Eat & Drink This Now: Hapa J’s Painkiller and Poke

Cubes of ahi: fresh, seared, umami. Photo by Greg Nagel

It’s funny how recommendations for a restaurant can come by way of odd circumstances. Maybe it’s a knowledgable bartender casually getting excited about deep-fried pickles at a place in Long Beach. Or a Middle Eastern Lyft driver laying out his top 10 list of spots in Anaheim’s Little Arabia.

But for once, when I asked my wife where we should eat, expecting the typical “I don’t know; you’re the fricken food guy” answer, she said Hapa J’s in her former hometown of San Clemente.

I didn’t look at its website, consult Yelp or search Edwin Goei’s vault on ocweekly.com. I wanted to be truly surprised, but during the 40-minute drive there, I couldn’t help but silently wonder what kind of food Hapa J’s even served. “Is it a Jamaican speakeasy weed den?” I asked myself.

The mai tai and Painkiller, normal-sized. Photo by Greg Nagel

But I didn’t yet know the word hapa is Hawaiian and describes a mix, mainly a fusion of Asian and European DNA—which is fitting as my wife ate there recently with a pal who is half Japanese, half Polish.

From the parking lot we were greeted by the buzzing sound of surfboards being shaped; a seagull hovering overhead pooped on a Jeep Wrangler, then squawked three times and flew away. “Dude, we could totally be in Hawaii right now,” I said, giggling as I kicked a rock through the lot and admired the thousands of surf stickers plastering every surface.

The crunchy sides of Kahlua pork in the quesadilla taste like crispy bacon. Photo by Greg Nagel

Once inside, we were met by a host so friendly it’s as if we were seeing an old friend at a baby shower.

I start with a pint-sized Painkiller; made with Pusser’s Rum, coconut cream and various juices, the drink is my go-to when trying a place for the first time because the recipe is trademarked and rarely deviated from.

Nature’s projectile food, edamame. Photo by Greg Nagel

As I spend 10 minutes debating what to order, a kid nearby entertains himself by squirting free edamame beans across the restaurant. I try the same, saying “Kobe!” as I shoot one in my mouth at arm’s length on the first try.

Hapa’s service is snappy, which is surprising considering how busy it is. It’s a Sunday afternoon, and the main dining room is full of moms and dads, surfer bros, dishy gal pals, and a chorus of babies. But the mounds of food drowns them all out, almost acting as a sound dampener.

The ahi salad is pint-glass tall. Photo by Greg Nagel

From the portion sizes, it’s apparent why so many families eat here: the sharesies. The ahi salad I ordered is an exact 3,300-to-1 replica of the island of Lanai, complete with a volcanic dome of greens surrounded by an ocean of juicy tuna cubes erupting with fresh umami, crunchy bits, snappy peppers and sweet onions.

Hapa J’s is perfect for locals, a respite from those San Diego trips when traffic is stopped for no reason, as a stop on the South County brewery/distillery tour, or after a long day at the beach with the fam.

“After a meal, it should be called Napa J’s,” I say, then konk out in the passenger seat while my wife drives us home.

Hapa J’s, 2016 S. El Camino Real, San Clemente, (949) 276-6657; www.hapajs.com.

Greg Nagel has been writing about beer since 2011, is an avid homebrewer of wine, cider, and beer, is a certified Cicerone Beer Server, level 1 WSET in Wine, a podcaster with the Four Brewers Show, and runs a yearly beer festival called Firkfest happening on June 29th in Anaheim!

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