Aina SF – Elevated Hawaiian Food With Soul

Delicious Hawaiian food from Aina SF made with heart and lots of island soul

What’s up, Nomsters! Just this past weekend we had the incredible opportunity to attend a Hawaiian style pop up dinner hosted by Aina Restuarant‘s Chef Jordan, Emmy winning TV host, Lanai, and Lifestyle Network TV at the Naked Kitchen in San Francisco. This was, by far, one of the most fun events we’ve been to in a long time and made us wonder why we’d still never been to Aina SF! The atmosphere was warm, intimate, friendly, welcoming, communal, and it felt like we were all one big family for the night.

Aina SF is an elevated Hawaiian restaurant that aims to share the kinds of comfort foods that Chef Jordan grew up with in Hawaii with some modern twists and his own culinary style thrown in. Many of the Hawaiian chain restaurants we have been to in SF tend to be more like fast food joints, so it was truly inspiring to see the dishes from Aina SF’s chef plated so beautifully.

Hawaiian Style Pop Up by the Bay menu by Aina SF chef

As soon as we walked in the front door we could smell the amazing, comforting aromas of Spam, rice, pork, various spices, and everything else that was to be prepared and served that night. When we stepped into the kitchen, we were greeted warmly by Chef Jordan from Aina SF and we could finally see all of the awesomeness we were smelling. That’s homemade spam below that you’re currently salivating over, which was made from Chef Jordan’s own recipe, along with dehydrated and fried tendon.

Homemade Spam being cooked
dehydrated and fried beef tendon

Beyond the out-of-this-world food we devoured that evening, what made this night extra special was the way Lanai and Chef Jordan passionately and excitedly explained the deep-rooted history and cultural significance behind the dishes served and even the individual ingredients used. It gave us such a more well-rounded picture of, and appreciation for, the various courses in relation to Hawaii and the beautiful culture of sharing and sustainability there.

Chef Jordan preparing Spam musubi
Host, Lanai, talking about Hawaiian food history

Lanai interviewed us on camera for a segment on the Lifestyle Network, and in that short time we realized how little we actually knew about real Hawaiian food. At one point he asked us a seemingly simple question – “What are some foods that are Hawaiian?”

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We answered with dishes like Spam musubi, BBQ meats, macaroni salad… you know, the things you get at familiar Hawaiian food chains like L&L and Ono’s. Without skipping a beat, Lanai replied, “not Hawaiian,” to all of our answers. After blowing our minds with that question, we knew we were in for something special once we sat down to eat.

Let’s jump right in!

Sashimi with shiso and togarashi
Camera taking photo of sashimi plate

The first plate we had really set the mood for the evening, and as you can tell from the second photo, it was super Instagram-worthy! It was a serving plate full of Sashimi topped with shiso leaves and togarashi. Aina SF’s Chef Jordan explained how Hawaiians have a culture of sharing and sustainability (only taking what you need), so we all passed the plate around and took a few pieces each. The fish with the shiso was super refreshing, and the togarashi added a nice bit of kick and pop to each bite.

Spam musubi by aina sf chef

Next up was the Spam Musubi which was made with homemade Spam (so you know it’s amazing) with spicy ahi poke, Hawaiian chili pepper, Alaea sea salt ogo, Maui sweet onion, sea asparagus, and green onion. This was awesome. If you like Spam – or even if you don’t – you’ve got to give this stuff a try from Aina SF. One of the other culinary ideas that Chef Jordan explained to us was the idea that Hawaiians love to throw all the categories of flavors into the meals they prepare, and this was a great example. You have the saltiness of the spam, the sweetness of the onions, the spiciness of the chili peppers, and even the texture of the ikura. This seriously takes Spam musubi to the next level.

pipikaula by aina sf chef

The third course was the Pipikaula, which is made of shoyu cured wagyu, beef tendeon puff, black garlic, and a bone marrow flan. They told us a story of how the Hawaiian cowboys would hang beef from their horse saddles during the day so it would dry out by the evening and they could make jerky or cured meats from it, which is where this dish was inspired from. Although it wasn’t mentioned in the ingredients list, those yellow flowers on top were from a radish plant and they tasted just like arugula. The beef was off-the-hook good, and the fried tendon puff acted like a rice cracker or chip, which added a satisfying crunch to the otherwise soft dish.

