are also playful, cartoon-ish sculptures of a bear, goat, Albert Einstein, and Astro — all part of the official Salesforce Trailblazer Crew, who are meant to represent how the company blazes new trails.
That extends to the restaurant, which opened in late 2018 to serve modern, upscale Hawaiian food in the heart of downtown San Francisco.
Proteges of revered Hawaiian chef Alan Wong, Ueoka and Karr-Ueoka are part of the new vanguard of young, talented chefs moving Hawaiian regional cuisine into a new era.
I’ve had the chance to dine at their beautiful MW Restaurant in Honolulu, so I’ve been eager to taste their fare at Trailblazer Tavern. I finally made it there last month with my family. We paid our own tab, but the restaurant brought out a few extra dishes gratis for us to try.
The sprawling, 7,000-square-foot restaurant is one floor up in the Salesforce building. There are tables in the loft space that overlooks the lobby, as well as others inside that flank a turquoise bar adorned with enough greenery to make you feel as if you’re enjoying a Mai Tai on Waikiki Beach.
I opted for a more original libation, the Sgt. Doheny ($15), a rum-based cocktail with a splash of Creme de Banane, and Velvet Falernum. It’s a little reminiscent of a Negroni with its garnish of orange. What makes it extra fun is the large coconut water ice-cube. As it melts, you begin to taste more and more lovely coconut in the drink. So, it pays to sip this slowly, not chug it.
The Ahi Poke Nachos ($19) is a nice take on what’s become a ubiquitous dish on nearly every street corner now. The poke was fresh and firm, and the fried wonton triangles the perfect vehicle to get it from bowl to mouth.
The Kona Kampachi Ceviche, ($18) had the clean, sweet fish cubes tossed with pickled tomato for zing, and aji amarillo for smoky heat.
Fried chicken ($16) is not what you might expect. It’s not the usual thighs or legs that you pick up with your fingers. Instead, it’s a more refined version, transplanted from MW, where the chicken is fried in a neat brick, then sliced before getting finished with kimchee vinaigrette. It’s not Southern, and it’s not necessarily luau, either, but something all its own, reminding me a little of Chinese pressed duck.
Unagi and butterfish arancini ($13) are almost like Italian meets Japanese. The compact little balls with their seafood taste reminded me of Japanese takoyaki (octopus balls).
Of course, Trailblazer Tavern has SPAM. And of course, the restaurant actually makes its own version of the famous (infamous) canned meat. It’s not as dense, but lighter almost like the texture of canned corned beef. The small patties are crusted in mochi to give them an extra crisp exterior. It’s little salty, a little sweet, and a whole lot porky. Topped with a sunny side-up quail egg, it’s like breakfast for dinner.
If you crave the Porchetta Lau Lau, kahlua pig ($35) cooked in taro leaves, it pays to show up early and order ASAP when you sit down. As it is, it was already sold out by 6:30 p.m. on the Saturday we were there.
No matter, you’ll find the Miso Honey-Glazed Butterfish ($37) an irresistible second choice. The rich, oily fish, as succulent as Chilean sea bass, but more sustainable, is so buttery on the palate. An assortment of banchan, including cucumbers and cabbage, adorn the plate, along with bok choy.
The North Shore-Style Kauai Shrimp ($31) is modeled after the shrimp trucks on Kauai that sell ginormous portions of garlic-butter shrimp. This version was more modest in size, of course, but still plenty buttery and garlicky, atop fluffy, sticky rice.
For more luxuriousness, you can’t beat the Main Lobster & Hokkaido Scallop ($42), drizzled in yuzu-caper brown butter.
Onigiri ($9) rice balls get doused in black truffle butter to make these humble hand-held snacks a little lavish. I only wish they had been seared a little longer to form a real crunchy sear on the outside.
Long beans ($9) get blistered and showered with peanuts and chili-garlic sauce.
Whatever you do, you must — and I mean must — save room for dessert. After all, Karr-Ueoka has been a James Beard semi-finalist many times over for her exquisite creations.
The Coconut Cake ($9) is not a big wedge, but more deconstructed. It’s one of the lightest tasting desserts on the menu. Coconut chiffon, icy coconut snow, dabs of haupia pudding, small triangles of coconut cake, and both chunks of fresh pineapple and shards of compressed ones fill a plate. It looks like bright yellow pineapple pieces poking out of a fluffy cloud.
The MW Chocolate Cake ($10) is at the direct opposite end of the spectrum — rich as-can-be layers of Vahlrhona chocolate cake and chocolate crunch, all done up with gold leaf. Passion fruit sorbet adds a perky tang.
The Tropical Creamsicle Brulee ($10) is Hawaii personified. It’s a goblet filled with the zingy, fresh tropical tastes of the island with layers of haupia tapioca, dragon fruit, pineapple and lilikoi sorbet, with a golden bruleed top you have to break through. Use your spoon to dig straight down to the very bottom to get a little bit of everything in one heavenly bite.
It’s enough to transport you — at least for a moment — to tropical paradise.
More: A Visit to MW Restaurant