There's been a lot written about the influx of cutting edge cuisine in the South Bay, but sometimes even a dyed-in-the-wool foodie craves something simpler.
Nikau Kai is just that; a laid-back cafe and surf shop where you can wear your cutoffs and flip-flops and enjoy some good grub and friendly conversation. Named for owner Jason Shanks' sons, Nikau, which means palm, and Kai, which means ocean, Nikau Kai is a welcome throwback to a more casual era.
Originally opened five years ago in a spot a couple blocks down on the same street (Highland), Shanks had been looking to expand for about a year when this location freed up, but it came with a built-in kitchen. He'd already been considering adding a coffee bar, so the decision to combine retail with food to create more of a 'lifestyle ' experience didn't seem like such a leap.
Before moving to the South Bay, Shanks worked in advertising in San Francisco. But when his wife, a native San Diegan, told him she was tired of "wearing shoes," the two made the trek to Hermosa Beach, where they put down roots and have lived ever since. As a sideline, Shanks taught stand up paddleboard, parlaying that into an e-commerce site, which organically grew into a waterman shop with broad appeal.
Starting a cafe from scratch has been challenging, but Shanks believes his California/Hawaiian concept has a lot of potential. His hope is that the Nikau Kai experience will transport his customers to a surf trip in their past.
Although the menu is small, the items I tried were executed well, with clean, fresh flavors. The burrito is reminiscent of the Mission style found in San Francisco, a no-brainer since Shanks had been jone-sing for them since he left. Nikau Kai serves breakfast burritos and build-your-own burritos. There are also some pokes and sides, and a few items just for the groms. As the kitchen builds consistency, new offerings will be added, the first up being some new pokes and, of course, a fish taco.
The burritos come regular and large, wrapped in foil, to be eaten in the tear-as-you-go method, so the bundle retains its integrity despite being well stuffed. I tried the Big Ben, filled with pulled pork and bacon, avocado, eggs, cheese and salsa. It was rich and salty and satisfying, and for my appetite, the regular size was more than generous.
The poke is currently made with Blue Fin tuna, but Nikau Kai is making a move to yellowtail. The California version comes studded with avocado, some thinly sliced cucumber, and a bit of bean sprout over a bed of steamed rice. The kitchen uses a light hand with the sesame and soy, and the result is a simple, clean bowl.
The Ali-Baba is an ode to Jason's wife's (Al) favorite morning beverage. Fresh-squeezed carrot juice blended with fresh squeezed orange juice, creating an eye-popping orange color and a delicious drink—the carrot mellowing the acidity of the orange, while the orange brightens the earthiness of the carrot.
The coffee drinks are brewed with Verve coffee out of Santa Cruz. They also offer Hawaiian Sun juices and teas, and even a few beers. Although the vibe is easy, there is an eye to small details. As Shanks puts it, "everything is a hand-picked, conscious decision," all the way down to the cool logo that represents the palm and the ocean, which he designed himself.
The restaurant serves both eat-in and grab-and-go, with attention paid to earth friendly, functional packaging—the spork is compostable, and the brown bag has a perforation that tears down the middle to create a placemat.
Open daily at 7 a.m., Nikau Kai aims to be the first place in the morning where you can grab a both bar of wax and a burrito before you hit the waves. Look for longer hours when summer hits, and Sangria Sundays coming soon.
Nikau Kai 1140 Highland Ave., Manhattan Beach open daily from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information visit NikauKai.com
Manhattan Beach resident Eileen Shields is a regular restaurant profiler for The Beach Reporter. Aside from discovering fabulous beach city eats, she spends time traveling and writing fiction. Links to her work can be found at eileenshieldswriter.com.§