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.
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.
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.
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.
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 this June!