By Frank Sabatini Jr.
San Diegans never stopped mourning the closure of Da Kine’s some 11 years ago. The eatery became cherished for its Hawaiian plate lunches since originally opening in Pacific Beach in 1997. Within many culinary circles, the very mention of kalua pork or loco moco drew rapid responses citing Da Kine’s for serving the best versions of those dishes locally.
Oh, and that picnic-style macaroni salad served as a meal sidekick. It was nothing to sneeze at either. It endeared the palates of consumers with its teasing bits of green onions, carrots and celery — all tossed in a light mayo dressing.
But those days of deprivation are now behind us.
Founder Nelson Ishii (“Uncle Nelson”) ran three locations of Da Kine’s — in Pacific Beach, Point Loma and National City before gradually closing them after his wife was diagnosed with a terminal illness. While serving as her caretaker, he maintained a catering operation.
His recent emergence in The Presidio strip plaza near west Mission Valley isn’t so much a retooling of his retail business, but rather a pure comeback featuring the exact recipes he disappeared with. For the grand opening a couple weeks ago, nearly 800 people showed up to partake in menu items that were half-off their already reasonable prices.
“We got spanked,” the humble Ishii said with a chuckle about the lines that ran out the door. He added the kitchen that day went through 320 pounds of teriyaki chicken, 280 pounds of kalua pork and more than 150 pounds of Korean-style short ribs.
I showed up shortly thereafter with a lunch companion. Here is what we consumed in the modest-size eatery, starting with our top three favorites.
The teriyaki chicken yielded a heap of thigh meat deeply marinated in what might possibly have included Japanese rice wine (mirin) or sake. Or maybe not. Ishii keeps his native Hawaiian recipes a secret. Either way, the chicken boasted a teasing semi-sweet flavor, which fortunately tasted nothing like commercial teryiaki sauce.
Loco moco is a poor man’s dish that supposedly originated on The Big Island in the 1940s. It features nothing more than steamy white rice bedding a seasoned hamburger patty, dark-brown gravy, and a sunny-side up egg.
Like most Hawaiian fare, it’s a mashup of comforting American and Asian foods — in this case Sunday meatloaf dinner meets a diner breakfast that happens to come with sticky rice and packets of soy sauce. Ishii serves it with two burgers and eggs for a fair price of $12.
The “kalua pig” afforded us a fluffy mound of shredded pork distinguished by a subtle, smoky essence, although not quite as smoky as if the pig was roasted traditionally in a pit beneath the ground. This is the urban rendition, cooked likely in an oven for hours with a little bit of liquid smoke tossed in.
Spam inevitably emerges when eating in Hawaiian kitchens. Here it makes a classic appearance in musubi, which are molded rice squares with fitted slices of Spam on top, and wrapped in thin sheets of seaweed (nori).
Ishii uses reduced-sodium Spam. But fear not, this revered canned meat of Hawaii and many Asian countries still lives up to its salty reputation, and it plays finely to the oceanic flavor of the nori while giving the neutral rice a needed zing. We ordered two. My companion gradually warmed up to them. Me? Not so much.
The plate lunches come with two scoops of rice, plus a choice of the lauded macaroni salad or a green salad sporting noteworthy sesame-soy dressing.
In the pipeline are pork dumplings and a Japanese-Hawaiian noodle dish called saimin. They’re expected to appear on the menu in the coming weeks.
Ishii is both surprised and invigorated by the rousing reception he’s received since ending his hiatus.
“I would like to open two more Da Kine’s within San Diego, and I dream of opening another restaurant that is 100% gluten-free,” he revealed.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.