Just after dawn in Dogpatch, on San Francisco’s east side, a golden light falls on parked Tesla Model S’s and on blooming mountain laurels and, at an hour when the air is still touched by a chill, on a crowd that forms most mornings on the corner of 22nd and Minnesota streets. That is where Aina, a modern Hawaiian restaurant whose brunch has spawned a citywide mania, opened last year in April in a small light-flooded corner space.
Aina’s chef, a tall 30-year-old man with a broad smile named Jordan Keao, grew up in the rural hinterlands of the Big Island of Hawaii. After a stint at the celebrated Bay Area restaurant La Folie, Keao labored in Silicon Valley, running the Hangout Cafe at Google for a time. But he missed the heady mash-up of the food on which he was raised and bristled at the ignorance in which his ancient culture was held.
“The only thing anyone knew about Hawaiian culture out here,” he said, “was pineapple and ham on a pizza.”
Thus Aina was born. The name comes from a Hawaiian concept that conveys love of the land. Since the 38-seat restaurant is about 2,300 miles from the land he loves, for Keao that means a lot of air miles.
Take, for example, one of the most popular items on the brunch menu, a maximalist version of French toast that arrives buried under a macadamia nut crumble, salted coconut caramel, a spray of fresh strawberries, a cloud of vanilla whipped cream and a few leaves of mint. The bread itself, sweet and soft, is flown in weekly from Punaluu Bake Shop, a century-old bakery on the southern tip of Hawaii. Also flown in is the poi, or taro root paste, and the fresh hearts of palm, which are served pickled, roasted, fresh and fermented. Cords of kiawe, a Hawaiian hardwood, arrive weekly; Keao uses it to smoke fish, meat and vegetables.
Aina’s menu is both international and uniquely Hawaiian. It courses with the often fractious history of the island. Influences include Portuguese (plump guava-stuffed doughnuts called malasadas), Japanese (bento boxes and furikake rice) and American (artisanal Spam from Stone Valley Farm).
But there are plenty of native Hawaiian dishes, like pipikaula, a type of Hawaiian beef jerky here made with shoyu-cured short rib and accessorized with puffed paiai, or taro root. Even better-known dishes like poke are creatively tweaked: Aina’s comes with limu (Hawaiian algae), inamona (a relish made of kukui nuts), fresh hearts of palm, smoked sesame oil, shiso and sea grass. (Keao is planning a tasting menu for later this summer.)
But there is one ingredient you will not find at Aina: pineapple. That it came to be so associated with the island, Keao said, “is infuriating.” For Hawaiians, pineapple has a painful colonial history. (The fruit was popularized in Hawaii by the American Dole family after Sanford Dole helped overthrow Hawaii’s queen.)
“I’m here to challenge people about what they think they know about Hawaii,” Keao said, “and teach them about the land I love.”
900 22nd St., San Francisco; 415-814-3815; ainasf.com
An average dinner for two, without drinks or tip, is about $75.