When people hear “California”, visions of sun-soaked, brah-filled, coastal, Southern California beach towns usually fill their minds. Imagine the level of surprise and disappointment we’ve seen on our unknowing out-of-towner guests’ faces when they come to visit us in San Francisco and are faced with our unusual patchwork of foggy and rather chilly micro-climates instead of a permanent summer. It always throws them for a (disappointed) loop. Really, Nor-Cal and So-Cal are so extremely different that it would probably make sense to consider them two separate states, but that’s a whole ‘nother conversation.
But, there is a place like this dreamlike version of California that does exist in Nor-Cal and it’s actually not that far from San Francisco. This place actually has that stereotypical beach bum vibe where surfers and skaters live their carefree suntanned lifestyles and tourists flock to catch rays of sunshine. This place is Santa Cruz.
Seriously, it’s only about an hour drive south of SF and it’s totally worth a visit. Although Santa Cruz is well-known for its beaches, warm weather, and surf-friendly vibes, it’s probably best-known for it’s touristy, wood-planked, ocean-front boardwalk. This boardwalk has all of the usual hallmarks I grew up with on the Jersey Shore – crappy chain restaurants with vast outdoor patios, hordes of cornball tourists wearing sandals with socks, and extremely dangerous-looking roller coasters and other typical carnival attractions. Parking is both exorbitant and practically nonexistent and the traffic is usually out of control so I don’t find that part of town a particularly pleasant to go to. Actually, I’d recommend staying as far away from that area as possible.
Instead, I’d recommend a spot only five minutes inland with plenty of street parking spots and absolutely zero tourists – Pono Hawaiian Grill. It’s a little Hawaiian oasis way off the tourist-tainted path inside of a gigantic, low-key tiki style dive bar called The Reefs. I’ll leave the tourists to clutter the boardwalk while I hang with the locals in solace here on the couches, at the bamboo bar, and in the jungle-like back patio.
In fact, as I looked around the place, many of the patrons actually looked Hawaiian – always a good sign when it comes to finding authentic food. The menu revolves around simple Hawaiian staples with a heavy emphasis on fresh poke bowls. No matter what type of seafood you’re craving, there’s a high likelihood that they’re offering a poke bowl topped with it in raw, sushi-grade form. Once you decide what you want, step up to the register, place your order, and bring your number to any seat inside or out. No matter where you choose, the atmosphere will be incredibly pleasant, but by sitting in that foliage-covered garden I couldn’t help but feel like I had been transported directly to the Big Island on a mini-getaway.
For my light and fresh lunch, I chose the Spicy Scallop Poke bowl. I’ve been on a real big raw scallop kick recently at all of my goto SF sushi joints and figured this would be another great place to get my fill. This dish involved a modest-sized bowl of freshly steamed white rice topped with a generous portion of fresh, raw, bay scallops dressed with seaweed, green onion, and an actually spicy spicy mayo.
The freshness was obvious with every tender and clean tasting bite and that creamy sauce really kicked nice and hard. Together, they made a wonderful pair. I used just the slightest pour of imported Hawaiian soy sauce for an added touch of salt, but other than that it was perfect exactly as presented. The portion was admittedly a little small to be able to quench my monstrous appetite on it’s own, but for around ten bucks (market price) it made for a really nice, light, refreshing lunch.
Amy opted for the Salmon Cilantro Avo Poke bowl for her lunch. Although I loved my selection very much, I think this one was even better. The sushi grade salmon was extraordinarily fresh and was featured almost completely unadulterated save for a touch of green onion. This was a real treat for raw salmon lovers like us. This bowl also made for a really excellent light lunch with its super-clean flavors, but again the portion was a little too light to be totally filling.
Our friend, Holly, decided to go for the Ahi Poke bowl variety for her lunch. This one was also very delicious, but it definitely relied heavily on toasted sesame oil dressing and spicy chile pepper for most of its flavor. If I was being extra-critical, I’d argue that the sesame oil may have dominated the profile too much, but there’s no denying that this was delicious. The same minor gripe stands true regarding the portion.
Our friend, Eric, decided to explore outside the poke bowl paradigm with a different Hawaiian tradition called the Teriyaki Chicken Hawaiian Style Lunch Plate. This platter definitely made for a more substantial meal than our poke bowls with its massive mound of meat, dual ice cream scoops of white rice, and heap of cole slaw. I’m by no means an expert on this type of dish, but Eric seemed to really enjoy it as he indicated its the meat tasted like it was authentically grilled and glazed. If nothing else, this lunch pick was definitely more filling than our poke bowls were.
So, if you’re looking for an authentic island-style meal without the flight to Hawaii, Pono is the perfect place to get your fill. Go to Santa Cruz, skip the boardwalk, and enjoy the relaxed vibes and fresh, high-quality food they’ve got going on. Next time I’m in town, I’ll definitely be ready to grab a tiki drink, order another poke bowl, and settle into a table on their sunny back garden patio again. It’s the sort of thing a guy could get used to.
Got another great, non-touristy lunch spot in Santa Cruz that I should check out? Let me know in the comments below.
Pono Hawaiian Grill
120 Union St. Santa Cruz, CA 95060