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Islands of Hearty Hawaiian Cuisine

At the Loft's three locations, mainlanders can sample a tasty mix of ethnic cooking styles, served in enormous portions.

August 03, 2000|LINDA BURUM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Loft's trademark fried chicken arrives in a towering heap of fist-size chunks, each encrusted in a praline-crisp ruffle of skin. It's as beautifully cooked as the best Southern fried chicken but cut Chinese-style and served with a sweet teriyaki dipping sauce.

It symbolizes the crazy quilt of culinary styles that Hawaiians fondly call Local Food, a blend of influences from all the ethnic groups who have worked the Islands' sugar fields and factories. Contributions to Hawaii's cooking include Korean barbecued beef, Portuguese sausage, Japanese-style chicken cutlets and Chinese won ton soup, on top of the traditional Hawaiian kalua pork.

The Loft restaurants, which include the Loft at Lahaina in Torrance, the Loft at Punaluu in Gardena and the Loft Hawaiian Restaurant in Cerritos, serve a slightly updated version of Local Food. Tad Kawasaki, founder of the first Loft (the Loft at Punaluu), grew up in Carson; he says his food is inspired by summers on Oahu with his extended family. His menus are shaped by memories of steamy midnight bowls of saimin noodles (the Hawaiian equivalent of udon) and hearty snacks bought from funky rural plate lunch trucks. Now his restaurants make char siu from chicken instead of pork and pour microbrews and light beer, but they still serve something close to the pure comfort food that every Hawaiian kid (Island-side or here on the mainland) grew up eating.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 10, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 57 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Liquor policy--The Loft restaurant in Cerritos does not have a liquor license. A review in the last week's Calendar Weekend said that all three Loft locations serve beer and wine, but that's true of only the Torrance and Gardena spots.

Kalua pork tastes much like the original Hawaiian pit-roasted luau pig. The rich, smoky meat, cooked to a limp mass of shreds, is available as an entree and also fills the eggroll-like appetizer, kalua lumpia. Char siu chicken turns up in an outrageously good somen salad made with angel hair-thin somen noodles and iceberg lettuce. There's also lau lau, the paperweight-like package of salted butterfish and pork steamed inside very bitter ti leaves (not recommended for first-timers). It's served with a side of lomi lomi salmon, a tomato salsa-like concoction that's perhaps best ordered by itself.

The Lofts' enormous servings would seem to confirm the old saying "Hawaiians don't eat till they're full, they eat till they're tired" (though not too tired to take home cartons of leftovers). Every entree comes with a bowl of miso soup, an avalanche of rice and, in the plate-lunch tradition, an ice cream scoop of mayonnaise-rich macaroni salad plus your choice of chow mein noodles (which I don't recommend) or a crunchy cabbage and ramen-noodle salad infused with the flavor of toasted sesame seeds. Even the Punaluu bowls or Lahaina bowls, which are simply entrees served on rice, have towering toppings of meat.

The Loft at Lahaina, the largest of the three restaurants, offers an expanded menu that includes several fish dishes. The grilled miso salmon is crisp-edged and salty-sweet from its nutty miso marinade. The dense slab of grilled mahi mahi is moist with lemony marinade.

The desserts served at these restaurants are the sort you probably have to have grown up with to love. For me, gelatin-topped cheesecake and heavy bread pudding are no substitute for Haagen-Dazs. Even the famous sweet potato manju, a cookie-like pastry crust surrounding sweetened Japanese yam, won't be everyone's cup of Kona.

On weekends the Gardena and Torrance Lofts serve breakfasts until 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., respectively. The favored specialties are the moist French toast made with Hawaiian-Portuguese sweet bread and the royale, a scramble of eggs with Portuguese sausage, char siu chicken and onions. The Loft at Punaluu offers dishes made with Eggbeaters, as if that might compensate for its frequent use of Spam. And the Loft at Lahaina is the only place I know right now serving Redondo's Hawaiian hot dogs with eggs for breakfast.

These places are fun. At all the Lofts, the diners tend to be in party mode. The office cohorts, hula school classmates and extended families gathered around the new Formica tables appear to be celebrating something. On the restaurant's freshly painted walls, posters announce community gatherings, Asian basketball league schedules or hula contests. Fliers for a Young Hawaiians group implore, "Hang onto your heritage."

BE THERE

The Loft at Lahaina, 17311 Yukon Ave., Torrance, (310) 523-3373. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday, 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday. The Loft at Punaluu, Best Western Hotel, 15607 S. Normandie Ave., Gardena, (310) 523-4191. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday, 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday. The Loft Hawaiian Restaurant, 20157 S. Pioneer Blvd., Cerritos, (562) 402-3538. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily. Beer and wine. Street parking and lot parking. Visa, Mastercard and Discover. Dinner for two, food only, $10 to $18.90.

What to Get: Island fried chicken, somen salad with char siu, Portuguese sausage royale with eggs, Korean barbecued beef, Korean barbecued chicken, lomi lomi salmon.

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