Ai Pono Cafe
283 East 17th Street
Costa Mesa, CA 92627
If I could pick one food trend that I hope would hit it big this decade, it would be plant-based proteins. Okay, I just wanted to make sure you were actually reading this, instead of just checking out the pictures. It would definitely be Hawaiian food. I've been to a number of Hawaiian restaurants, and even the worst, (King's Hawaiian) had some redeeming value.
A few reasons I'm all in when it comes to food from our 50th state. I love all Hawaiian meats, they also improved on boring potato and macaroni salad by combining the two, and even though the mai tai was invented in Oakland, the Hawaiians improved upon it to make it their own and it's impossible to go to the islands and not partake in one or a bunch of them.
So, I get a little pumped up when I hear about a new Hawaiian restaurant opening in OC. I get even more excited when I have read numerous reviews about how great it is. Full disclosure, I had Ai Pono Cafe's food once before when they were renting space at The Hood Kitchen, which is in an industrial park right near John Wayne Airport. I loved what I had that initial visit, but their hours and days they were operating were too limited, so I decided to wait until they had their own spot, and were open more hours.
I had no doubt that this would happen for Ai Pono Cafe, and nearly three months ago it did. They now have their own stand-alone restaurant on the restaurant rich 17th Street in Costa Mesa. They are right across the street from Sidecar Doughnuts and Mi Casa, and in the same shopping plaza as Burger Lounge and Ross Dress For Less. They replace the now-departed Aloha Poke Company. Their hours have greatly improved, as they are now open for lunch from 11 to 3, and then open again for dinner service from 5 till 9 every day except for Sunday.
Started as a meal prep spot, the owners of Ai Pono and Hawaiian natives, Gene and Dana feel that Hawaiian food has gotten a bit muddled these days. They want to share what true Hawaiian street food entails. Dana is in charge of the front of the house operations, while Gene, who previously worked as Executive Chef and Partner at Roy's, is manning the kitchen. He's created a menu that features plenty in the way of bowls, salads, plates, and a variety of chicken dishes.
Unlike their space by the airport, this spot is much roomier and features plenty of artwork along the walls that showcase their passion for their home state. Ordering is done at the register, you grab a seat at one of their picnic tables, and the food is brought out to you. I had no doubt that the food was going to be just as good as what I had at their other place and I was pretty excited to share it with Katie and her brother and his fiancee. Let's dig into their real Hawaiian street food.
Starting things off will be beautiful Rachel's selection on this evening, the Hawaii Famous Fried Chicken ($13.80). Before my trip here I did not know that Hawaii was famous for fried chicken, but apparently they are. These two big chicken thighs are dipped in their guava chili pepper sauce. Rachel is not overly talkative when it comes to gushing about food, but she really seemed to enjoy this. The chicken looked really good from across the table, and I will probably get this the next time I visit. This was also served with a scoop of both mac salad and hapa rice, and a little green salad dressed with a vinaigrette.
Ai Pono has combo meals, which they call Utu Bang Bang ($16) Not sure what that translates to, but this option allows the indecisive like Katie to create their perfect meal. Katie went with the Shoyu Poke and Kawai As Why Chicken Katsu as her picks. She was extremely happy with her meal. The chicken katsu was lightly breaded, tender, and with the little drizzle of a sweet soy reduction over the top, it was perfectly balanced. The poke was some of the freshest she has had and not overdressed like you get at all of those assembly line poke spots that have invaded almost every shopping center in OC. The plate was rounded out with fried noodles, mac salad, and a scoop of hapa rice. Even though she enjoyed this meal, she'd maybe try one of the seven other options next time.
I approached my visit to Ai Pono Cafe as I do almost any restaurant I go to, pick the item that allows you to try the most things on one plate. At Ai Pono, that means I got the Mento Bento ($18.50). This is basically the greatest hits from their kitchen. You get tastes of their Portuguese sausage, ahi katsu, spam, muy Thai shrimp, and teriyaki chicken. My favorite of the bunch was the sausage, which had a crispy casing and an excellent flavor to it. The chicken teriyaki was also superb, and way more elevated than what you could ever get at Flame Broiler of your bowl restaurant of choice. I was a little surprised by the ahi katsu, which came with a pleasing tinge of hot mustard that I was not expecting but still enjoyed. The shrimp was great as well, but beware that they leave the shell on, so take it off before eating. This comes with rice, which was okay but was overshadowed by the fried noodles and the mac salad, one of the best I have had. This is definitely the way to go if you are unsure of what to have on your initial visit to Ai Pono Cafe.
I added a Spam Musubi ($3) to my meal. I must confess that this was my first time having one. I know, late to the party as usual. I thought it was okay. The rice really overwhelmed here, and I ended up just taking some of the rice out and it was a lot more enjoyable. I'm not the world's biggest fan of Spam, and I suggest that if you're like me, don't turn your nose up to it like I did for all these years. It's not so bad.
At Ai Pono Cafe, you can taste and feel the authenticity of their food. It's not gimmicky, just good honest Hawaiian cuisine that I could see being served anywhere in the Aloha State. During our visit, I observed a good amount of people, many of whom I assumed to be Hawaiian enjoying their meals and thanking Chef Gene for a little taste of their home that's nearly 2,500 miles away. Be on alert for some specials that they run occasionally, which are featured on their Instagram page, here. They have had a fusion taco and a burrito offered, both of which looked awesome. Service on this evening was pretty low key, but still a warm and inviting atmosphere. Definitely, the aloha spirit is alive and well here in Costa Mesa.
Out of five Humuhumu-Nukunuku-A-Pua'a's (which just happens to be Hawaii's state fish), five being best to zero being worst, Ai Pono Cafe gets 3.5 Humuhumu-Nukunuku-A-Pua'a's.
Ai Pono Cafe does not have a restaurant website, but you can find info about them here: https://www.yelp.com/biz/ai-pono-cafe-costa-mesa