Hapa's signature teri beef strikes perfect balance
By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor
By Wanda A. Adams
When Shannon Tangonan Putnam was a girl, she spent a lot of summer and after-school hours behind the window of her parents' lunchwagon at Campbell Industrial Park, scooping rice and mac salad, making change and watching her dad and mom, Richard and Ellen Tangonan, make friends with their customers.
At the time, she didn't think she was learning anything she'd ever use. After college, she became a reporter, covering what we in the newspaper business call "the cop shop." She worked here at The Advertiser, then left for the Mainland 10 years ago, ending up at the San Diego Union-Tribune. But she was beginning to burn out, weary of covering one tragedy after another. And she wanted to come home.
One day the phone rang, and a few months later, Putnam was back to scooping rice and mac salad, this time in her own restaurant, Hapa Grill. Her mother had called to say that her uncle, George Tanaka, wanted to sell his business, Jurison's Westside Cafe, and, after some initial doubts, Putnam and her husband (David, now an Advertiser editor) decided to take the leap.
Jumping from reporting to the restaurant business? "I know. It's such a natural," she said with a laugh.
But in fact, it seems to be working out just fine. Jurison's became Hapa Grill in July 2005. Putnam chose the name because it expresses her Filipino-Japanese ethnicity, her vision of lunchwagon fare with sit-down restaurant quality, and the diversity of the Islands.
After 27 years, the elder Tangonans retired in 2005, as soon as they knew their daughter would be carrying on the tradition; both have helped with Hapa Grill. The family-friendly menu combines revivals of Sassy Kassy Lunchwagon specials with such contemporary dishes as grilled mahi with mac-nut fruit salsa ($11.95), I Love You Like a Mango Salad (greens, diced mangoes, calamari or chicken with a mango vinaigrette invented by her kitchen manager, Ericson Bumanglag ($8.85), and rosemary-accented roast pork with pork demi-glaze ($10.85).
Sassy Kassy's signature was teri beef, and it's a top seller at Hapa Grill, too, served in a rice-salad plate ($8.75) or on a bun as a burger ($7.85).
Having tasted too many tough, stewed, bland or over-salty teri beef plates, burgers and sticks in my time, I rarely order teri anything anymore. But I have a clear vision of what teri beef ought to be: The thin-sliced beef should glisten with a mahogany glaze and surrender effortlessly to the fork. There should be a moment of crisp chewiness when you first bite into it, followed by a gush of juice in which salt and sugar teeter in perfect balance against a background of ginger and garlic.
I'd heard that Hapa Grill's teri beef would meet this high standard. It more than did that. It was so good I brought a takeout plate home and refused to share with my husband.
Hapa Grill uses the same marinade with chicken ($8.75), salmon ($10.85) and even grilled tofu ($7.50). Putnam said the secret is both in the proportions of the ingredients and in the high heat of the flat-top griddle on which the teri dishes are prepared. Even her mom can't replicate the dish at home, she said; at home kitchen temperatures, the marinade, instead of caramelizing almost instantly on the meat, leaks out and stews the beef instead.
This teri beef is worth the drive to Kapolei — even if you live in Waimanalo!
Other entrees don't disappoint, either — nor does the easy, friendly service or clean, quiet atmosphere.
I'd go back in a heartbeat for local-style pork chops — not chops at all, but pan-fried strips of pork with grilled onions and a really delicious brown gravy ($8.50). A girlfriend praised the macadamia nut mahimahi ($11.95) for its tender, moist texture and crunchy-sweet fresh salsa topping. Hawaiian chopped steak ($8.75) brought back memories of dinner at Grandma's. She, too, stir-fried beef with green onions, bell pepper and other vegetables in a light shoyu sauce.
You can switch out the starch on any plate lunch: white or brown rice, mashed potatoes or french fries. (You can get a green salad instead of the potato-mac. And you can order a Hapa combo ($11.85) with two options from among the lunchwagon standards — pork chops, roast pork, mochiko chicken, chicken katsu, hamburger steak, teri beef or teri chicken. Some specials are accompanied by garlic mashed potatoes and grilled veggies.
Hapa Grill offers breakfast from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily with plates ranging from a strawberry belgian waffle for $6.50 to steak and eggs Benedict for $9.75. Chicken fried steak ($6.75) is a bow to her husband's Southern roots (but she hasn't yet put grits on the menu). A short stack on the side is just $2.75.
The brief dessert menu here is dangerous: fried ice cream ($5.50), Mom's hot fudge brownie sundae ($6.25), fried wrapped cheesecake ($5.50), tiramisu ($5.50) and ice cream topped with whipped cream, (two scoops, $4.50). A girlfriend and I took a deep breath and ordered the fried ice cream, which proved to be the size of a softball — a scoop of vanilla encased in a thick, sweet batter that had something of the texture of a waffle, dark brown and crisp on the outside and airy light on the inside. The brownie sundae is made with Ellen Tangonan's signature from-scratch recipe — the one the family begs for each Christmas, topped with ice cream, hot fudge and whipped cream.
Reach Wanda A. Adams at email@example.com.