Ono Ono resides in Tustin, a town strong on Asian influenced strip mall comfort food.
In the past few years, every third strip mall in Southern California seems to have added a casual Hawaiian restaurant. More often than not, I’ve been disappointed by the low-grade ingredients and left with a leaden feeling in my stomach. Happily, I located the exception: Ono Ono Hawaiian Barbecue & Veggies in Tustin. a restaurant with gargantuan portions at bargain prices. I read about Ono Ono online, and though I was still wary of Hawaiian food, it sounded promising. After all, ono means “delicious” in Hawaii, and the owners use the word twice, with good reason.
After passing below a sign marked with a colorful bird of paradise logo, we entered a Hawaiian oasis. The order-at-the-counter cafe was much nicer than it had to be. They stenciled walls with Hawaiian designs like this family, with the Sun overhead.
Flower imagery is prevalent at Ono Ono. A faux palm tree adds more kitschy, but fun island flavor.
When I ordered, the cashier kindly offered me a complimentary slice of moist, walnut studded banana bread.
Poke is a popular island appetizer involving simply dressed raw fish cubes. At Ono Ono, it’s offered in a bowl or with chips. I opted for chips, featuring fresh tuna, cucumbers, scallions and big cuts of fresh avocado, all topping airy tortilla chips. Drizzled with soy sauce and sprinkled with tan and black sesame seeds, this was a light but flavorful start to the meal.
Ono Ono’s spicy pork quesadilla ($5.95) justified the 40-minute drive. A flour tortilla was filled with thin slices of chili-slathered barbecued pork and a prodigious amount of Jack cheese, then grilled until the tortilla was crispy and the cheese was oozing. That treatment alone would have elevated this quesadilla to untold heights, but it got better when dipped in the sweet house-made papaya and plum sauce. The sauce nicely counterbalanced the pork’s spice and added to the dish’s depth of flavor.
Ono Ono’s chef clearly has a deft touch with pork. Their Kalua pork baked with ginger, smoked hickory sauce and sea salt until alternately feathery and crusty, like good Southern barbecue, minus the sauce. Mochiko chicken was less successful. Marinated thigh meat was coated with ginger and mochiko (sweet rice powder), then deep fried. The chicken wasn’t oily, but it wasn’t special. Unfortunately, gravy dipping sauce couldn’t induce poultry redemption. With the combo plate, we were given a choice of two sides. This is where the Veggies part of the restaurant’s name came into play. The cole slaw was under-dressed, and springy long rice noodles were prepared with carrots and cucumbers.
Not everything at Ono Ono was great, but the pork dishes and poke chips would certainly be worth repeating. Not that I need reasons to return. Ono Ono features a lengthy and intriguing menu, and I’m already contemplating a drive to order the pork steamed in taro leaves, macadamia nut pancakes with Portuguese sausage, and Portuguese bean soup with Portuguese sausage, ham and kidney beans. And next time, I’ll bring a cooler, so when I undoubtedly over-order again, I’ll be able to enjoy the leftovers.
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