Where To Eat Hawaiian Food In The South Bay — And Beyond

Hawaiian food at the Hyatt Luau in Hawaii. (Mark Krynsky/Flickr Creative Commons )

The spirit of aloha shapes almost every facet of Hawaiian life. It's a greeting among friends and a reminder to view people we don't know as kindred spirits. It's also the guiding principle that animates the cuisine, a literal and figurative melting pot of flavors from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines and Portugal. That's why you can go to a Hawaiian restaurant and order Portuguese sausage, fried noodles with char-sui or kimchi fried rice with a side of chicken katsu, and it'll all come with a scoop of mayo-drenched macaroni salad.

Ground zero for Hawaiian cuisine is the South Bay. It was one of the few areas in Los Angeles County where immigrant farmers were allowed to lease land, a boon for Japanese immigrants who began working Gardena's berry farms in the early 1900s.

By the 1940s, Gardena and surrounding cities like Torrance and Long Beach had become hubs of the local Japanese American community. This came to an halt during World War II, when 10,000 Japanese Americans in Southern California were interned in concentration camps, decimating the thriving Japanese American population in these areas. After the war, many Japanese Americans settled in cities throughout Los Angeles County, like Gardena, where they applied their horticultural expertise. The community flourished after WWII as numerous Japanese Americans moved into business and politics. Ken Nakaoka, who later became Gardena's mayor, was instrumental in brokering deals with Japanese companies like Toyota, Nissan, Honda and Sapporo to set up headquarters and distribution centers in the city. The companies also made donations to the city.

By the 1970s, Gardena was home to the largest concentration of Japanese Americans in the mainland United States. It held that title until 2014, when it was overtaken by nearby Torrance, which has more Japanese American residents than any other city in the U.S. except Honolulu. So if you're looking to go on a Hawaiian food crawl, the South Bay is where you start.

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Hamburger curry Mac salad and rice

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Gardena Bowl Cafe

While the Hustler Casino is Gardena's raciest landmark, this bowling alley and its Hawaiian-themed diner are a spiritual touchstone for many locals. It's the kind of place where you can feel the history echoing in the architecture, which remains largely unchanged since the late 1940s. You'll find entire families, from octogenarians to toddlers, sharing a plate of bacon fried rice as waiters serve platter after platter of the French toast, made with King's sweet Hawaiian bread. Classics include the Hawaiian Royal, a generous serving of Portuguese sausage and chashu over a bed of rice, and the kalua loco moco, the cafe's rendition of the famous rice, gravy and egg dish, which is served here with smoky, shredded pork instead of a burger patty. If you're looking for a no-frills meal, any of their fried rice dishes along with a side of chicken kaarage or katsu will feed a party of two. After your feast, lace up your bowling shoes and work off all that meat and rice by hitting a few frames.
15707 S. Vermont Ave., Gardena. 310-532-0820.

The deep fried SPAM musubi at Bruddah's in Gardena. (Danmichael Reyes/LAist)

Bruddahs Bar and Grill

You can still see the sign for Bruddah's on Gardena Blvd., where the South Bay stalwart stood for more than two decades before relocating to its new home, off Normandie Ave. and Redondo Beach Blvd. The new location has a larger space and a new "pu-pu menu" (you may know it as a bar menu) featuring kalua nachos, a chicken katsu sandwich and the soon-to-be Insta-famous deep fried musubi. You'll still find their greatest hits: loco moco, garlic chicken, the char sui plate. Dine on a Wednesday evening and you'll be treated to an open mic featuring comedians, spoken word poets and musicians.
1403 W. Redondo Beach, Gardena. 310-323-9112.

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Back Home In Lahaina

The interior of the restaurant feels like you're strolling on the streets of Lahaina on Maui, complete with frescoes of ships docking at the city's harbor. This Carson gem doesn't experiment with the menu and that's fine because their Lahaina fried chicken should be on Best Of lists. The fried saimin, a mountain of stir fried noodles, is topped with scallions and your choice of chashu chicken, pork or beef. For a homey dish, the Hawaiian Classic is soulful and keeps it simple with two eggs and three slices of SPAM over bacon fried rice. Most dishes come in two sizes, and the smaller portion is more than enough for one person. Save room for an extra order of mac salad and the mini haupia chocolate pie, a staple Hawaiian dessert that adds coconut milk to the traditional pie recipe.
519 E. Carson St., Carson. 310-835-4014.

