Spam reconsidered

Eva's Hawaiian Cafe
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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.

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