By Richard Foss (RichardFoss.com)
The Hawaiian community in Southern California isn’t very large, less than ten thousand among millions, but they have an outsize cultural footprint. Hawaiian music and dance shows are presented around the city, and a fair number of restaurants serve island cuisine. The attractiveness of the Hawaiian lifestyle has a lot to do with their visibility —we probably have many more transplants from Minnesota, but there has been no corresponding rush to open Scandinavian restaurants and polka halls.
Slick fast-food Hawaiian places have been opening all over the Westside landscape, but if you want the real thing you’ll find it at Rutt’s Hawaiian Café on Washington Boulevard. The bright yellow café with the striped awning has been there since 1976 and has the clean but worn look of an old locals’ joint. Anything fancier would be out of place, since Rutt’s is so casual that anybody wearing something fancier than shorts and a tee-shirt feels slightly overdressed.
The menu is heavy on the classics — kalua pork and mahi-mahi, saimin noodle soup, char siu, Portuguese sausage and Spam in various combinations with eggs and rice. Since this Hawaiian café is in Los Angeles, Spam, sausage and Chinese roast pork are also available in tacos, burritos and quesadillas, but from what I’ve heard that cultural fusion is making inroads in the islands too.
On my first visit I ordered a Portuguese sausage taco and a teriyaki burger— actually not a burger, but chunks of tender teriyaki beef — with fries. I wasn’t thrilled with the burger because the sauce here is unusually salty and I was hitting the tea pretty hard by the time I finished the thing. The fries were home-fried potato wedges rather than French fries, un-spiced but made tasty with a shake of the Japanese togarashi seasoning that is on every table. As for the taco, it was surprisingly good. Portuguese sausage, otherwise known as linguica, is one of the two cultural legacies of Iberian mariners to Hawaii. The other is the ukulele. The sausage used here is mildly spiced with just a hint of red pepper, and it works fine in taco form.
I had enjoyed a pleasant meal on the covered patio and came back a few days later for a plate lunch of mahi-mahi with rice and macaroni salad, along with a bowl of long rice soup for a starter. Long rice is actually a thin, transparent rice noodle, served in a rich chicken stock with bits of cabbage and tofu and a topping of chopped green onion. It was simple comfort food very well executed, and made me want to come back for more. As for the fish, the surprisingly big chunk of mahi had been breaded and fried so the outside formed a crisp crust, and it was quite tasty. The fish had not been filleted, so I had to watch for bones, but it was very good. The potato salad was slightly bland, and, though the rice was fresh and moist, I wished I had thought to ask for a salad instead. Hawaiian meals are carb-heavy, and I must praise Rutt’s for offering low-carb versions of some items so that those who are concerned with their health may dine accordingly.
The bills for both meals were under $12 — you get a lot of food here for very little money. It’s a bargain by any standard, and probably one of the reasons this place is nearly always busy. Even on a cool day with occasional sounds of cars on Washington, Rutt’s was a reminder of warmer breezes and a place where most of the traffic is on foot to the beach.
Rutt’s Hawaiian Cafe opens daily at 6:30 a.m. (except Sunday, when it opens a half-hour later) and closes at 8:30 p.m. Park in back or on the street. Wheelchair access OK. Patio seating available. Delivery and catering offered. Menu online.
Rutt’s Hawaiian Café, 2114 Washington Blvd., Mar Vista (310) 398-6326 ruttscafe.com