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Pa’ina: sleek, smart, sophisticated

Photographs of Pa'ina by Erik Anderson

SALOONS | Chris Barnett

What is a gentlemanly ex-plumber from the Sunset doing running a hot new Hawaiian-themed saloon, eatery and live music lounge in the Fillmore?

And at a time when many publords are quietly pushing up prices and skimping on portions and pours, how can James Cheng’s Pa’ina Lounge & Restaurant host an affordable, plentiful happy hour with young, attitude-free staffers eager to serve?

What’s more, how does Cheng persuade top Hawaiian reggae bands to fly across the Pacific on their own dime and perform at Pa’ina at 1865 Post, next door to the Sundance Kabuki Theatres, often at no charge?

Finally, why is his six-month-old venue so often packed with fundraisers, new product launches, corporate and political wingdings when marquee hotels downtown are begging to book this high-revenue business?

The answers can be summed up in a single sentence: Cheng and virtually his entire staff are complete rookies to the bar, restaurant and lounge world.

Cheng has his own recipe for success in competing with fellow Fillmore cocktalians. Most bars only discount their well — read cheapest — booze during happy hours, if they even have one at all. And they may slice a buck or so off a drink or appetizer price. But during Pa’ina’s Hana Hou Happy Hour, held from 3 to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, barkeeps whip five tropical cocktails made with top shelf ingredients for a mere $5.

Pa’ina’s Island Sunset, for example, is fashioned out of Island 808 vodka distilled on Maui, pineapple juice, grenadine and fresh lime juice. The Lycheehoo Tini is a potent blend of Hawaiian-made lychee nut vodka, triple sec and simple syrup. There is also a Mai Tai Mambu made with two rums including Myers dark, amaretto, pineapple juice and OJ; it’s robustly flavored, served in a tall glass and filled to the rim.

Other great drink deals at Pa’ina’s happiest hours range from eight draft beers — including three Kona brews as well as Sam Adams seasonal, Stella Artois and Lagunitas IPA at $4 a pint or $16 a pitcher — to cranberry, orange and pineapple mimosas for $5, well cocktails for $5, plus wine on tap from Nottingham Vineyards in Livermore including cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, a rose and a sparkling wine at $6 apiece.

The happy hour pupus include eight plates, also priced at five bucks apiece, that span the gamut from Kalua Pig cheese fries, garlic fries, sweet potato waffle fries and “krispy kalamari,” to Pa’ina wings, sauteed clams, veggie Gyoza and seasonal oysters.

On “Football Mondays” it’s a different story. Happy hour food and drink specials are stretched from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. and more protein is in play. Tuck into a Tiki Torch — a Kalua pig and cabbage spring roll with a side of pineapple hoisin BBQ sauce, $5, and either three Kalua pig sliders or two Kobe beef sliders for $7. And the raw fish poke bowls — Island Style hamachi, spicy chipotle ahi tuna with Maui onion and wonton chips or ahi with wasabi and sesame oil — fetch $10, a two-buck discount from the $12 regular price. And there’s another treat for football fans in addition to the razor-sharp four big-screen Insignia TVs: six flavors of Island 808 vodka are sold as shots for $4 each.

Except for the tropical drinks, happy hour libations and dishes barely hint at the boldly creative cuisine and cocktails that come out of Pa’ina’s kitchen and its two bars — one upstairs near the entrance and a second and longer bar next to the stage. More remarkable is that the two page “beverage menu” sprang largely from the imagination of Samantha Cheng, James’ 24-year-old daughter, and not from some mixology consultant’s back pocket.

Samantha Cheng is the creative sparkplug behind Pa'ina.

Pa’ina is a family affair. Samantha is the creative sparkplug with a tough, no-nonsense manner. She identifies her brother Justin as the place’s sometimes busser: “He works when he wants to work.” Papa James is clearly in command but soft-spoken bordering on shy, which seems refreshing when many bar and club owners are either hovering control freaks or absentee number crunchers.

The only non-family member on the front line is Joanna Tan, who’s the manager. She got some earlier on-the-job seasoning in an “I did everything” internship at the Taj Campton Place.

Perhaps what’s most remarkable is the look and feel of Pa’ina: sleek, smart and sophisticated. The bar top and public spaces are a foam green glass with specks of color embedded — “glittery glass,” as the staffers call it. A seat at the bar is a black leather chair with solid back support. Opposite the upstairs bar is a triangular communal table with more of the leather bar chairs that would be at home in Milan or Manhattan, but are stunning as a visual anchor to the entrance of this cavernous restaurant.

When the sun sets, the step-down lounge is seductively lit with white and blue fixtures mounted on the walls and hanging down from a contemporary exposed black ceiling.

“We didn’t want the little grass shack, Hula skirt stereotype of Hawaii,” says Samantha.

Down a narrow hall on the way to the WCs are two private rooms that could be VIP speakeasies if the Chengs fancied themselves as club moguls — which they don’t. The rooms with leather sofas and large screen TVs are available for meetings or serve as a “green room” for bands.

Pals Faviola Garcia, a researcher at UCSF, and paralegal Stephanie Mariani recently split a signature goblet — served with two straws — during their first visit to the bar. Faviola’s take on Pa’ina: “Very polished.” Added Stephanie: “I walked in and felt very welcome.” Diana Tan, a U.S. Army staff sergeant who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, was more pointed in her assessment: “This place doesn’t have a snobbish air, where they look you up and down and it’s all for show.”

Speaking of shows, Samantha Cheng books the talent herself instead of hiring a booking agent. On scouting trips to Hawaii and Las Vegas, she gets a first-hand look at the acts. At Pa’ina, music starts as early as 6 p.m., when acts practice, but shows begin around 9 p.m. from Wednesday through Sunday. Cover charges start at zero for most of the month and max out at $10 for a name act. Other gigs include fashion shows, magic shows and Polynesian luaus.