In recent years, refined versions of Hawai‘i’s favorite dishes have found their way to San Francisco, from the kimchi fried rice with smoked egg yolk at the lauded Liholiho Yacht Club to a braised kalbi loco moco at brunch hotspot ‘āina. And then, in December 2018, among the skyscrapers of downtown San Francisco, in the corporate headquarters of Salesforce, a Fortune 500 software company, Trailblazer Tavern opened. The seven-thousand-square-foot, theme park-like restaurant is dedicated to upscale Hawai‘i comfort food, a sign of Island cuisine going big.
“E komo mai, e noho mai, e ‘ai a e, wala‘au,” or “Come in, come sit, eat and talk,” reads the inscription over the entrance, which opens onto an airy dining area in shades of ocean blue and palm green. Chefs Michelle Karr-Ueoka and Wade Ueoka, of MW restaurant in Honolulu, who met while working at Alan Wong’s restaurant for almost two decades, collaborated to create the menu. They partnered with Michael Mina, a San Francisco restaurateur with a rapidly expanding empire that includes three restaurants on O‘ahu, and Marc Benioff, the co-founder of online powerhouse Salesforce.com and a devoted Hawaiiphile.
The dining experience is as much about storytelling as food. When servers unwrap the ti leaves from the laulau, they explain the origins of the dish. Except this is not a traditional laulau, with pork and fish wrapped in taro leaves and steamed. It is an amalgamation of Wade’s Hawai‘i and San Francisco memories—he emulates the porchetta from Roli Roti, a rotisserie vendor at the San Francisco Ferry Building farmers market, but rolls the pork belly with steamed, then dehydrated taro leaves before roasting the whole thing, a sort of inside-out laulau. His take on a Spam musubi involves a meat terrine made with Hawai‘i Island smoked pork and Japanese arabiki sausage, sliced and topped with a crisp sheet of mochi rice and dabbed with nori jam. For dessert, Michelle serves shave ice turned up to eleven, heaped with mochi ice cream and haupia tapioca, as well as a rum baba, a booze-soaked “adult Twinkie,” as she calls it. “We want to share the story of Hawai‘i,” says Michelle. “Every component of every dish has a story, a heart and soul.”