Aloha, ohana

Illustration by Mark Stivers

Island fever: Kit Syn only lived on the island of Maui for eight months, but he fell in love.

“What I really missed was the feeling of being there—the food, the culture, the laid-back family feel.”

In the five years since, he’s returned to Hawaii 12 times, launched a mobile Hawaiian barbecue business called Ben’s Huli Huli Chicken and, last month, opened his first brick-and-mortar restaurant, Ben’s Hawaiian Cafe (6610 Folsom-Auburn Road, Suite 7, in Folsom).

Seven-year-old son Ben is Syn’s reason for opening the cafe—he wanted to spend more time with Ben, and remarkably, the food business is less demanding than the hotel business.

At Ben’s Hawaiian Cafe, customers are greeted with “Aloha,” offered free pineapple water and seated at communal picnic tables. The menu is brief: Huli Huli chicken (marinated with pineapple, ginger, brown sugar and spices, then slow-cooked), char siu pork and garlic-pineapple shrimp. Proteins are thrown on the grill and served with coconut-topped jasmine rice, an Asian-influenced iceberg salad or traditional Hawaiian macaroni salad, which Syn just started offering last week. Syn is also extremely proud of his fried banana dessert and shave ice.

Hawaiian cuisine is vast—heavily influenced by immigrant workers from China, Japan, the Philippines—but Syn plans to keep his menu simple. He foresees adding Spam musubi at some point—Hawaiian customers keep asking for the semi-ham sushi—and Hawaiian drip coffee. Then, he’ll freeze blocks of coffee for the razor blade—voila, a riff on Italian coffee granitas.

Syn estimates adding shave ice toppings like mochi, boba, red bean and condensed milk in a week or so. He doesn’t make his own flavored syrups, but he’s confident that his shave ice’s texture is true to Hawaii: soft, luxurious, melt-in-your-mouth. The fact that he doesn’t say “shaved” ice is a good sign.

Movement: Note that popular Roseville vegan cafe Baagan relocated to Rocklin (2620 Sunset Boulevard, Suite 1) last week, thanks in part to a crowdfunding campaign. The bigger space and bigger kitchen allows Baagan to legally serve its grilled, baked and roasted items, which had become a county regulation problem in its former space a few months ago.