Food at The Loft, in Torrance. (The Loft's Facebook page)

The Loft

The North Torrance branch of The Loft is joined by two other locations, in Lakewood and Cypress. Located off Van Ness Ave. and Artesia Blvd., the Torrance is flanked by a Pizza Hut and a karaoke bar in (where else?) a strip mall. The interior is brightly lit and it feels like the sort of local diner where everyone knows each other's name. It's the type of place you brag about during your freshman year in college and the first restaurant you visit whenever you spend long periods away from home. Skip the entrées and jump straight to favorites like Portuguese sausage and eggs or the katsu moco, a relatively recent addition that replaces a burger patty with crisp chicken katsu.
2210 Artesia Blvd., Torrance. 310-217-1000.
20157 Pioneer Blvd., Lakewood. 562-753-6780.
5950 Corporate Ave., Cypress. 714-484-9802.

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Sunday's Stacked Spam Situation 👅 now that's a mouthful 🤭 | Photo: @dtlarendezvous

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Broken Mouth

Run by husband and wife Tim and Louise Lee, this restaurant in DTLA's Fashion District serves Hawaiian dishes with minor twists. Their SPAM musubi is made with heukmi bap, Korean purple rice created by mixing black and white rice. The result isn't just a colorful SPAM musubi that would be perfect for Prince, it's a nuttier, earthier roll that highlights the saltiness of the tinned meat. The kahuku-style butter shrimp, a Hawaiian version of shrimp scampi, are un-peeled and lightly deep fried, giving them a crunchy texture. The dish comes with a side of heukmi bap and a healthy scoop of macaroni salad. All of it goes well with Broken Mouth's vinegary housemade hot sauce, perfect for a beach luau or a restaurant meal.
231 E. 9th St., downtown L.A. 213-418-9588.

Ohana Superette

What happens after the poké craze hits critical mass? Does it jump the tuna instead of the shark? We ask because at this point, L.A. might have more poké restaurants than Starbucks locations. Joining that long list is Silver Lake's Ohana Suprette. Forget the cafeteria-style poké you've tried before. This isn't a bowl you can modify with dozens of possibilities. You choose your size (one, two or three proteins) and your base (kale, white rice or brown rice). All of the proteins come with a sauce, usually soy or spicy mayo. If you try to order the unagi salmon — made with a sweet sauce traditionally served on sushi with eel — with a spicy mayo, you're doing it wrong. Ohana Superette also serves some mean chicken dishes including the boneless Hawaiian garlic chicken and deep-fried spicy wings, which taste even better when dipped in their spicy mayo. Both chicken plates come with a superlative macaroni salad that includes real crab mixed with the noodles and mayonnaise.
2852 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake. 323-741-8211.

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I found a Hawaiian breakfast 🤙

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Café Lanikai

Named after a beach northeast of Honolulu, this bustling Koreatown breakfast and lunch spot offers no-frills fare with an emphasis on quick service. Ask the cashier for a recommendation and they'll kindly request that you to step out of line until you know what you want. For breakfast, we recommend the two sausage/two egg breakfast plate with a side order of SPAM. For lunch, the coconut shrimp and chips and the beef or chicken teriyaki are good options. The pineapple teriyaki burger perfects the balance between tangy, sweet and salty while the loco moco is another solid choice, if you can get past the excessive amount of gravy. Just make sure to order quickly.
3435 Wilshire Blvd., Ste. 109, Koreatown. 213-487-0106.

Garlic chicken at Huli Huli Hawaiian Grill in Huntington Park. (Danmichael Reyes/LAist)

Huli Huli Hawaiian Grill & Teabar

Like Café Lanikai, this Boyle Heights spot is the indie neighborhood version of chains like L&L and Ono. Unlike those two fast food staples, Huli Huli's menu includes an array of boba teas to wash down their teriyaki chicken and seafood combo plates or the heat from their spicy fried chicken wings.
2411 Whittier Blvd., Boyle Heights. 323-268-9888.
2540 Slauson Ave., Huntington Park. 323-589-0861.

A-Frame

From the man who gave us Chego and Kogi, this is what happens when Roy Choi decides to offer his spin on aloha spirit. Conceived as a modern picnic restaurant, A-Frame dove deeper into Hawaiian cuisine in early 2015. It shines best in its weekend brunch. You can order banana mac nut and p.o.g. (pineapple, orange and guava) pancakes "until you burst." The SPAM with kimchi ramen is another highlight and seems like the perfect marriage of Hawaii and Los Angeles.
12565 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City. 310-383-7700.