We're Ready to Say Aloha to Mochi-Crusted Spam Musubi

Chefs Michelle Karr-Ueoka and Wade Ueoka's Trailblazer Tavern is opening in November. (Grace Cheung)

If you're in San Francisco, or constantly commuting in and out of the city for work, it's hard to miss one of the biggest events of the year: Salesforce's Dreamforce conference. Amongst all the keynote speakers, parties and concerts, we were most excited to hear that the newest addition to the Salesforce and Michael Mina family would be in town. Trailblazer Tavern, the collaboration between Chefs Michelle Karr-Ueoka, Wade Ueoka and Michael Mina, is one of the most anticipated restaurant openings of 2018 and the two James Beard-nominated chefs from Hawaii came to town for a small preview of their upcoming menu. With the restaurant debuting in November within the Salesforce East building, it wasn't a surprise to hear that the menu preview aligned perfectly with Salesforce founder Marc Benioff's birthday (happy birthday, Marc).

The duo is excited for their upcoming restaurant opening, and they are hard at work finalizing a Hawaiian comfort food-inspired menu. Personally, I was most excited to hear that mochi-crusted spam musubi was a part of said menu!

Intrigued? Read on to hear what else these talented chefs are bringing to the Bay.

Welcome to the Bay! How long are you guys here for?

Michelle Karr-Ueoka: Till tomorrow. We flew in last night and did the event for Marc Benioff’s birthday. What we did was two dishes that will probably be on the Trailblazer menu. We wanted to give people a sample of what's to come next month.

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Speaking of next month. Are you excited? How did this project come about?

Wade Ueoka: Most definitely. Yeah, it's always a dream to try and expand.

Michelle: We feel so blessed to have met Chef Mina when he first came to Hawaii and now, to be able to open a restaurant for Salesforce and for the MINA Group and us together, it's all about collaboration and we feel very fortunate to be able to do that. We first met when [Michael Mina] did the The Street in Honolulu, and one day he called us up and he said "I have this location—would you be willing to, you know, collaborate on a restaurant in San Francisco?" And I'm like, of course, we would love to!

To come to San Francisco, and bring a little Hawaii and share it with the people here, that's always been a dream of ours. We're excited.

What's the vibe that you want at Trailblazer Tavern? Do you want it to be more fine dining or do you want it to be more of a casual hang out spot? We know right now that it's going to have Hawaiian vibes, but that could cover so many bases!

Michelle: We wanted to have that aloha spirit, bringing the ohana, bringing people together and just sharing memories over food. Because the menu encompasses different categories like dimsum, noodles, rice, salad, sandwiches, pokei, crudos, and then large plates which are more tapas style where I think we'll do something from the imu (because in Hawaii everyone associates a luau with the imu) and then like a Hawaiian-style pot roast and some different things. To kind of give it, like, a time where people can relax and enjoy.

Trailblazer Tavern sketch.
Trailblazer Tavern sketch. (J. Wade PR)

What has it been like trying to start this restaurant in San Francisco versus your restaurant in Hawaii? Is it a very different kind of experience you're feeling from when you opened MW? Or is it the same stresses?

Wade: I think it's different cause we learned quite a few things since we opened MW. I think MW got rushed—everything happened so fast! You always think about things like ohhhh, I'll do this, I'll do this differently. So now we have a menu of things that we've been going over the past few years versus trying to just rush and do things to open. When we opened MW we had all these dreams of all the things and it was like oh that doesn't work, this doesn't work. Or that worked and this works so we've learned! We've been able to, I guess, build up something of what has worked and what hasn't worked.

Michelle: And then I think too... we've been open for five years. We just celebrate our fifth anniversary of MW and we're doing some of the signature dishes here that from day one is nice. It’s bringing local comfort food but with a contemporary twist. So one of my favorite dishes is his [Wade's] kind of a play off of a spam musubi where he makes his own spam but it's smoked pork. Everyone in Hawaii eats spam musubi but it’s usually just spam and rice. But what he does is he makes his own version of spam and then he crushes it with mochi. It's nice and flaky and crispy—so taking the iconic message and flavors of Hawaii and then kind of twisting it.

And for the nori, he makes a sort of Nori Tsukudani, which is kind of like a jam. When I was growing up and eating it, you have rice and you have this nori on top, and it's so yummy. And so he puts that [on the musubi] and a little quail egg on top, so it's a fun version of spam musubi.

