In “Square Meals,” their love letter to American suburban cuisine, the very tongue-in-cheek food & pop culture writers Jane and Michael Stern have this to say about Hawaiian food: “There is no cuisine more adventurous, or more totally spurious, than that called Polynesian. We don’t know what Polynesians eat, but that doesn’t matter, because it has no bearing on Polynesian food, suburban style. Polynesian dining is the ultimate in exotica. It is a cuisine that encourages you to flame foods, tint them unnatural shades of red and blue, and generally create a very sexy mood. It is the food of love, suggesting a Hawaiian honeymoon or moonlight cruise.
“Polynesian Night calls for a romantic setting, the dining area lit with pagoda lanterns, the table set with fragrant gardenias bobbing in glasses of tinted water, and centerpieces constructed from tropical fruits and nuts. The man of the house wears his most colorful aloha shirt, the woman her muumuu or grass skirt… a good luau concludes with the singing of Hawaiian love chants such as ‘O Makala Pua,” “Imi Ao Ia Oe,” or “Lovely Hula Hands.’ What? You say Hawaii isn’t Polynesia? Who cares? To the suburban gourmet, that is a petty distinction. All Pacific cuisines are one, their escutcheon a Maraschino-red banner bearing a parasol and scowling Tiki god engulfed in the Sterno-blue flames of the pu pu platter.” From there the Sterns go on to offer recipes for Flaming Cabbage Head Weenies with Pu Pu Sauce and Kilauea Purple Passion Rice.
Femme de Joie has never experienced the Hawaiian tourist luau or been offered a bowl of poi to be washed down with a Blue Hawaii. But she does know that the stereotypes about any regional cuisine are just that – stereotypes – and that savvy chefs use the best local foods to create their finest dishes. But you won’t find that kind of cooking in the tourist areas. You’ll have to seek it out.
And that brings us to 808 Bistro, which is about as hidden as a restaurant can possibly get. Improbably located in the basement of the Department of Transportation building, it’s highly unlikely any non-Reddingite ever darkened its doorway unless they happened to be in that building on business. Those who did almost certainly walked away smiling: Oahu-born & raised Chef Keith Kakiuchi is turning out some of the best food in town, and not just Hawaiian – he covers a range of Asian cuisines as well as French, Greek, and other western-style preparations. Yes, you can get Kalua Pork or Ahi Poke – but there’s so much more.
808 Bistro is only open for breakfast and lunch, and only on weekdays. You have to sign in with the security guard, then walk down the stairs and through below-ground hallways to get to it. The dining room doubles as the CalTrans break/lunch room, but unlike most workplace lunchrooms with their scary refrigerators and sinks full of dirty dishes left by co-workers who think the Good Fairy will wash them, this dining room is cheerful and clean with Hawaiian motif artwork and cool aqua paint throughout. On hot Redding days, it’s a cool relief to step down to 808, order at the counter, and relax while Chef Kakiuchi prepares your order.
Macadamia nut pancakes came with guava syrup and lilikoi syrup (lilikoi might be better known as Passion Fruit) – all made by Chef Kakiuchi. These were some of the lightest, fluffiest pancakes we’ve ever tasted, with a generous amount of macadamias; the house-made syrups were fruity and not overly sweet.
Omelet with bacon and sausage was tender with crisp bites of salty meat folded inside. The house-made hash browns were perfect, with a crusty exterior and creamy shredded potatoes inside. That tart green tomatillo salsa was hot enough to make Tabasco redundant, and was far tastier.
Breakfast wrap with egg and ham was enlivened with more of that hot green salsa. Freshly made (as is almost everything at 808), it didn’t have that pile-everything-on-and-wrap-it-up quality of most breakfast burritos/wraps: simple ingredients well-prepared.
Loco moco is wildly popular in Hawaii; there’s even a restaurant chain by the same name. The basic version consists of rice topped with a hamburger patty, which is in turn topped with brown gravy and a fried egg. Bad versions are gummy and salty, but this one was piquant and more-ish, with flavorful house-made gravy saucing the entire dish together. Amico del Signore spent a bit of time waxing surfboards and catching waves at Waikiki so he knows his way around a plate of loco moco. He thought this was one of the best versions he’s tried. M. de Joie was impressed with the dish as indicative of the level of cooking at 808: this could easily be thrown together with leftovers and gravy out of a packet, but was made with the same care as any other dish on the menu.
Chef Kakiuchi runs a daily special, and on this lucky day it was Korean-style ribs with rice and macaroni salad. Two racks of beef short ribs were cut flanken-style (across the bone) and marinated, then grilled to order. We can’t say enough good things about those ribs. We detected high levels of garlic plus shoyu, some sugar – but there was such a masterful blending of spices and flavors that no one ingredient overwhelmed the dish. Truly one of the very best versions of ribs ever; definitely the best Asian-style ribs in Redding.
A puff pastry turnover was filled with fresh – not dessicated – coconut paste, which wasn’t nearly as sweet as it first appeared, with genuine coconut taste and texture. It had been sitting since early in the morning so the puff pastry was a bit soggy but wasn’t so bad that we didn’t lick up all the icing.
808 Bistro really is one of those undiscovered gems and M. de Joie feels it deserves more patronage than it’s getting. The level of cooking is very high indeed and prices are more than reasonable. A couple of caveats: while prices are low, the serving sizes usually reflect that. And everything is cooked to order, so be prepared to sit down and wait. This isn’t fast food or “Polynesian” either, for which we are grateful. There’s not a pu pu platter in sight – just fine cooking.
808 Bistro & Catering Company, 1657 Riverside Drive (in the basement of the Department of Transportation/CalTrans Building), Redding, CA. 530-225-3370. Open Monday-Friday, 7 AM – 3 PM. Vegetarian and vegan options. No alcohol. Street Parking. Website at http://www.808bistroandcatering.com/index.html
Femme de Joie’s first culinary masterpiece was at age 4, when she made the perfect fried bologna sandwich on white bread. Since then she has dined on horse Bourguignon in France, stir-fried eel in London, and mystery meat in her college cafeteria, but firmly draws the line at eating rattlesnake, peppermint and Hamburger Helper. She lives in Shasta County at her country estate, Butterscotch Acres West. She is nearly always hungry. Visit MenuPlease for more or send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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