6937 Federal Boulevard, Lemon Grove
Up here near the 94 College exit, a blue 1966 Valiant sits parked between a Frazee’s and a Weight Watchers place.
Only one man in this town has a sky-blue ’66 Valiant: my buddy Rod, the lifeguard. He’s parked outside a cream stucco wall, where a “Taste of Polynesia” sign is painted in big letters above the smoky glass frontage. He’s with his little white curly-haired dawg, Paco. Doing a crossword. He looks up.
“What’s a four-letter word meaning ‘tardy’ or ‘dead?’ ” he asks.
“ ‘Late.’ Okay, I’m late,” I say. Heck, he only sent this crazy e-mail this morning: “Talofa! New Polynesian eatery…Samoan…early days…Great buzz…1:30, okay? Be there!”
So hey, it’s 1:45. What’s 15 minutes in the scheme of things?
“ ‘Talofa?’ ” I say.
“It’s Samoan,” Rod says. “Same as the Hawaiian word ‘aloha.’ ”
We head on through the glass door. The inside’s bright: orange, yellow, cream, chocolate walls, with shelves of imported groceries, clothing, and glass flowers for sale. No sign of food to eat here till, at the back of the shop, we come to a counter where a woman and a younger man are tending a bunch of steaming chafing dishes beneath a blackboard menu.
“I heard turkey tail was the most popular thing,” says Rod.
“Turkey tail?” I say.
“Yes. Tail of the turkey.” He points to a dish loaded with tennis-ball-sized clumps of golden roasted meat. Must say, it looks delish. “Muli pipi,” says Raymond, the young man behind the counter. “It’s really popular in Samoa. Of course, we’re very careful about cleaning it. It sells by weight, $3.99 a pound.”
Great. But I wanna see what else they’ve got. Raymond talks as he points and lifts lids. “Baked taro, baked taro in coconut cream, $4.59 a pound; lamb ribs, $4.99; lamb with cabbage, $3.99; cabbage and corned beef, $4.99; taro leaves and corned beef, $3.99; chop suey, Samoan-style — basically, long rice noodles with chicken or corned beef — $3.99…” Two more lids. One has suafai, sweet banana soup with milk and tapioca; the other is a “soup” of papaya, coconut milk, and tapioca. Different sizes cost $3, $5, and $7. “People have them for breakfast, like oatmeal,” says Malia. She’s Raymond’s aunt. On weekends (Friday–Sunday), they also have fish, including oka (raw cubes of yellowtail with coconut milk), or poke with sesame oil and green onion ($5).
I look up at the board. You can buy things by weight. Like, for the “Samoan Mix Combo,” you just pile in anything from the chafing dishes and pay $4.79 a pound. Or you can order set-price combos. The Talofa Bowl — hey, that means “Hello Bowl” — gives you one item plus rice for $4; with the Minnie Hawaii you get two for $7; for $10, the Tonga Mix gives you three items, plus rice, plus a cooked green banana covered in coconut milk.
“Let’s get a Tonga each,” I say. “That way we can try all six.”
We check dinero supplies, order the Tongas, and then, what the heck, get some bread pudding — thin brown slices soaked in sweet condensed Carnation milk with vanilla ($3) — and some giant bread balls (three for $1). Plus, we order some pineapple pie (a whole large calzone-size pie is $4 or $1.25 per slice).
“I need two packets of lialia,” a Samoan customer named Leleai tells Raymond. “It’s this kind of long rice noodle for Samoan sapasui — chop suey,” she explains to us. “It’s very hard to get in San Diego. I’m a chop suey girl. That’s why we’re so grateful these guys opened. Otherwise, we have to go to Oceanside or L.A.”
Raymond’s mom Rita arrives. “We get customers from Samoa and Hawaii,” she says. “Also Tonga, Micronesia, Guam, Fiji, and even palangi — non-islanders — like you.”
Raymond is really stuffing our boxes full. Only one problem. No tables or chairs to sit down and eat at. “We’re working on that,” Rita says. “We’ll have them by June.”
“Let’s take it to my home,” says Rod. “I live just up the road.”
“Here’s the thing,” I say to Rod 20 minutes later, when we get to his place. “It doesn’t sound all that appetizing. Corned beef? Chop suey? Taro leaves? Turkey tail? Boiled green bananas?”
“Let me stop you right here, son,” says Rod. “Just taste.”
So I do. And, one: the corned beef doesn’t taste much like corned beef. Combined with taro, it’s dee-lish. Two: the chop suey is great, a garlicky-veggie-chicken combo that goes with those soy-gingery rice noodles. “This is the best chop suey I have ever tasted,” says Rod. And, three: the turkey tail doesn’t suffer just because it came from the butt end of the bird. The banana’s a bit boring, but it’s meant to play straight man to the exotics.
We chow down and think aloud about what dishes we’d go back for. For Rod, its the sapasui (chop suey). Me, it’s the corned beef and taro leaf or the lamb. What a beautiful surprise this was. Thanks a lot, guys. Or, if I’ve translated the receipt correctly: fa afetai lava.
The Place: Taste of Polynesia, 6937 Federal Blvd., near College Ave. (College exit on westbound SR-94); 619-466-6199
Type of Food: Polynesian/Samoan
Prices: “Suafai,” sweet banana “breakfast” soup with milk and tapioca, or papaya, coconut milk, and tapioca soup, $3, $5, and $7 sizes; Talofa Bowl, one item plus rice, $4; Minnie Hawaii, two items, $7; Tonga mix (three items, rice, cooked green banana in coconut milk), $10; items include baked taro in coconut cream, lamb ribs, lamb with cabbage, cabbage and corned beef, taro leaves and corned beef, chop suey; roasted turkey tail ($3.99/lb.); fish on weekends include oka (raw cubes of yellowtail with coconut milk), $5 small, $8 large), poke with sesame oil and green onion, $5, $8
Hours: 8:00 a.m.–7:00 p.m., Tuesday–Saturday; till 6:00 p.m., Sunday; closed Monday
Buses: 856, 916, 917, 936
Nearest Bus Stops: College Ave. at Federal Blvd.