600 Palm Avenue, Suite 117, Imperial Beach
Huh? Last time I came through these doors this was a Chinese place, the Silver Sea. Now it’s Hawaiian. Very Hawaiian. Bright yellow and sea-green walls, canoe paddles, three toothy, life-size tikis, and that bright red, blue, and white-striped Hawaiian state flag. One wall section’s even covered with Kona coffee gunnysacks. And wow, two big flat screens show extreme surfing on Oahu’s North Shore. Forty-foot waves. Tiny stick men skiing down collapsing blue water mountains.
I like the atmos. The counter sits under a palm-frond palapa, and Jody the server stands behind it. She’s friendly in that open, I.B. sort of way. Guess that’s the Hawaiian way, too. Except she’s never been to Hawaii. Lives right here and needed to get back to work. “I’ve just had twins,” she says. “They’re expensive.”
I ask what she likes best. “The Big Kahuna burger, and the Big Kahuna’s rice bowl,” she says. “That’s chicken teriyaki over three scoops of sticky rice. It’s the best teriyaki chicken I’ve had.”
But I see some other real tempters on the menu, like eight deep-fried coconut shrimp with sweet chili sauce, for $8.95; a mandarin orange salad for $8.25; and a “killer kalua” pork sandwich, with “a generous portion of succulent roasted pork piled high on our jumbo roll and smothered with BBQ sauce,” for $7.65. They also have grilled chicken ($7.65), kalbi (beef short-ribs, $10.25), and “Big Kahuna’s Rice Bowl” ($7.25).
I notice this plastic box on the counter with a giant bun inside. “Is that what I think it is?” I ask Jody. I’m thinking, Big Kahuna Burger bun? It has to be twice as big as your average burger bun. It looks like a kid’s baseball mitt.
Jody nods. “That’s the bun for the Big Kahuna burger. Our homemade jumbo roll, from Tita Lelani’s secret recipe. It’s what we’re famous for.”
Hmm…I check the menu. “Big Kahuna Burger, a grilled 1/2 lb. beef patty, Monterey Jack & Cheddar cheeses, tomato, red onions, fine-cut cabbage, mayo, ketchup & mustard. Biggest & best burger in town! Featured in the movie Pulp Fiction, $7.65.”
“You were in Pulp Fiction?” I say.
“Our burger was,” Jody says. “Samuel L. Jackson had one.”
I learn that Gordon Fatta, the grandfather of this place’s owner, Paul, started the first Big Kahuna, in Oahu, back in 1992. Paul moved to the mainland, opened a place up north in Elk Grove, then a second location in P.B., and now he’s here in I.B.
So, hey, if it’s good enough for Samuel L. Jackson… I order the Big Kahuna burger, and the heck with it, a kalua pork and cabbage and sticky rice and macaroni salad to go. See what Carla makes of it. Also a can of Hawaiian Guava Nectar ($1.75).
While I’m waiting, the sound system plays ’60s retro. Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday,” and from 1966, the Association’s “Along Comes Mary.” There are yellow road signs from Hawaii on the walls, like a silhouette of a girl carrying a surfboard, and the words “Wahine Crossing.”
“This is what I.B. has needed,” says Bill. He’s waiting for his to-go order, Kalua pork and cabbage ($9.25). “I’ve been here nine, ten times in the last two months. I’m a plumber. I get all over San Diego, so I know places to eat, and this food is really good.”
Jody brings my Big Kahuna burger, and Lawdie, it’s, well, large. No extras, like fries or potato salad. They have sliced it into two halves. Good idea. Even half of this moby bun is a handful. I lift it out and look at the guts. It’s fairly standard, the half-pound patty, the melted cheeses on top, red onions and tomato slices below — except underneath that is this bed of shredded cabbage instead of lettuce.
Great move. The light sweetness of the Hawaiian-style bun, the crisp-skinned, juicy savoriness of the patty, and the cheese and cabbage all balance out. Somehow, I manage to get through both halves. Partly, it’s the bun. It’s big but light. And the warm, syrupy guava juice helps slide it down. Next time, if I have the bread, I’ll get one of their $4.50 pints of draft Hawaiian beers. Fire Rock and Longboard.
When Jody brings Carla’s kalua pork and cabbage, I have to grab a little sample, full as I am. It’s basically salted pork with cooked cabbage mixed in. And guess what? Delicious. Here, gotta say, you actually think of Hawaii. I mean, so much “Hawaiian” food, like Spam, macaroni, teriyaki, is imported from other places. This pork meat, done in the imu style (cooked underground), makes you think, yeah, this is Hawaii, pre-missionary, pre–sugar barons, pre-tourists. I drink to that thought with the last of my guava juice.
Then I have another thought: come back too often, and I’m gonna end up a very big Kahuna.
The Place: Big Kahuna’s, 600 Palm Avenue #117, Imperial Beach, 619-429-5224
Type of Food: Hawaiian
Prices: Deep-fried coconut shrimp, sweet chili sauce, $8.95; mandarin orange salad, $8.25; “killer kalua” pork sandwich, $7.65; grilled chicken, $7.65; kalbi (beef short-ribs), $10.25; Big Kahuna’s Rice Bowl (chicken teriyaki, sticky rice), $7.25; surfer sub (with roast beef, turkey, ham, pastrami), $7.65; teriyaki burger (with pineapple, cabbage), $7.65; BBQ platters with choice of hot links, pork ribs, or pork roast (two sizes, “giant,” $14.25, or “wimp,” $11.25); Big Kahuna burger, with 1/2 lb. patty, cheeses, cabbage, $7.65
Hours: 11:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m., seven days
Buses: 901, 933, 934
Nearest Bus Stop: Palm at Rainbow