When you walk into Mo's Hut, a newish Hawaiian and Samoan barbecue spot in Oakland's Fruitvale District, the first thing that hits you is the smell — a heady mix of soy sauce, caramelized sugar, and charred meat. For those of us who grew up not on burgers and hot dogs, but on backyard barbecue as practiced by chopsticks-wielding grill masters, it's a smell associated with lazy Saturday afternoons, Tupperwares full of marinating pork chops, and impromptu, multi-generational games of outdoor volleyball.
These are the kinds of down-home pleasures (minus the volleyball) that you'll find at Mo's Hut, an unpretentious grilled-meats joint that serves as a good introduction to foods you might eat at a big family gathering in Hawaii or American Samoa. It's the first restaurant venture for husband-and-wife owners Pupualii and Kitty Moliga. Pupualii is the restaurant's namesake. When I asked him how to pronounce his first name, he explained that all of the vowels are enunciated — something like pu-pu-a-lee-ee. But his friends just call him Mo.
The Moligas run a catering business that has become a fixture at food festivals and Polynesian family gatherings in the thirty years since the American Samoan-born couple first moved to the Bay Area from Hawaii. In December, the family finally took the leap and opened a brick-and-mortar spot on Fruitvale Avenue, in a small space once occupied by a branch of Everett and Jones BBQ.
Mo's is a takeout joint, first and foremost. There's a window counter and a handful of tables, but even for folks dining in, orders get packed up in plastic takeout boxes. Still, for a place that doesn't have a lot of amenities, Mo's exudes a charm that is disproportionate to its humbleness. I particularly loved how the Moligas spruced up the bulletproof takeout window so it had a Polynesian grass hut kind of vibe. A street sign hanging up in the kitchen area reads "Samoan Way," and every staff member I interacted with was extraordinarily friendly.
Newly retired from his job as a heavy equipment operator, Mo mans the grill as the restaurant's main day-to-day cook, but he gives Kitty credit for most of the recipes — though it was hard to wrangle too many details about those, as the Moligas keep their cooking secrets pretty close to the vest.
As was the case with the Southern-style smokehouse that previously occupied the space, barbecued meats are this restaurant's bread and butter. Short ribs are cut thinly across the bone, Korean kalbi style, so you wind up with nicely charred edges, and chewy bits to gnaw on around the bone. Chicken thighs are deboned and cooked slowly on the oversized Weber grill out back — the meat takes on a smoky-sweet flavor, and the skin gets sticky and caramelized. Teriyaki beef — whatever choice cut Mo can get for a decent price — is sliced thinly, and had a similarly addictive sweet-and-savory quality as Korean bulgogi, with a gingery note that really made the flavors sing.
For all of the meats, the foundation is Mo's not-too-sweet teriyaki sauce, which he uses to marinate the meats for at least 24 hours and whose ingredients he wouldn't reveal, aside from the obvious soy sauce and sugar base. He described his recipe as a cross between a traditional teriyaki and the kind of sauce that Koreans use for grilled meats — there's probably a decent amount of garlic and onions involved.
At Mo's, $12 buys a combo plate containing a truly massive amount of food. The Hawaiian Plate comes with a generous portion of all three grilled meats, plus two big scoops of rice (a bit clumpy, but topped with a tasty little drizzle of teriyaki sauce) and, tastiest of all, an extra-mayonnaise-y island-style potato and macaroni salad — the potatoes cooked very soft and tossed with imitation crab meat to yield a creamy mixture that was unreasonably delicious considering its humble ingredients.
Smaller-sized combos and rice bowls are available for $8.95 and $5.50, respectively, or you can go in the other direction and pay a couple of bucks to add an extra slab of short ribs (or whatever meat you like best) to your order. Any of the sides or meats can be swapped out, and on weekends, in particular, there are often options that may or may not be listed on the menu — bright-red Chinese char siu-style roast pork or the slow-cooked kalua pork that is one of the hallmarks of Hawaiian barbecue.
It might surprise folks who haven't spent any time on the islands that Mo's also serves a wickedly tasty corned beef — a legacy, it seems, of the colonial influence of corned-beef-loving New Zealanders on the Samoan islands. Mo buys a nice fatty cut of pink beef brisket, already brined, from Robert's Corned Meats, a San Francisco institution, and slowly simmers the corned beef (aka povi masima) in-house until it's as lush and tender as any you'd find at a proper Irish pub — and he'll even serve it with cabbage if you call ahead and ask.
The best way to enjoy the povi masima is as part of the Mo's Special (also $12), in which they're served on top of a traditional Samoan starch: unripe bananas cooked in a savory coconut milk sauce until they have the texture of al dente boiled potatoes. The combo plate also comes with barbecue chicken, a scoop of rice, and some Polynesian-style "chop suey" — mung bean vermicelli stir-fried with mixed frozen vegetables, resulting in something vaguely reminiscent of Korean japchae.
During the week, the restaurant serves a fairly streamlined menu, focused mostly on the grilled meats. Saturdays, on the other hand, feel like one big family cookout — the Bay Area's entire Polynesian community out in force, it seems, to partake in whatever specials the Moligas have whipped up. Sometimes that means there's whole tilapia cooked, heads intact, on the grill. More often than not there will be oka, a Samoan raw-fish salad similar to Hawaiian poke. The version at Mo's is mellow and mild-tasting: cubes of raw yellowfin tuna and cooked mussels in a pool of coconut milk studded with diced tomato and cucumber, with only a hint of lime juice added so that the fish stays completely raw. It's a cold, soupy dish — almost more like a gazpacho than a ceviche, and refreshing in a way that speaks of hot island days.
Saturdays are also when Mo's usually serves a small selection of traditional Samoan desserts, all baked in-house by Kitty. So you might snag a half-moon-shaped hand pie filled with pineapple custard or a loaf of the coconut bread known as pa pa — a dense, crusty bread that was mildly sweet and as heavy as a brick. Best among the sweets were the panipopos: sweet dinner rolls, basically, that come drenched in sweet condensed coconut milk — the pleasures of a cream-filled doughnut, minus the deep-frying. Usually, these are sold — by the tray or half-tray — with big family parties in mind, but the cashier was willing to sell me a smaller portion.
It's standard operating procedure for a small mom-and-pop restaurant to market itself as a family business, but I don't know of too many places where you sense that feel-good family vibe as strongly as you do at Mo's. As far as I could tell, even in the middle of a weekday afternoon, there were five or six members of the extended Moliga clan hanging out in the kitchen, everyone laughing and singing along to some upbeat hip-hop jam.
With that kind of a cheerful soundtrack to my meal, I swore that potato salad was the best thing I'd eaten in months — proof, I think, that food just tastes that much better when everyone around you is having fun.