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Plenty authentic, but it's no dive

Ono Ono Hawaiian Barbecue serves tropical favorites amid a sprightly decor.

July 12, 2006|Susan LaTempa | Times Staff Writer

TROPICAL thunderstorms in the middle of the night, warm ocean waters -- Southern California weather has been positively Hawaiian lately. So don't be surprised if you find yourself with a sudden nostalgia for plate-lunch delicacies of vacations gone by.

Though it doesn't boast an ocean view and its palm tree frankly is fake, Ono Ono Hawaiian Barbecue & Veggies in Tustin is one of the most appealing spots around for indulging a longing for an Island breakfast, lunch or dinner. Between a hair salon and a tae kwon do studio, it's a pleasantly suburban order-at-the-counter cafe, patronized by office workers and shoppers by day, families and couples in the evening.

Not to be confused with a plethora of unrelated Hawaiian spots that have the pidgin word ono (delicious) somewhere in their name, Ono Ono is unusually handsome and pulled together for such a casual spot, and its food is reliably fresh and well-made. The room boasts glass dividers etched with birds of paradise and wall stencils and prints of petroglyph figures and Hawaiian quilt and tapa designs. As you ponder the menu, contemporary Hawaiian music works its magic.

Dishes aren't gimmicky, though they're sometimes amusing and the menu's been thoughtfully designed. It doesn't try to be comprehensive in terms of dishes beloved by those who call themselves locals in Hawaii, but it touches upon several of the ethnic traditions that inform the standard repertoire. There are smart updates of such favorites as teriyaki salmon, saimin, kalbi ribs and Portuguese bean soup, but also Pacific Rim riffs such as kalua pork quesadilla with papaya-plum sauce (rich, delicious and worth every calorie) or a burrito filled with rice and grilled vegetables.

You can fuel a day's surfing for a very reasonable price with an order of yaki soba with Spam (that mystifying-to-mainlanders Hawaiian favorite that's also available in various other dishes), or give yourself a lunchtime vacation from the office with a low-cal but full-flavored lunch of spicy poke tuna.

The poke chips appetizer is a terrific start. Good-quality fresh tuna cubes are lightly dressed with soy, sesame and Hawaiian sea salt, then tossed with bright, crunchy matchstick cucumbers, jicama, carrots and sliced green onions. Spooned over fried won ton chips and served with perfectly ripe avocado, it's satisfying enough for a lunch entree.

The quesadilla's listed as an appetizer too, but it's a monster: an enormous butter-crisped flour tortilla filled with Jack cheese and your choice of that rich roasted pork or barbecued chicken or pork. It comes with spicy fruit sauces -- great sweet, kicky complements with each salty bite of meat and cheese.

Portuguese bean soup is a savory, tomato-based melange of kidney beans and vegetables with chunks of ham and linguica, or Portuguese sausage (also available as a breakfast option).

There are plate lunches aplenty, two or three variations each in the chicken, pork, beef and fish categories. Pork preparations are outstanding; the kalua is roasted, fall-apart tender and full of spicy smoky flavor. Fried mahi arrives just-cooked hot with a light, crisp panko crust, still moist inside. Kalbi ribs are Korean-style, sweet-soy marinated then broiled crisp-tender. Scoops of sticky white rice accompany dishes along with a choice of other sides.

Best of these is the excellent chap che (also known as japchae or chop chae), Korean-style long rice noodles, or the very good "grilled" vegetables which seem more stir-fried: a mound of fragrant, hot slivers of cabbage, zucchini and onions. But the potato-macaroni salad won't please aficionados of either of the merged originals. All of the meats are available as sandwiches and there are bowl variations, including the famous loco moco: rice, meat, brown gravy and eggs.

Breakfast is served until 11 a.m., but there's less to worry about in the way of choices. Although the fried rice breakfast plates might sound tempting, the thing to get is the three-pancake combo. It's a short stack of simple, well-made buttermilk pancakes, each studded with fresh bits of grated coconut, sliced banana or chopped macadamia nut. Delicious.

It'd be even better with a glass of fresh papaya-guava juice or some slices of pineapple. Ono Ono misses the boat in downplaying tropical fruit, one of the cornerstones of Hawaiian cuisine. But the offerings have changed and evolved in the three years the place has been open, and the same owner has expanded to Rancho Santa Margarita, so check back.

Meanwhile, though the menu in Tustin promises mango cake for dessert, there's no such thing available. But there is shave ice -- and in this weather, what could be nicer?


Ono Ono Hawaiian Barbecue & Veggies

Location: 17582 E. 17th St., Tustin; (714) 505-0750.

Price: Breakfast dishes, $3.75 to $5; sandwiches, $5 to $6; appetizers, $2.15 to $6; noodles, $4.50 to $5.25; entrees, $7 to $9.

Best dishes: Pancake sampler, poke chips, kalua pork quesadilla, mix plate.

Details: From 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Lot parking. Major credit cards.

Special features: Family-style meals, $24 (3 to 4 people); $39 (5 to 6 people).

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