At Rutt’s Hawaiian Cafe, one waiter, a Salvadoran, is a vegan who can’t eat most of the food on the menu. Another is a prize-winning Latino poet who recently graduated from Venice High School and has applied to Sarah Lawrence. He has written a poem on the men working in the Rutt’s kitchen. The owner himself, an Egyptian, was in the pizza business before he bought Rutt’s.
Behind the bar are 10 photo albums, every page filled with pictures of life inside Rutt’s. They were shot by Frank, a regular who died four years ago, and frequently feature his wife, Hiroko, who no longer comes in. Lots of other people do though, sometimes twice a day, making Rutt’s a Hawaiian version of “Cheers.” There’s Larry, Tom, Hank, Paul and Dave, a group of Asian men who use Rutt’s as a breakfast club. There’s the man whom waitress Socorro Escobedo calls Don Jose, who owns, she thinks, an auto business nearby. There are Betty and Susan, who became best friends the day Betty saved Susan’s life. They live in the trailer park around the corner, not the only thing around this stretch of Washington Boulevard in Culver City that slings you back in time. But there’s a new private school across the street, and one block away a restaurant called leaf that looks very lower-case hip. You have to wonder how long this time warp will last.
When Paul Wahba purchased Rutt’s from Ken Nakamaejo five years ago, he wanted to turn it into a pizza parlor. “I didn’t even know what Hawaiian food was,” Wahba says. But he was willing to learn.
For two weeks Nakamaejo showed the new owner how to make the Kalua pork and loco moco and spam masubi and lau lau and saimin that Hawaiians love. He deconstructed for Wahba Rutt’s biggest seller, the Hawaiian Royale, an egg scramble on rice. Nakamaejo had invented the dish. When one Rutt’s regular returned from Hawaii grumbling that he couldn’t find a restaurant that served Royales, this amused Ramiro Urrutia, the vegan waiter, no end.
Wahba was hooked, sort of. The first year was hard. Business had dwindled. “It was the regulars who kept me going,” he says. Chris, an outspoken Asian woman, weighed in on whether the dishes met Hawaiian standards. Matt, a gigantic haole, tapped Wahba on the shoulder one night while he was working in the kitchen--scaring him half to death--and “ordered” him to keep Rutt’s going. Finally, with the help of the regulars, a mailing list, website and the kind of jungle drumming that gets the word out among lovers of Hawaiian food, Rutt’s started to take off.
Now during the week the handful of tables are packed at breakfast with groups of men on their way to work at Edison or at the Department of Water and Power, and on the weekends with families. Best of all, “the young people are coming a lot,” Escobedo says of the loose-pants, bedhead-hair generation that shows up at all hours. Escobedo calls Rutt’s one big family “where everyone knows your name.” Well, your first name anyway.
To understand the appeal of Rutt’s is to understand the appeal of Hawaiian food. Portions are huge. Meals are cheap. The plate lunch that is the soul of Hawaiian cooking truly fills the plate--with rice, macaroni salad and a choice of kalua pork, barbecued chicken, teriyaki beef, Korean short ribs and other meats.
The food has the homey nature of Southern cooking but is more healthful. There’s no frying involved in the ubiquitous kalua pork. Early Hawaiians slow-cooked a whole pig underground. Wahba does his pork in a pressure cooker, while home cooks oven-roast theirs at low temperatures for hours. The pork must be absolutely tender, the better to shred it so that there’s plenty to go around at the large family gatherings.
On the other hand, the Spam and Portuguese sausage that often appear in starring roles won’t win any low-calorie designations. Hawaiians, Wahba knows, also like salty dishes to be just a little saltier and sweet dishes to be just a little sweeter. He makes his own teriyaki sauce, which has endeared him to patrons. “We had one customer ask what brand of teriyaki sauce we used,” says Urrutia. “I told him we made our own. He said, ‘No wonder I couldn’t find it. I was buying all these brands and none of them tasted like yours.’ ”
It’s one of the things that makes Rutt’s special when measured against some of the other Hawaiian restaurants. There’s great kalua pork and traditional dishes at the Loft in Torrance or Back Home in Lahaina in Manhattan Beach. Both, unlike Rutt’s, look Hawaiian, the Loft with its ocean mural and Lahaina with its tropical interior. The fluorescent yellow-and-white setting of King’s Hawaiian Bakery and Restaurant in Torrance is like something out of Solvang, but it’s the real deal in terms of its food. And Ono, a Hawaiian takeout chain, prepares fantastic kalua pork and macaroni salad.
Rutt’s has a very un-Polynesian wood bar and mirror that are throwbacks to when it was a drinking establishment, before Nakamaejo acquired it in the mid-1970s. Otherwise its origins are obscure. “One time a young man came in and said his father had built this building and that it was an Italian restaurant in the 1930s,” Urrutia says. Then he does the math: his grandfather, maybe, if you want to believe the guy could make that kind of mistake in his story, and shakes his head.
With his dark skin and easy manner, Wahba is often taken for an islander (he does speak with a pidgin-esque clip). But he’s been to Hawaii only once, on a vacation with his wife before he even knew about Rutt’s. Still, if anything embodies the aloha spirit, it’s this place, with its mix of haoles, Asians, Latinos and African Americans who settle into the vinyl banquettes like it’s home.
But maybe there is something to that Italian story. Appearing lately on the specials chalkboard is one odd dish: spaghetti and meatballs. So what island would that be from?
1 1/2 cups water
4 pounds boneless pork butt, tied
1 3.5-ounce bottle liquid smoke
1/4 cup Hawaiian or coarse sea salt
Combine the water, liquid smoke and salt in a bowl. Stir to dissolve the salt. Place pork in a resealable plastic bag and pour in marinade. Seal and refrigerate for one day. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Remove meat from marinade, wrap in foil and seal tightly. Place on a rack in roasting pan, with the fat side up. Fill pan with hot water until it reaches the bottom of the rack. Seal the roasting pan with foil and place in the oven. After 15 minutes reduce the heat to 325 degrees and cook the meat for 5 1/2 hours, or until tender. Allow the pork to cool for 20 minutes before shredding. Serve with Japanese (short-grain) white rice.
Rutt’s Hawaiian Cafe, 12114 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (310) 398-6326.