Images by Ricardo Moreno
There are days when it really hits you. Maybe you’re “freezing” at 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Or the physical pain of forcibly pronouncing it “care-ee-oh-key” around co-workers is too much to bear. You let someone cut in front of you on the dreaded 101, and, once again, this person doesn’t wave thank you. Yes, you’re surrounded by a never-ending supply of palm trees, but you’re most definitely not living in Hawai‘i. Yet through those taunting fronds, all my Hawai‘i expats, there is hope! Three years and approximately eight lack-of-mac-salad-induced panic attacks later, I’ve discovered a mixed plate of places in the immediate L.A. area that’ll give you a much-needed taste of home.
Just shy of two years old, Pono Burger has become a quick favorite for easily recreating some of Hawai‘i’s fondest flavors amid an atmosphere reminiscent of Kāne‘ohe or Kailua. Oh, yeah, and the waitstaff actually calls it “shoyu” here. Started by chef Makani Gerardi of Big Island’s popular Ultimate Burger, you can find her latest venture in Santa Monica. Enjoy a unique menu infused with local touches, such as a spicy guava rum sauce or a Kona coffee bourbon BBQ sauce, in what feels like one of the only four blocks in Los Angeles where drivers rarely honk their car horns, i.e. paradise. Gerardi’s creations boast solid, health-conscious portions made with only non-GMO, grass-fed meats, and as many organic and locally sourced veggies as possible. But the true marker of its Hawai‘i roots? The Paniolo Burger, a twist on a Texas-style burger stacked with three perfectly flaky buttermilk beer-battered onion rings, because when it comes to food, go big or go home, right? Its second location is scheduled to open soon in West Hollywood near a couple places that could really use some chill vibes: Whiskey a Go Go and The Viper Room on Sunset Boulevard. 829 Broadway St., 11 a.m.–10 p.m., ponoburger.com.
Sometimes, after a long sleepless night out, you just want to wake up to the warm and familiar embrace of Spam, eggs, and rice because screw your juice cleanses, Los Angeles! Yes, I still pay a dumb monthly premium to take the same Flywheel class that Gwyneth Paltrow does every weekend, but before I do, I want the arteries in my calves to be fueled entirely by Spam. Turns out that even in godless Los Angeles, prayers can be answered. Commissary at The Line Hotel in Koreatown recently added this very basic local dish to its novel farm-to-table-centric panoply of offerings, and it’s now the bright new spot for those mornings when you’re too hungover to fry it all up yourself. Also, when you’re living in a city like Los Angeles, anything remotely green will remind you of Hawai‘i, which eating inside Commissary’s lush greenhouse surroundings will do. You may balk when you see how much they charge for a plate ($13), but it’s still cheaper than that one-way ticket to grandma’s house in Pālolo Valley. 3515 Wilshire Blvd., 7 a.m.–11 p.m., thelinehotel.com.
RUTT’S HAWAIIAN CAFE
The menu at Rutt’s reminds me of what I miss, crave, and love so much about Hawai‘i: how you can put five distinct cultures on a plate—kālua pig next to Korean short ribs on a bed of Puerto Rican rice—and no one bats an eyelash. The Culver City establishment has changed ownership since its inception in the mid-1970s, but the food and portions haven’t: lau lau, hamburger steak, mac salad, haupia, Hawaiian bread French toast–you can pretty much fill in the rest. The restaurant itself has the charming wear and tear of any decades-spanning eatery (images of your neighborhood’s Big City Diner should be flashing before your eyes right now). If you peek in through the kitchen’s window at Rutt’s, you might expect to see your cousin’s neighbor’s sister’s boyfriend’s Little League coach’s son on the grill. Yeah, it feels like that kind of place. 12114 Washington Blvd., 6:30 a.m.-8 p.m., ruttscafe.com.
MARUKAI MARKET DTLA
If places to find a decent lau lau in Los Angeles are considered the stuff of urban legend, then a place that sells Zippy’s chili is nothing short of the Holy Grail. For months, I had only heard rumors that you can actually excavate the foodstuffs of our famed fast food chain at an L.A. supermarket. Then one day I saw it with my own eyes, felt it with my own hands, and whispered “STFU” with my own lips because this place really sells Zippy’s chili. There are Marukai stores, the chain of Japanese markets, strung all across Southern California, but the one in downtown L.A.’s Little Tokyo is the only one that, to my knowledge, has a ready supply of Zippy’s Portuguese bean soup and its signature chili. Of course, like most Marukai markets, this location also has a glorious Hawaiian snacks aisle, the one that feels like walking directly into a never-ending care package sent by your mom: macadamia nut candies, li hing mui, senbei, that Japanese-chocolate-biscuit-thing-that-looks-like-a-mushroom-topped-with-milk-chocolate-y’know-da-one, and more. In the city where movies are made, you never have to watch another one without mochi crunch in your popcorn.
123 S. Onizuka St., 10 a.m.–9 p.m., marukai-market.com.