Spam reconsidered

› paulr@sfbg.com

We can’t quite say that spam has become a blight, since it was widely unloved (except for the Monty Python bit) even before the word’s great shift in meaning. Everyone hates the new spam — except, I suppose, the spammers themselves, forever importuning the e-mail world on behalf of the mysterious Fifth Third Bank — but the old spam had a good deal to say, much of it unpretty, about America. For those of us who grew up in the 1960s, Spam was the rectangle of salty chopped pork that came in a blue tin (with the little pin you turned to roll open the top, like a can of sardines) and was the basis of many an improvised or emergency meal. Spam (supposedly a truncation of "spiced ham") served early on as military food, sustenance for World War II soldiers at the front; later it made a curious marriage with the pineapple and became a mainstay of prememorable, and perhaps preedible, Hawaiian cuisine. Hawaii was and remains basically a huge military base, and Spam’s high visibility there can’t be coincidental.

I found some tabs of Spam recently, floating in a large bowl of saimin served to me at Eva’s Hawaiian Cafe, and under their saline spell I took a brief waltz through the portals of memory. Spam is ridiculous — ridiculous word, ridiculous product, a kind of pork surimi, processed beyond recognition — but I had not objected to it as a child. It came out of a can, like Campbell’s soups, and I liked Campbell’s soups. It was salty the way candy bars were sweet — excessively, deliriously so. But I gave up candy bars years ago, and I can’t remember the last time I even saw a can of Spam, let alone let a bit of the stuff actually pass my lips, until the fateful moment at Eva’s.

The saimin ($4.95), interestingly, was not only not ruined by the Spam but gently enhanced by it. Deployed sparingly, the Spam chunks turned out to be useful as a salt condiment, like soy sauce with a meaty texture. They played well against the smokiness of the barbecued chicken flaps and the mildness of the submerged mop head of noodles at large elsewhere in the big bowl, and their presence meant that the quite intense chicken broth could be undersalted without losing punch. Also: even today, nothing says "Hawaii" quite like Spam, unless it’s Spam with pineapple, maybe on a pizza, though not in a bowl of saimin.

Eva’s Hawaiian Café belongs to a chain (as I learned ex post facto from reading the fine print on a takeout menu) — in fact a rather large chain — but other than that, I couldn’t find anything wrong with it, except that the chili mayo ($3.25), served with French fries, was too sweet and not hot enough. We requested an emergency supply of ketchup, and this prayer was quickly answered, just as most others were anticipated: more water and napkins, plates quickly cleared, dishes brought promptly and in a pleasing sequence. And all this in a semicafeteria service! I can think of quite a few full-service places charging twice as much or more that don’t manage anything near this level of cheerful attentiveness or serve better food. Meanwhile, there always seems to be at least one staffer moving around the bright red, yellow, and blue dining room on a mission to clean; the perfect scorecard posted in the front window from a recent inspection by the health department did not come as a surprise to us.

Considering the coffee shop modesty of the place (people sit at tables reading newspapers, perhaps this very newspaper), the food is fresh, tasty, nuanced, and inexpensive. The basic model is the Hawaiian lunch plate: a big platter of something (often a sandwich), accompanied by some combination of fries, rice, and macaroni salad. Since this is California, the salad state, you can get a green salad instead of the macaroni if you prefer.

The mahi mahi sandwich ($5.25) didn’t rise much above the level of ordinary and echoed of McFish. For a batter-fried item, the shrimp ($8.95) are better; they’re butterflied, which means they cook more quickly and retain more of their basic character. Better yet: the kalbi short ribs ($7.95), marinated and grilled, juicy and tender, from which we discreetly gnawed the last of the meat from the bones.

It’s the small plates, the pupu starters, that give the most delight. Redondo Portuguese sausage musubi ($2.25) is like a piece of nori-wrapped sushi, except the treasure wrapped inside is a brick of garlic-chile sausage instead of fish. Fresh ahi poke ($5.25) — cubes of ruby red tuna tossed with soy, sesame seeds, and cayenne — offers immaculately fresh fish and enough chile heat to awaken the somnolent, while lumpia ($3.25), the Philippine treats that are something like a cross between pot stickers and flautas, have an almost phyllolike delicacy. Best of all might be the Portuguese bean soup ($4.25 for a gargantuan bowl, so not really a pupu), a jumble of kidney and white beans and macaroni tubes in a thick, spicy tomato broth scented with okra. It’s like a vegetarian gumbo.

Eva’s isn’t luxurious or even especially pretty — the primary colors have a kindergarten brightness — but the whole experience of being there is so agreeable that we are reminded how much the simplest human touches count. The service staff are cheerful and knowledgeable, and they work to keep their restaurant tidy; all this counts for a lot and proves that true hospitality need not involve charging patrons exorbitant amounts of money. If you can’t get to Hawaii, bundle up and come here instead. *

EVA’S HAWAIIAN CAFE

Continuous service: Mon.–Thurs. and Sun., 11 a.m.–9 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 11 a.m.–10 p.m.

731 Clement, SF

(415) 221-2087

No alcohol

MC/V

Slightly noisy

Wheelchair accessible

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