So speaking of the menu. Are there any other dishes that you're bringing from MW or are you kind of making everything from scratch for this restaurant in particular? From both the savory side and sweet side.

Wade: I think yeah, for both of us. I think that's what we like to do is taking more than the flavors of Hawaii that people are used to and reinterpreting and making it our own. The Spam Musubi, and Korean Fried Chicken is another, you know, dish that people always go out and look for or—

Michelle: The Mixed Plate Sandwich!

Wade: —or the Mixed Plate Sandwich. Korean Barbecue is very popular in Hawaii. In the sandwich we have kalbi, fried chicken and spicy pork—Korean spicy pork. So we put all that into one sandwich and we call it the Mixed Plate sandwich. It's a lot of flavors that people enjoy in Hawaii, and we're taking iconic dishes of Hawaii and reinterpreting it. You know, for her [Michelle], she has the Shaved Ice.

Michelle: Not your typical shaved ice! We did one last night at the event. Usually Shaved Ice is water and, like, a sugary syrup, but what I do instead is I do it with all compressed fruit so you get the natural sweetness of the fruit with a lot less sugar. Last night we did a Haupia Tapioca which is my version of the Filipino dessert Halo-Halo, and then we put strawberries and Mochi ice cream on it. Usually Mochi ice cream is more round, but we roll it like a sushi and we cut it and we serve it with strawberry yuzu sorbet. And then we use freshly shaved strawberry hibiscus on top of it. So it's not really just water and syrup, it's more the fresh fruit.

And then we're going to have to do one, like an affogato, over here [in San Francisco] or coffee and cream. Because I know Chef Mina liked that one. We're gonna use the Lamill coffee that [Michael Mina] uses. It will be like a Kahlua Tapioca, with pannacotta, Mochi ice cream, coffee gelato, shaved Thai coffee and then we do like a coffee cloud on top, so, when you eat it, it's light and refreshing and it has all these different textures.

With our menu, we want to tell a story. So one of the desserts we were talking about with Chef Mina, like back in the plantation days, people used to bring tiffin tins, which was like a lunch box. You held onto your starch and then everyone puts their main dish all around in the middle of a circle and then everyone shares. So one of the desserts I was thinking was a tiffin of all chocolate desserts representing some of the different cultures found in Hawaii so every bite tells a different story.

You've been testing a lot and meeting with Michael Mina to go over which dishes will go on the menu. Is the menu ready? Or is there still some tweaking before the November opening and will the menu continue to change?

Wade: It's a work in progress because, you know, what we're familiar with in Hawaii might not work or, ingredient-wise, it just might be different. So that might change a few things, but, overall, I think it's getting there.

Michelle: Any time you design a menu—even for us at the restaurant back home—you always get farmers who bring in something and it inspires you, and that's what we want to do here. Because you guys have such wonderful farmers here, we want to showcase what San Francisco has to offer too. I think that's what it’s about, you know? And what is always fun for me is when you have different seasons, when a farmer comes and says oh, I brought you this thing. I want to create something with that! And that's what keeps the menu interesting and keeps people coming back. And it keeps the team growing and curious.

My mom always laughs because she would call me Curious George because my mind would be going all over the place, but I think that's what I love about food and cooking: it's always creating new dishes.

Wade: Yeah, I think that's what we’re not familiar with in Hawaii. Hawaii doesn't really have seasons, you know.

Michelle: There’s mango season and lychee season.

Wade: Yeah, there's not many seasons that you have to adjust to, where here, it's gonna be a little bit different. So you know, we are definitely looking forward to it because that's something that's going to open up a whole new avenue for us.

Michelle: It's exciting because when I lived in Napa for a little while, we had fig season and cherry season and I think oh my god this is not what I get in Hawaii. And the peaches! It's just so much better. Sometimes I go back to Hawaii and I'm like this isn't a peach!

A look at Trailblazer Tavern's bar area.
A look at Trailblazer Tavern's bar area. (J. Wade PR)

Are you planning on going out to meet local purveyors and farmers around the Bay area so that you really are hands on with what's coming in, or is there a team here that's going to help you with that?

Michelle: Yeah, the MINA Group has been really good at helping us with that. You know, and pointing us in the right direction.

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So, there you have it! Get ready for a delicious Hawaiian comfort food inspired menu with a modern twist, and watch as it changes seasonally with what California farms have available for Michelle and Wade to use.

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