In an attempt to get my mind off the elections (but really because I had a surfeit of frequent-flier miles that were about to expire), I took a trip to Hawaii a couple of weeks ago, and here's the thing about Hawaii: It's really not like the rest of the United States.
And not just because it's 80 degrees in January. Nothing and nowhere else can make you forget the war and the deficit and the price of gas faster than a tall mai tai enjoyed on a white-sand beach, with the waves crashing at your feet and a pink-orange sun doing the hula as it sinks into the ocean.
That, and the fact that in Hawaii you can stuff yourself silly on ahi tuna — raw, cooked, and in-between — and not worry quite as much about getting mercury poisoning. (You can also stuff yourself silly on Spam, but you may have to worry about Gelatinous Canned-Ham Syndrome, a spontaneous turning of the stomach experienced by those forced to watch you eat it.)
As a card-carrying epicurious San Franciscan, I was naturally drawn to the native food and drink (though not necessarily in that order), and in my culinary prowlings found several more reasons to celebrate island culture. The plate lunch, for instance — specifically the pork lau lau, wherein chunks of pork are steamed with taro greens (which taste like spinach) inside the leaves of the ti plant for a tropical tamale extraordinaire. The dish is accompanied by two mounds of rice and a scoop of mayo-slathered macaroni salad (fat and carb counters the Hawaiians are not).
And then there's the aforementioned tuna, so fresh it practically wriggles, served in an endless variety of styles, but to my mind shown off to full advantage in the celebrated ahi poke (pronounced po-keh). Known as Hawaii's soul food, the appetizer of cubed, raw tuna tossed with seaweed, green onion, sesame oil, and shoyu soy sauce is a local staple, found in restaurants, roadside stands, and corner markets. I tried practically every variety available in the nine days I was there, so you can imagine how two weeks later, back by the mercury-infested waters of S.F., I found myself jonesing to do the hoke-poke (you knew I'd get that in there somewhere, didn't you?).
The problem, of course, aside from the potential brain-damaging effects of locally caught ahi, is that authentic Hawaiian food isn't so easy to come by in the city. There's Tita's Hale 'Aina in the Castro, a popular spot that's been around since 1997, which offers both traditional and California/Japonesque riffs on island favorites. And there's Roy's, the local branch of the spendy Honolulu-based franchise, which presents Hawaiian fusion.
Hukilau (5 Masonic, 921-6242, www.dahukilau.com), a more recent entry started by three Hawaiian natives, delivers a straight-off-the-island experience. First off, lau lau is a daily special. Second, the place makes (and frequently serves) Spam musubi — a slice of Spam grilled and wrapped up sushi style. And lastly, the ahi poke does not arrive in a waffle cone with five tiny granules of tuna and a sprig of cilantro. For $9 (not much more than you'd pay in Hawaii), you get a tray heaping with bite-size cubes of fresh tuna that have been tossed with sesame oil, green and purple onions, limu (a reddish-brown, twiglike seaweed), shoyu, and red pepper flakes. The tuna is tender, the limu delicate and slightly crunchy, and it's even garnished with a dark-purple orchid blossom. Washed down with a mai tai, it's a combo that can make you momentarily forget that the roaring in your ears is a traffic jam on Geary and not the crashing of the blue Pacific.