137 West D Street, Encinitas
(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)
Kelia swings her butt as only Hawaiians can.
“That’s called ‘hula for moolah,’” says her mom, Kealani.
They burst out laughing.
“I used to have all the staff do it,” Kealani says. “Every time a girl got a tip, she’d come to the jar, drop it in, yell, ‘Hula for moolah!’ and do that little hula, like dii-da-da-da-daa-daa…and the cooks out back would grab a wooden spoon and go bong, bong! against a pot to finish it off. That got so many tips for them. My daughter has the record for the most tips.”
We’re in Kealani’s in Encinitas. “Dine in. Take out. Fresh flower leis,” it says.
This is on West D Street, on its way down to the D Street steps and the ocean stretching out to Hawaii.
It was a wooden hula dancer that stopped me. She was leaning on a sandwich board. “Daily Special: Pork Adobo $6.50.”
Sounds like a pretty good deal. Far as I remember, pork adobo’s basically meat steeped in a garlic-and-vinegar marinade, so you know the flavor’s gonna be good.
Besides, Hawaiian music’s pumping out through the door.
Inside, it feels just like you think Hawaii must: rattan walls, bamboo posts, lots of palapas, and a big mural of your dream beach-and-waterfall scene painted on the wall beside the counter. A sign advertises ukulele lessons, starting in January.
This family is at a table, chowing away at teriyaki chicken ($6.99).
“Good?” I ask the daddy, Nate.
“No, great,” says Nate. “We’re Thai and Filipino at this table, so we know Asian food. This really tastes good. And you get a lot for the money.”
“Aloha,” says the guy behind the counter. Adrian. He hands me a menu.
I get a Hawaiian Sun guava drink ($1.50, non-fizzy), and without even looking at the menu, I order the pork adobo. I hand over the $7 for the adobo (including tax) — so, $8.62 in all.
While I’m waiting, I look around. Notice that they have Hawaiian shirts, tees, and ties for sale.
Pretty quick, Adrian comes up with my pork adobo. Ooh... There’s plenty of it, maybe a dozen chunks of meat, two scoops of rice, a bowl of soy, and a bowl of macaroni salad, all sitting in a puddle of marinade.
I chew into a chunk of the adobo. Garlicky, slightly sweet taste. Rich. Even richer when you dip it in the soy.
“Adrian,” I say, “is this stuff Hawaiian or Filipino?”
“It’s Filipino,” says this voice. Not Adrian’s, but a woman’s. Turns out, it’s Kealani herself. Actual owner. Actual Hawaiian. She says she started this place back in 1999. “That’s the thing about Hawaii,” she says. “It’s out there in the middle of the ocean. It has picked up food and cooking ideas from all over the Pacific.”
She sits down with a bag of, uh, li hing mui. “From China. Everybody eats this in Hawaii. It’s, like, the island snack.”
Turns out li hing means “traveling,” and mui means plum. “Traveling plum.” Huh. Talk about crossroads.
Kealani offers me one.
Wow. Sweet, sour, salty. Dried plum. I could take to these things.
Then it’s back to the adobo. Also sweet and savory, all at the same time. And now we’re talking dogs. Because Kealani’s a dog whisperer when she’s not here. She has dog kennels, a canine behavioral clinic, and, till recently, another restaurant in Oceanside.
“It just got too much,” she says. “But I’ll never give this up. My mother spoke this into my life. Forever, she said, ‘You’ve got to open a kau-kau corner.’ She meant a plate-lunch place, like we have in Hawaii on every corner. So I opened here.”
The more we talk, the more incredible this woman becomes.
“We always close early on Wednesdays to give hula lessons,” she says. “And, also, on Wednesdays, we have a free hot meal for the homeless. At Thanksgiving, a hot meal for 400 homeless, inside here. And at Christmas. And you can always come ’round the back if you’re hungry.”
This is when a bright-faced gal plops down beside Kealani.
“This is her, my daughter, Kelia, the champion hula dancer! Adrian, Kelia’s here!”
Soon Adrian has brought over a loco moco, which is two ground-beef patties, grilled onions, gravy smothering everything, with two eggs sunny-side up on top, two scoops of rice, and one of macaroni salad ($7.75). Except, Kelia has the mini size, with one patty and one scoop of rice ($6.25, if she was paying).
Then Adrian brings another plate. Deep-fried breaded chicken, looks like, cut into a half-dozen slices, with a side of katsu sauce ($5.50 for mini size).
Kelia eats both. And here’s the thing I notice: she mixes everything in the loco moco together. Burger meat, gravy, rice, macaroni. “Oh, yes!” she says as she scoops it up. “I dream of this up in L.A.”
L.A.’s where she works as a producer for a TV production company. And, guess what? The company produces famous shows, like Master Chef, Paula Abdul’s Live to Dance, and The Biggest Loser, which now has productions in 27 countries.
The irony? Right now, she’s eating like there’s no tomorrow, yet she’s as svelte as any Biggest Loser winner. “I just don’t eat Mom’s home-cooking every day,” she says.
“She’s also a great dancer,” says Kealani. “Kelia: Get up and do the ‘hula for moolah.’ I’ll clap the rhythm.”
Kelia does, arms up, facing us and weaving, then turning her back for the last two beats and wiggling her butt at us.
You have to laugh. Anywhere else they’d have the religious police on us. But this is Little Hawaii. Butt-waggle central.
I swear, we need more Hawaii.
The Place: Kealani’s, 137 West D Street, Encinitas, 760-94-ALOHA (760-942-5642).
Prices: Loco moco (two ground-beef patties, grilled onions, gravy, two eggs sunny-side up, two scoops rice, one scoop macaroni salad , $7.75 (mini size, $6.25); chicken katsu (deep-fried breaded chicken, katsu sauce, $6.99, $5.50 mini size); kalua pig sandwich, $4.50; daily specials, e.g., pork adobo (Tuesday) with rice, mac salad, $6.50
Hours: 11:00 a.m.–6:00 p.m., Monday, Wednesday; 11:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m., Tuesday, Thursday; 8:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m., Friday, Saturday; closed Sunday
Buses: 101, 304, 309, 374, Flex, Coaster
Nearest Bus/rain Stop: 25 East D Street, Encinitas