It seems crazy to find a line winding out the door of Catalina Liquors. But a stream of hungry humanity queues up at this nondescript Redondo Beach convenience store to score the outrageous sandwiches and Hawaiian-inspired lunch plates sold at The Standing Room within. This minuscule, seatless deli, opened on a shoestring by young chef Lowell Bakke, is shoehorned into a space the size of a walk-in closet at the back of his family's business.
The beachside place could easily survive selling commercial lunch-meat sandwiches and bagged chips from Sysco to local sun worshippers. But Bakke is more ambitious than that. Instead he's come up with Oscar — a deep-fried soft-shell crab nestled into an eggy, lobster roll-style pan de mie bun from Bread Bar. The crispy legs and meaty belly, anointed with chile-spiked “Thai” mayo, bring together exquisite squish and crunch in every lightly spiced bite.
An appreciative lunchtime crowd trends toward guys with skinny ties and women in look-alike Louboutins from nearby offices and condos, who'll endure a wait just to get their hands around Oscar. Or maybe they'll get Charlotte — another ode to indulgence involving Kalua-style shredded pork, hoisin sauce and smoky bacon cooked to a limp mass of melty shreds and heaped between inch-thick slabs of generously buttered Bread Bar brioche. Almost overkill (but not really), its toppings of caramelized onion and creamy coleslaw add sweetness and cool crunch. Charlotte's price tag, less than $7, is about average for most of Bakke's bun-based oeuvres.
Bakke's style, which seems so of-the-moment, borrows heavily from the multiculti cuisine he grew up eating — a cuisine that prevailed in Hawaii way before hordes of lei-adorned tourists thronged the islands. But don't expect to find anything like the old-time classics that you get at Bruddah's, Kings or the dearly departed Harry's Aloha Chop Suey in Gardena — in other words, no saimin noodles or musubi, the spam sushi. Bakke's food is more contemporary yet heartier and simpler than the carefully arranged nouveau Pacific Rim stuff on the plates at Alan Wong's or Roy Yamaguchi's chain Roy's.
Take the plate lunch special one day: sliced Kurobuta pork sausages simply stir-fried with wrinkly, mild shishito peppers. This mound of salty sweet-hot crunchiness came sauced with just the gooey yolk of a soft-cooked egg. You could get the plate — as you can most things here — accompanied with rice or a side of Parmesan-truffled fries, crackly as parchment under their shower of coarse salt and fresh parsley.
Burgers, too, vault beyond the expected. Bakke enriches Angus beef with short rib trimmings, which injects extra juiciness and yields a sort of hyperburger flavor. Purists appreciate the Naked Burger, but for those inclined to the Baroque there's Napoleon, crowned with a layer of braised short rib, several cheeses, bacon, an egg and those truffle Parmesan fries.
We've seen customers polish this one off while sitting on the plastic dairy crates behind the store or on the cement bus bench just outside the door.
Bakke, a self-taught chef and former waiter, dreamed of one day going public with his creations. He enlisted his cousin, Thomas Kim, a Roy's alum, to help design the store's kitchen and advise on its day-to-day operation.
Now, after a little more than a year very successfully in business, the two are in the market for an actual restaurant space. Although word of mouth has generated plenty of loyalists who don't mind not sitting, others will be happy when the Standing Room also has seats.