OK, we get it. Poke in L.A. is officially a thing. The build-your-own-bowl-of-raw-fish concept is having a moment — like grilled cheese or cupcakes before it.
Once a snack relegated to a few obscure beach-shack stands in the South Bay, the refreshing, Hawaiian-style crudo made from cubed and marinated fish is now available as a customizable main course in every corner of the city (yes, even in West Covina). Lots of new-school poke joints have opened in the last year (see: Mainland Poke Shop on West Third Street, Poke Bar in Hollywood, Poke N Roll in Glendale, etc.). The new Whole Foods in Playa Vista has an in-house poke master. And a place in Orange County even started putting poke on top of fries.
But as good as poke can be, it's too bad that many of the other culinary offerings from the diverse Hawaiian islands have not become popularized with it.
Where is the smoky, leaf-wrapped lau lau? The gravy-drenched, eggy loco moco? The slippery saimin noodles swimming in a seafood broth?
We've been hitting up some of the old-school Hawaiian restaurants in L.A. — such as Bob's in Gardena, Tak's in Leimert Park and Rutt's in Culver City — in addition to the new-school joint A-Frame, which Roy Choi recently gave a more authentic Hawaiian menu. And we were stoked to rediscover the Torrance double whammy of King's Hawaiian eateries: the original restaurant and bakery on Sepulveda and a newer (by a decade) quick-service version on Western called the Local Place, both of which are owned by the sweet-bread bakery whose factory opened nearby in 1977.
Poke is served only as an appetizer (pupu) at the restaurant, though both offer its close cousin, lomi-lomi salmon. And their sprawling menus of ethnic Hawaiian food showcase a cuisine that blends the islands' Polynesian influences and those of immigrant workers of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Filipino and Portuguese descent.
At the Local Place, where you order at a counter and get your food on paper plates, a 30-minute lunch break might include a combo plate with steamed Kalua pork and fried chicken katsu, a bowl of hearty Portuguese bean soup or a pile of wok-fried saimin noodles topped with bacon, char siu, kamaboko and scrambled egg.
There are also sandwiches — all made on King's Hawaiian buns, of course — filled with everything from mahi mahi with tartar sauce to sweetly marinated pork with ginger, soy sauce and garlic. The name of the latter: Porky Boy Sandwich.
Down the street, at the King's Hawaiian restaurant — a replica plantation castle on a wide, lonely stretch of Sepulveda — you might never make it past the bakery cases full of rainbow breads, cakes and pastries, plus the company's signature, sweeter take on Portuguese bread is available in all its forms (many of which you never see in stores). Put your name in for a table in the tropical dining room, graced with indoor greenery and murals that call to mind Disneyland’s Tiki Room, and you'll end up feasting on a Hawaiian meal reminiscent of a resort-style dinner.
Order your saimin in a piping hot seafood broth and your huli huli chicken with a side of macaroni salad — and don't skip the heaping, gravy-filled plate of loco moco, the traditional breakfast of hamburger patties smothered in brown gravy and eggs.
Are King's Hawaiian's restaurants the most authentic place in L.A. to try Hawaiian food? Not really. But they're a good place to start if you need a break from the poke fever sweeping L.A. — and still want a taste of the islands that created it.