April 27, 2012

A Taste of Hawaii in Torrance

On my recent trip to California, Vicky Murakami-Tsuda of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles suggested meeting for breakfast at The Local Place in Torrance. Little did I know that she was about to trigger a little memory cascade. It turns out that the cafe-bakery with the very humble name is owned by King's Hawaiian, whose fluffy Portuguese sweet bread was a ubiquitous part of growing up in Japanese American Southern California. It comes in single round loaves or pull-apart rolls, is great toasted with butter, and, along with those Portuguese-style egg custard cakes sold in Chinese bakeries, has to rank among Portugal's great culinary contributions to Asia and now America.

I knew that the bread was popular in Hawaii, where the company is based, but until Vicky pointed me to this article on DiscoverNikkei.org, I didn't know that it was started and owned by an Okinawan American living in Hilo named Robert Taira. Here's a picture of the original Honolulu coffee shop and bakery in 1968, which hangs on the wall at The Local Place.

The cafe/bakery is the smaller offshoot of the first Torrance King's Hawaiian, but features the same Portuguese sweet bread French toast, as well as Japanese American classics such as Spam-and-egg musubi (rice balls). Spam is in fact featured in everything from breakfast sandwiches to burritos, and is evidence of the Japanese American culinary version of Stockholm Syndrome: you grow to love the food your budget and upbringing put in front of you. There are also great Hawaiian Japanese combinations such as The Local Scramble, scrambled eggs, char siu pork, kamaboko (bamboo shoots), green onions and cheese. 

The Local Place and King's Hawaiian are also famous among Japanese Americans for their Hawaiian Paradise chiffon cake, layered with guava, passion fruit and lime filling and frosted with whipped cream. I had to take one of these home with me! 

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