Tropical Reigns

Punahele Island Grill
2650 Judah (at 32nd Avenue), 759-8276. Open Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Reservations accepted. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Parking: no problem. Muni via the N Judah and the 29 Sunset.

Rick's Restaurant & Bar
1940 Taraval (at 30th Avenue), 731-8900. Open Monday through Thursday 4:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 4 to 10 p.m. Reservations advised. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Parking: usually easy, or $2 at the nearby 76 station (pay at the restaurant). Muni via the L Taraval, 48 Quintara, and 66 Quintara.

Tita's Hale Aina
3870 17th St. (at Noe), 626-2477. Open Tuesday through Saturday 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed on Mondays. No reservations. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Parking: unlikely. Muni via the K, L, and M Metro lines, and the 24 Divisadero, 33 Stanyan, 35 Eureka, and 37 Corbett.

The difference between here and there is, in Hawaii the rain is warm, and the spigot goes on and off all day instead of running nonstop. And the cooking was "fusion" (American, Pan-Asian, Polynesian, and Portuguese) back when "fusion" meant bombs, not food. Oh, I wanna go, you wanna go, we all wanna go to Waimanalo. But even if the air fare's too steep, the table fare's plain cheap at two new Hawaiian restaurants in town, and only a little higher at a slightly older eatery with a semi-Hawaiian menu and monthly luau.

Punahele Island Grill
On one of winter's wettest nights, we began with a full immersion at Punahele Island Grill. This newest entry, with the longest, purest Hawaiian menu, was opened in early January by the owners of the Hawaii Store across the street. We were guided through the downpour by the neon beacon of the adjoining 32nd Avenue Bar, which furnishes the alcohol. (Trust me, don't order any umbrella drinks.) The interior, the menu, and the attitude could have been transplanted directly from one of the non-beachfront neighborhoods of inner Honolulu. In the simple, spacious room, the few other diners who'd braved the storm all sat facing a high-hung TV near the kitchen, watching a videotaped broadcast, from Hawaii, about a quarter-ton musician who died young. We were the only haoles (gringos), and the young waitress was visibly impatient when we lingered over the extensive menu, which includes all-day breakfasts (egg-meat combos) and numerous burger variations along with dinner entrees. I think we were interrupting her homework.

For pu-pus (appetizers) we started with aku (octopus) poke ($2.50), a salad of tender little octopus pieces, soy-soaked and spicy on shredded lettuce. For Spam-lover TJ, we got a Spam musubi ($1.85), a huge nigiri sushi made with a slab of this beloved island meat (probably a legacy of Pearl Harbor's wartime K rations -- Spam was part of that package). A girdle of nori seaweed bound the meat-hunk to a wedge of unflavored short-grain rice. Punahele is unique in offering poi ($2), the infamous taro-root paste. Theirs still tasted like wallpaper glue, despite a nice lemony tang that was absent from the poi dixie-cup I once sampled at the now-vulcanized Walter's General Store in long-lost Kalapana. Poi is obviously something you have to grow up with; just as we were two-thirds of the way through researching this review, Patricia Unterman's article on Hawaiian food in the Sunday Examiner Magazine provided some enlightenment: In old Hawaii, poi was almost the only food not taboo to women.

Most single-item dinners run $7.50 to $9.25; TJ and I ordered combination platters to increase our sampling. As my Punahele Lu'au Plate ($13) arrived, a TV comedian exhorted, "Don't eat McDonald's, eat laulau -- we might get the islands back." The laulau was a big, black inedible ti leaf package wrapped around earthy-tasting, tender chopped taro greens (resembling spinach) and a mixture of chicken, pork, and fish, all overcooked. (A vegan laulau luau is available for $2 less.) The shredded kalua pork (also cooked in ti leaves) was pretty dry, too. But the sevichelike lomi salmon was delicious, with flavorful cubes of raw fish, underripe winter tomatoes, and zippy chopped scallions. The classic island macaroni salad had perfectly cooked pasta with creamy mayo dressing. (The rice was just rice.)

TJ got the Kolohe Mixed Plate ($10.50), your choice of three "local items" with rice and mac salad. Chicken katsu had airborne chicken fillets deep-fried in panko, ethereal Japanese bread crumbs. Pork teriyaki was subtly sweet and very flavorful. Kaka'ako chili was billed as "lunch wagon style ... spicy but not too hot." It was more snappy than spicy, slightly sweet and hearty with beef shreds (not ground beef) and red kidney beans cooked just right, served over rice. After these repasts, despite the comedian's inspiring song, "Hawaiian Superman," our appetites wimped out, and we regretfully passed on haupia (coconut custard) cake.

Rick's Restaurant & Bar
Rick's is a love of a joint, a grandly comfortable room (serving "San Francisco Comfort Food") with an enormous mahogany bar and brass-circled "porthole" mirrors along the mahogany-paneled dining room wall. Silent TVs show pantomimes to bar patrons as Hawaiian music plays on the sound system; a mellow salt-and-soy Parkside cross-section ranges from nursing age to drinking age to dotage. Owner and head chef Rick Oku is Hawaiian; his menu is semi-Hawaiian. Although we missed "Luau Night" on the first Monday of the month, the regular menu and specials include constant infusions of "local items." Rick's is the only Hawaiian restaurant here that features island seafood entrees; that's what we checked out this time (but we'll be back, baby).

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