The owner of Big Kahuna grows his own — vegetables that is
Sometimes a restaurant’s back story is just as interesting as its food. A few minutes in the door suggested that might be the case with Big Kahuna: Not only did the place have a funky, handmade look, with plastic leis and fugitive-from-fast-food seating, but also the menu was all over the map, from wraps to shakes, and the well-meaning waitstaff had a friends-of-the-family feel. And sure enough, there is a story here — far above, not below, the surface.
|Big Kahuna owner and chef Jason Weaver inspects a chili pepper plant next to his 160-site aeroponic system, which he uses to grow all of the restaurant’s lettuce. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)|
Cook-owner-manager-cashier Jason Weaver’s culinary adventures began with a stint at Luby’s, where he was a manager and “problem solver.” After leaving the cafeteria chain, he took up landscaping and then hydroponic gardening, in part because living in Barcelona (whilst racing motorcycles for Ducatti, no less) had attuned him to the use of every small urban space, including rooftops, for gardening.
With more than a kitchen garden in mind, Weaver purchased the nondescript 4,000-square-foot building at Ashby and North Flores across from the San Pedro Playhouse to house his nascent business. “I wound up growing so much produce here that I was giving a lot of it away,” he says.
Weaver grows hydroponic lettuce — 160 heads! — peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, and, on a smaller scale, sprouts and wheat grass. From the street, you won’t see this bounty. Though he starts some of his plants from seed, under fluorescent lighting, much of Weaver’s produce is grown from organic sprouts shipped from Canada, acclimated under shade cloth at the rear of the building, then moved to the “farm” on the roof. Weaver says that with several tiers of hydroponic equipment the 4,000 square feet of roof becomes “almost 10 acres.”
No wonder he decided to launch a restaurant to make use of it. Big Kahuna, named for long-boarder Weaver’s surfing moniker, opened in October of last year in the former gas station (once the home of Zinfandeli’s) next door to the urban farm. Today, only peppers are growing, but Weaver expects to start cucumbers and tomatoes soon, and a sprout shipment arrives from Canada in February. While these veggies will get a head start indoors, Weaver also operates a conventional farm in Floresville, where he and his father grow oranges, grapefruits, melons, and even avocados — a climate experiment. “I should have a grasp on everything by summer,” says Weaver, who expects to supply all of Kahuna’s produce needs, with the exception of certain fruits.
|Big Kahuna’s sliced oven-roasted turkey breast with provolone, served with a side of potato salad and a slice of Weaver’s homegrown Asian melon.|
Fruits are a big factor in Kahuna’s smoothies. I tried a thick one made with soy milk, blueberries, and mango. Blueberries dominanted the blend; next time, I’ll balance the mix by adding banana to the mango. Or, I may skip it and try the special Blue Hawaii shake, an ode to Elvis made with banana, peanut butter, and vanilla ice cream. Only slightly less indulgent is the Rocky My Coffee. Consisting of four shots of espresso, two scoops of Bluebell Rocky Road, a shot of chocolate Bianca flavoring, and sweetened condensed milk, this is a killer concoction, pushed only slightly over the top in chocolatey sweetness by the Bianca.
Saner drinks, from coffees to black, green, and herbal teas, are less pushy companions to Big Kahuna’s large list of salads and sandwiches, which now feature Boar’s Head deli meats. The Nilhau is composed of house-made tuna salad on a hoagie roll with melted provolone; lettuce, tomato and sprouts can be added. The provolone doesn’t count for much, but the tuna salad, adorned simply with red onion, celery, and black olives (annoying, even if they are finely chopped) is top notch. There’s nothing fancy about the potato salad, either: Made with spuds, eggs, a little pickle, and fine pimento, the side dish needed only salt to sing.
| Big Kahuna |
Coffee Bar & Deli
741 W. Ashby
Price range: $5-$7
The Volcanic Nori Roll with tofu is an example of the menu’s shotgun attitude;
I’d like the roll better if it were rolled tighter and was served with more spicy mayo.
A Chocolate Gnash Cake, in need of some hydroponic moisture, failed to thrill as well.
Free dessert and coffee are offered with any sandwich purchase and a San Pedro Playhouse ticket stub, but few patrons had taken Weaver up on the offer until the opening of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which attracted a more “down-to-earth” crowd, he speculates. SAC students, neighbors, and, from the look of it, friends of the chef, currently make up most of Kahuna’s audience. Awareness of the only in-house garden-to-table operation in town should expand that audience come summer — assuming the food’s sophistication grows along with the produce. •
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