There’s an authentic Hawaiian charm that the new ‘Ai Pono Cafe in Costa Mesa has that other Hawaiian plate-lunch joints in Orange County do not. A lot of it has to do with where it’s located: tucked away in an industrial area under the flight path of John Wayne Airport planes, a place where you’d never think to find any sort of food, let alone meals associated with paradise.
But if you’ve actually been to Hawaii and eaten at such landmarks as Sam Sato’s in Maui and Hamura Saimin in Kauai—both of which are also found in industrial complexes—you’d know the best eateries there are almost always never at the resorts or on the main thoroughfares where the tourists tread. You have to know where to go. But when you make the effort to find them, you feel as if you’ve discovered something special, even though the locals knew the whole time.
Walking into ‘Ai Pono Cafe, I felt as though I were in Hawaii. No, not the fake tiki fantasy of Trader Sam’s or the touristy Roy’s, but the real Hawaii, where the Kama’aina live and breathe.
Despite its name, ‘Ai Pono Cafe is hardly a café. There are a couple of cobbled-together tables and chairs where you can sit outside in the sun or inside in the hallway, but the storefront wasn’t meant for more than a few diners. The building in which ‘Ai Pono operates is actually the Hood Kitchen Space, a commercial facility that rents to catering companies and various food producers. ‘Ai Pono started out as a meal-prep company here before deciding to open this café with just a counter and a blackboard menu.
As the Hawaiian term ‘Ai Pono loosely translates to “eating healthy,” the menu is separated into two categories: Clean(ish) and Dirty(ish). Though I’m still somewhat dubious on what makes something “clean(ish)” as opposed to “dirty(ish),” I’ve gleaned from the mission statement on its website that ‘Ai Pono doesn’t add processed sugar or sodium to the “clean” stuff.
The “clean” side is where I found the Healthy Hawaiian Bowl, which features two proteins topping a large portion of rice. The first protein—cubes of ahi poke that are only slightly seasoned with seaweed and sliced red onion—tastes like the poke I’ve eaten from Safeways in Hawaii, which is to say it tastes like the real stuff and not the kind peddled by a build-your-own franchise.
The second protein was a kalua turkey that I smelled before I even ordered it. Its aroma perfumes the parking-lot air from a small box smoker placed on the sidewalk. When I took a forkful of the still-moist, white-meat shreds from the bowl, what I tasted matched what I smelled all around me. And it’s the imprint of the smoke that makes it almost indistinguishable from kalua pig, the centerpiece of all luaus. To offset the proteins, ‘Ai Pono piles a generous helping of lomi tomato, the Hawaiian version of pico de gallo.
It may be the power of suggestion, but the Healthy Hawaiian Bowl did feel “clean” and wholesome, as if consuming it pushed my nutritional needle to the good. But then, there’s the “dirty” side of the menu, which, if I’m being honest, is much more fun. This is where the Korean fried chicken, Portuguese sausage, fish katsu, fried noodles, mayo-heavy mac salad and crispy shrimp live. And all of these things can be had in one dish: the Styrofoam shell of the Mento Bento, a plate lunch to end all plate lunches.
The Mento Bento is a veritable Hawaiian-food cornucopia, with the fish katsu as its star. The katsu can vary between mahi mahi or ahi, depending on availability. But whatever the species, the deep-fried, panko-breaded block will be brushed with a miso hot mustard and a soy reduction, two sauces that zing unlike any other. The Thai garlic shrimp—the second-best protein—is served with its shell still attached to capitalize on its crispness and glazed in something akin to bottled Thai sweet chile sauce. And although the fried chicken wings—double-fried in the classic Korean style—are perhaps too salty, the furikake-dusted rice, the chow mein-like noodles and the rich mac salad offer course corrections.
When you finish the meal, you realize two things. First, it’s a bargain for what you get. And second, this is a Hawaiian plate lunch made for the modern Kama’aina. And as I surveyed the scene, sipping on a can of lilikoi-flavored soda, I also noticed the music playing was current Hawaiian reggae, not the usual Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole songs that serve as the standard soundtrack for other mainland Hawaiian joints. With the music, the location and the food, I’d venture to guess that if you’re actually from Hawaii, eating at ‘Ai Pono might feel as though you never left.
‘Ai Pono Café, 350 Clinton St., Ste. A, Costa Mesa, (949) 402-6877; aiponomeals.com. Open Tues.-Fri., 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Meals, $10-$16. No alcohol.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.