A free jukebox is a joy forever. That goes doubly so when it combines 1950s greaser classics like Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon’s “Palisades Park” and Simon & Garfunkel’s cover of “Wake Up Little Susie” with off-kilter duet like Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s 1967-on-opium track “Some Velvet Morning” and Tom Jones and the Art of Noise’s cover of Prince’s “Kiss.” At Outer Orbit, the Hawaiian bar and pinball arcade on Mission Street in Bernal Heights, there are plenty of deep cuts like these, along with the soundtrack for your luau on the juke’s right-hand column.
You have nine pinball machines to choose among, including Deadpool, Guardians of the Galaxy, Star Wars, and something very ’80s-looking called “Total Nuclear Annihilation.” (Yeesh, didn’t Hawaii have a brush with that earlier this year?) There’s even a vintage 1971 Zodiac machine on loan from the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda. Aspiring Pinball Wizards can go to a Pinball Hogwarts of sorts every Thursday evening from 6:30-7:30 p.m., to learn the basics of competitive play while getting a dollar off drinks.
It’s a fun, approachable concept, especially compared to those bigger, flashier arcades that cater to corporate parties and have a lot of muscle manning the velvet ropes. But Outer Orbit has a top-notch kitchen, too. Thanks to places like the always-magnificent ’aina, Hawaiian food has slowly shaken off the baggage of its pineapple-and-SPAM reputation, and executive chef Sam DeCamp has two menus — dinner and brunch — that stay true to the cuisine’s gratifying salty-fatty flavors without becoming rote or wildly overambitious. It’s bar food, but it’s not.
Let’s get the bad part over with right here: The Hawaiian nachos ($9) are basically not edible. Nachos are one of those thing where you can play with the content all you want, but you need to respect the form. Outer Orbit’s use of fragile taro chips in lieu of sturdier tortillas is questionable — especially since, if you’re going for Hawaiian-ness, more of that pineapple salsa, please. But the worst part was that the plate was cold. Not cooled-off; frigid. The guac was approximately 34 degrees, and the cheese sauce — closer to a Bechamel than to nacho cheese, really — had a serious chill on it, too. It had never been hot, so nothing had melted together into that glorious asteroid collision that nachos are supposed to generate.
Most everything else is very good, though. Comparatively minimalist Spam musubi, $4 for a bite, are a fine way to begin, more flavorful than truly salty. Karaage wings ($9) nailed the sweet-stickiness you want out of them, and smaller popcorn-style karaage bits show up as an option for the Hawaiian Plate Lunch ($17), a choice of two proteins and two sides. (Togarashi tots are probably the can’t-miss component, although if mildness isn’t a deal-breaker for you, the guava-smoked lamb ribs almost unctuous in their texture.) If you go with the pickles as a side, know that there will be pineapple amid the cucumber slices and string beans, and they’re wonderful — although Outer Orbit’s only other major misstep was the pickled brussels sprouts, fatally unpleasant little Sputniks that your molars don’t so much chew as compress.
If you’re a mayo-phile, you’ll probably gravitate to the $11 Kalua Pig Melt, which has a high cole-slaw-to-everything-else ratio — and it comes with four pieces of Hawaiian sweet bread, probably the best bread ever invented after sourdough and Dutch crunch. And the octopus carpaccio ($7) is a curiosity for sure. Having had it twice, it’s really grown on me in spite of looking a little like a shower applique, with its lovely balance of fuyu persimmons, avocado, and lightly pickled onions and little dabs of aioli. To its eternal credit, Outer Orbit makes two hot sauces, a piquant, vinegary red-pepper one and a green-chili variety that isn’t so much a sauce as a chili puree and which might also be called Total Nuclear Annihilation. Try it with the tots.
Brunch is better than dinner, such that Outer Orbit could be the successor to the recently departed Old Bus Tavern. The Spam Beni ($14, and essentially the most expensive non-combo plate item) is a tasty if somewhat dutiful take on an eggs benedict, and of course it comes with yet more tots. Although it would be better to let people pour their own syrup, the mochi chicken-and-waffle (more popcorn karaage, $12) is a solid take on that other contemporary classic.
Even for this carnivore, the veggie loco moco (with an Impossible Burger patty, a fried egg, and mushroom gravy, $13) was immensely satisfying, but the brothless mazeman ramen ($12) was the best. Rather than the stirring the half-yolk from the standard soft-boiled egg into tonkotsu broth, here you have a poached egg that coats the noodles thickly, and with the addition of Portuguese sausage — something I wish popped up in other places on Outer Orbit’s menu — you have a bowl that feels like a proper brunch in the Lower 48. Clever!
Another strength is the beer list, which is good in abstract and even better when paired with the food. Epic Brewing’s bracingly pucker-inducing Tart & Juicy IPA ($7) meshes nicely with the octopus and the fatty lamb, for instance. But it’s the passionfruit boozy shaved ice ($13) that made brunch sparkle, especially when you let it get real melty first. (This is one trend I hope never goes away.) In a city full of places that feel like everywhere else, Outer Orbit isn’t like anywhere else, and the price is most certainly right. Like a certain deaf, dumb, and blind boy who was really good at pinball, it plays by sense of smell and always gets a replay.
Outer Orbit, 3215 Mission St., 415-574-6166 or outerorbitsf.com