Saturday, September 28, 2013

A Taste of the Islands at Hapa J's

Hapa J's
2016 S. El Camino Real
San Clemente, CA 92672

Katie and I have not really gone on vacation this year. Last year we took a road trip to the Grand Canyon, by way of Vegas, and we also went on a Caribbean cruise out of Tampa. This year, we have not been anywhere. We have another trip to Las Vegas planned, but we are playing our vacations very low key this year. We had thought about Hawaii, but when we looked at the airfare, it was pushing towards the $600 mark. A little steep for us. So we are going to have to settle on getting our island vibe here on the mainland.

I had heard about Hapa J's while reading the OC Weekly Best of 2011 edition. Hapa J's won for the best looking waitstaff category. This of course caught my attention, but was not the only reason that we had to come to Hapa J's, (at least that's what I told Katie). While we were eating at Rider's Club Cafe one evening, we got to talking to some people, and they told us that we must go to Hapa J's to try their Man Style Hapa Fries. After what they described, I knew we would be feeling the Aloha vibe of Hapa J's very soon. So, we trudged down to San Clemente on a recent Saturday night to escape the inland heat, and experience what Hapa J's has to offer.

Hapa J's has been around for 4 years now. Back in 2011, they not only won the best looking waitress category, but they won first place at the I Love Poke Festival down in San Diego. We got to Hapa J's at about 8PM. This restaurant is pretty good sized, with vibrant colors adorning the walls, nice comfy booths, and a more muted island theme than I was expecting. The customers ranged from surfer dudes getting a bite to eat before heading out for a night of drinking, to families with little ones coloring quietly, as their parents enjoyed a rare night out. Since there were all these people here at this later than normal dinner hour, I had an inkling that were going to be in for a good meal at Hapa J's. Let's see how everything turned out for us.

Much like chips and salsa are presented at Mexican restaurants, this Edamame showed up at our table, just after we had ordered. These were salted, and provided a quick little snack for us. We had ordered a lot of food, so I steered clear of eating too much of this edamame though.

We had ordered two appetizers and two entrees, and they all hit our table at the same time. I thought our table was going to tip over with all of this food. Let's start with what Hapa J's is probably most famous for, their poke. We selected their Ahi Poke Trio (market price, but on the night we were here this was $18). I really liked the variety of this plate. It really showed how varied they could make the poke taste, just by using different preparation styles.  My favorite of the three was the Spicy Tobiko. I know, not really surprising that I would like something that was spicy. This was not crazy spicy, but had just enough of a pop of flavor to not overwhelm the poke. My silver medalist out of this trio was the Sesame Poke. This one had more of an earthiness to it, that helped to cut the richness of the ahi. I probably liked the Shoyu poke the least. It was very fresh, but the flavor of this compared to the other two just kind of seemed plain. I really did enjoy this appetizer a lot though. The poke was rich and tender, and I enjoyed the way the chef played around with different flavors here.

Our second appetizer could have fed about six people. These are the Hapa Fries Man Style ($13.75). Here they take a very large plate, use yukari seasoned fries as a base, then add three different sauces, add cheese, and plenty of Kahlua pork. Wow, this rocked my world. I still had my entree to eat, but I could not stop eating these. The Kahlua pork was some of the best I have had. It was very moist, lots of flavor, and they did not skimp on the amount they used here. Even though the fries were weighted down by two tons of toppings, they still remained crisp, even as they were being scooped into the to go container. Even with all of these big flavors working here, everything was very well balanced. Next time I come here, this will be the only thing that I will need to order, of course I will still need three friends to help me finish it.

As if we needed them, we still had our entrees to consume as well. Starting with Katie's dinner, the Chicken Yakisoba ($12.75). Here the yakisoba noodles are stir fried with mixed vegetables and chicken breast, then topped with cilantro and green onions. This big portion had some pros and cons in Katie's opinion. She felt there was too much cilantro on this, and the flavor was only enhanced when she added soy sauce and Sriracha to this big pile of food. She did feel that the chicken was tender, the veggies were fresh, and she liked this option of having a lighter meal than she was expecting to have at Hapa J's.

As is my custom when eating at a restaurant for the first time, I almost always look for menu items that contain numerous elements, so I can try as much as possible at a restaurant. At Hapa J's this meant I would be having this Mixed Plate ($12.50). The mixed plate includes a mound of Kahlua pork, Kal-bi short rib, and chicken katsu. Easily, the pork was the best out of these three meats. This was the same pork that was used on the Hapa fries, and it was just as good on its own. It was still moist, tender, and the Kahlua was very noticeable. The chicken was probably my next favorite. The breading was alright, and the chicken inside was pretty solid, if not a little boring. The short rib was the real disappointment of this plate for me. There was not a lot of meat on these, and they were kind of fatty. This plate is served with two scoops of rice and a scoop of macaroni salad, as is the tradition in Hawaii. The rice was pretty average, and the macaroni salad was about the same. It's safe to say, the highlight of this plate for me was the Kahlua pork, and I was thankful that there was a lot of it here.

I ended up taking a good deal of this food home with me, and had enough for lunches the next two days afterwards. If you have read this blog for any length of time, you know that I am a pretty big eater, so you know that this was a lot of food if I had enough for three meals. I am really happy those guys at Rider's Club told me about Hapa J's. For the most part I really liked most of the items that I had here. Basically, anything that featured their Kahlua pork, or their poke is going to be a winner here. The service on this night was a little on the spotty side. The food all came out at once, and our waiter only checked on us sporadically during our visit. Yes, instead of getting one of the good looking waitress's, it was just my luck that we ended up having a waiter. No big surprise there. I am sure that some of you out there are going to bemoan the slightly inflated prices here, but you do get a lot of food, and it is definitely cheaper than that $600 round trip ticket to the Aloha State.

Out of five ukuleles, (because it is the unofficial musical instrument of Hawaii), five being best to zero being worst, Hapa J's gets 3.5 ukuleles.

For more information about Hapa J's, go to their web site here:

Hapa J's on Urbanspoon

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