If you're looking for the latest combination of diced papaya and unpronounceable Big Island fish, you might visit the Maui Beach Cafe. If you want to see what kind of Chinese dishes Japanese chefs might cook up for Californians in a restaurant owned by an Austrian famous for his French food, try ObaChine or Chinois.
But to taste the original pan-Pacific cuisine, you have to travel to the South Bay, to a cultural festival in a park, a hula competition or one of the couple dozen or so cafes that cater to the region's huge (and often overlooked) Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community. In Hawaiian cooking, Chinese, Japanese, Polynesian, Korean and American cuisines come together as seamlessly as rice and beans.
At a Big Island farm party thrown near Waimea by star Honolulu chef Alan Wong last month, the pit-cooked kalua pig, the chile-daubed local cockles, the salsalike lomi salmon and the pastramiesque peppered pork called pipikalua – not to mention the mussels in a fragrant taro-leaf puree, the pickled raw crab and the brothy glass noodles called “long rice” – showed local Hawaiian cooking to be as rich in potential as any other Asian cuisine.
But the street-level version can be good too. Bruddah's is perhaps the most “authentic” of California's island restaurants. A Gardena storefront on a block of dusty thrift stores crammed with bamboo-appliqued furniture that started its life in Honolulu living rooms, and cater-cornered from a '40s department store crammed with more Dickies and Carhartt jackets than you'll see in a lifetime of 311 videos, the cafe looks like pretty much every greasy spoon in downtown Hilo. The long, spare room is decorated with vintage rice sacks and autographed pictures of island musicians; handbills advertising hula contests and Tahitian cultural festivals are tacked to a bulletin board. The day's specials – fried ahi, sweet and sour spareribs, laulau – are inked on a board above the rear counter.
Bruddah's may be the plate-lunch capital of the South Bay, home to that uniquely Hawaiian marriage of Japanese bento-box formality and American abundance – austere combination plates blown up into heroic, multipound lunch-wagon platters big enough to nourish sumo wrestlers or NFL blocking backs. A plate lunch typically includes two ice-cream scoopfuls of sticky rice and one of macaroni salad – Bruddah's mac salad, made with short segments of spaghetti and a sesame-inflected dressing dyed a deep yellow with pureed egg yolks, is excellent – as well as whatever pickles, noodles or vegetables the proprietor decides to toss in. (At Bruddah's, usually none.)
Where an order of kalbi at a teriyaki stand or an Asian lunch counter might comprise a skein or two of the thinly sliced Korean-style short ribs, Bruddah's serves a full half-dozen slabs of meat – what seems like a full pound – crisp, well-marinated things, charred to a pleasing resinous blackness over the grill, fragrant with garlic, sweet but not sticky. Bruddah's kalbi is the mother of all teriyaki.
Sweet and sour spareribs taste like the stuff every Polynesian restaurant in the world tries to imitate, lightly vinegared and not too sweet, practically leaping from the bone at the touch of a fork. Short-rib stew, a soothing Hawaiian standard that appears most days as a special, is soft and rich and made faintly sweet with carrots – a faded souvenir of '30s American cooking that somehow springs to life with a few drops of Bruddah's chili pepper water, a home-brewed Hawaiian hot sauce that at its best (and bottles here vary) has all the taste of fermented hot peppers without the searing heat.
There is a slight Filipino influence too: You will find pork adobo and inihaw baboy on the menu, and both the long rice and the thick chow fun are seasoned an awful lot like the Filipino noodles called pancit.
Bruddah's is not a bad place to try the strictly local food, such as lomi salmon, laulau – fat pork steamed in taro leaves – and smoky, extra-salty kalua pig mixed with cabbage. You can even get poi instead of rice for an extra dollar or two if you are so inclined.
The Hawaiian aesthetic of Pacific Rim cuisine contrasts fairly radically with Wolfgang Puck's, especially at breakfast time. There are banana pancakes and French toast made with thick slices of Hawaiian bread at Bruddah's, but you can also get Dinty Moore corned beef hash or fried bologna with your eggs in the morning instead of bacon or Portuguese sausage. Giant omelets wrap around fillings of Vienna sausage or Barbie-box-pink slices of Japanese fish cake.
Bruddah's even does an exemplary version of the three-ring circus of local Hawaiian breakfasts, the notorious loco moco: an enormous plateau of rice topped with two well-done hamburger patties, which are in turn topped with two fried eggs and then drenched in a thick, viscous, dark-brown goo that tastes a lot like canned mushroom gravy. Looked at objectively, of course, a loco moco is a culinary Chernobyl, but there is a certain stark beauty in the composition, and in Bruddah's loco moco the patties of meat are extra-crisp and extra-oniony – really good, in fact, once you scrape off most of the sauce.
Bruddah's is also famous among local Hawaiians for its definitive Spam musubi: seaweed-wrapped blocks of vinegared sushi rice the size of Tom Clancy paperbacks, stuffed with pink, gooey slabs of Hormel's finest. Canned luncheon meat in Hawaii is a soul thing, like jellied eels are for working-class Londoners, Vegemite for Australians and Steak'um sandwiches with Cheez Whiz for Philadelphians. People who object to a sizzling slice or two of Spam with their pancakes may be considered a little too snooty for words.
1033 W. Gardena Blvd., Gardena; (310) 323-9112. Open Tues.-Thurs., 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sun., 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Street parking. Lunch for two, food only, $10-$14. Recommended dishes: short-rib stew; kalbi; kalua pork and cabbage.