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The bone marrow flan was also flavorful and illustrated another aspect of  Hawaiian culture – sustainability. As mentioned before, taking only what you need is very important to the Hawaiian lifestyle and has helped them to maintain a sustainable way of life for centuries. Chef Jordan from Aina SF believes wholeheartedly in the idea of sustainability, and one of the ways he practices it is by using the beef bone marrow that would otherwise be thrown away to make a flan to complement his dishes. And it’s delicious! We’re very passionate about eliminating food waste so we love this idea.

lomi lomi salmon by aina sf chef

Moving right along, the next dish presented to us was the Lomi Lomi Salmon. This one consisted of local king salmon, tomato jam, and black puffed rice with smoked sesame oil. The salmon was ultra fresh and the puffed rice brought the crispy, crunchy texture that brought the whole dish together. This was another amazing example of how many types of tastes can be brought together in harmony with the savoriness of the fish, the saltiness of the tomato jam, the spiciness from the chili sauce, and the sweetness of the puffed rice.

On a side note, the “Hurricane Popcorn” we’ve come to know and love on the mainland uses puffed rice and actually originated from Hawaii and they’ve been eating it for years and years; long before we all found out about it here. According to Lanai and Chef Jordan, it’s not called Hurricane Popcorn in Hawaii, that’s just how it got commercialized.

Steven Espaniola playing guitar and singing

Just over half way through the meal we had the pleasure of listening to Steven Espaniola perform some soothing Hawaiian acoustic guitar/singing for us. There’s just something about Hawaiian music that’s so peaceful. It really added to the mood and atmosphere of the night in the best way possible. He’s crazy talented and we definitely recommend you check this guy out and support him!

kalua pork belly with hand pounded poi by aina sf chef

After the performance, the main course was prepared and presented. It was an incredible Kalua Pork Belly with Hand Pounded Poi that was beautifully plated. It was made up of Niman Ranch pork belly smoked with kiawe, mana ai poi, and luau leaf. The pork was perfectly cooked, incredibly tender, and literally melted in our mouths. The risotto was creamy and held its texture well. It’s never fun when a risotto is overcooked, but Chef Jordan definitely knew what he was doing when preparing this one.

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This was the first time we had ever tried poi (the purplish brown stuff poured over the pork) and we really enjoyed it. We were warned that it can be an acquired taste for some people given the sour flavor, but it complemented the saltiness of the pork belly and really felt “at home” in this dish. We totally recommend that everyone give it a shot if you get the chance!

lillikoi haupia pavlova by aina sf chef

Last, but definitely not least, we had the Lillikoi Haupia Pavlova for dessert. This was a nomtastic meringue-style cookie topped with a sweet cream, strawberries, plum slices, and coconut, with a side of guava jelly. Guava juice is one of our favorite things so we got really excited when we saw the guava jelly being spooned onto the plate. The whole thing was refreshing, light, and a fantastic way to bring the meal and night to a close.

We had heard of Aina SF before, but somehow we’d never made it over to actually eat there. After the pop up dinner, it’s now become a priority to try out Chef Jordan’s menu! We were so impressed by the flavor profiles and combinations, the history behind the cuisine, and Chef Jordan’s and Lanai’s clear pride in the Hawaiian way of life. There’s seriously nothing better than seeing that kind of passion, dedication, and energy from people doing what they love. They’ve stayed true to their sharing culture and brought all this amazing food to the Bay Area and beyond through Aina SF and everything else, and we couldn’t be more excited to see where they go from here.  Till next time, Nomsters!


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