OZONA — Reviewing restaurants when times are tough is different than in boom times. You're thinking the latter must be more exciting, right? More ambitious projects, more investment money to add razzle-dazzle, more smart people putting their heads together to shake loose diners' expanded disposable income? But that's precisely why the array of restaurants in hard times can be richer. It's not that too many cooks spoil the pot — it's that they may make more generic soup. Borrow $1 million from investors, banks, whoever, and your business model must be tried-and-true, road-tested, airtight. Translation: safe.
Go it alone, scraping together the funds augmented only with elbow grease and a lot of guts, and a project can still be the idiosyncratic vision of a single person. This restaurateur isn't answering to stockholders or investors (well, maybe Mom and Dad), they are pursuing a unique dream. And sometimes that dream is something lovely no one has seen before.
Teresa Kerr opened the Ohana Cafe in September 2010 in Ozona at the site of the Orange Street Cafe. From the big island of Hawaii, she's a former singer in a pop lounge band, with the kind of effervescent personality that could be heightened only with spring-loaded shoes or a crown of lit sparklers. Step inside the oh-so-Ozona space (the building is like a New Age compound with a yoga studio, holistic wellness center and gift shop, and a doctor of metaphysics office) and her voice booms out a cheery "Aloha!"
People talk about the aloha spirit, a kind of mystical love-ourselves-and-each-other vibe that is invariably caricatured in movies as diverse as 50 First Dates and Lilo & Stitch. It means something like "the breath of life," and it's at the core of what Kerr is doing in her funky cafe. It's not a Hawaiian restaurant, it's not a vegetarian restaurant — Kerr calls herself a nutritarian, which essentially means someone who is mindful about the nutritional quality of her diet. In a menu of healthy; largely veggie; antibiotic-, hormone- and nitrate-free; organic and sustainable foods, she's making it easy for diners to be more mindful, too.
But all the fair trade coffee, natural sodas and gluten-free treats in the world aren't worth much unless it all tastes good. Which it does at Ohana, whether you visit for breakfast, lunch or weekend dinners. For a big morning meal, head for their healthy spin on loco moco ($9.99), a classic Hawaiian dish popularized in the 1940s. On top of a base of delicious brown basmati (why can't I get my rice to turn out just like this?) sits a lean free-range buffalo patty capped by fat caramelized onions and an over-easy organic egg, the whole thing jazzed up by brown, gluten-free gravy. Ohana tends to be a little shy with the salt, so grab a squirt of the Bragg Liquid Aminos on the table (try it, it's tasty gluten-free soy sauce).
Less famished? One morning's special black bean breakfast burrito ($9.99) with quinoa, scrambled egg, salsa (with some major depth charges of jalapeno and some unnecessary spicy mustard) in a whole-wheat wrap made for some get-up-and-go, especially paired with a chocolate spinach smoothie ($5.99). Nothing to be squeamish about — the spinach gets whirled with banana, blueberries, cocoa powder and flax seed along with ice and some dates for added richness, the finished thick shake deeply chocolatey but still very wholesome.
At lunch, Kerr and fellow cooks Phillipe Dominguez and John Costa rely on a strong lineup of salads and wraps and other sandwiches. We were drawn to one called the Maui Wowie wrap ($8.99). No, not that kind of Wowie, but the wrap did contain hemp hearts, one of those wonder foods that is supposed to lower blood pressure and help with weight loss. Reminiscent of quinoa, it was packed in the sandwich with hummus, cucumber, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, spinach and punchy housemade salsa, altogether a great mix of lively flavors. Another smash success was a daily special of kalua pork ($9.99), probably not cooked in the traditional Hawaiian underground method, but delicious smoky pulled pork atop brown rice and crunchy cabbage in a dish that is at once homey and sophisticated.
Kerr's warm personality rubs off on everything at Ohana, from the servers to the live-oak-canopied courtyard and charming tin-ceilinged dining room with its long wooden bar. It feels like a "find," a singular gem. Fancier corporate ventures may have more polish, but seldom shine as brightly.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. She dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.