The greater South Bay area of Los Angeles has a way of hiding its worthwhile secrets, tucking phenomenal sushi chefs and yakitori spots into strip mall locations under unassuming signs in Lomita or Torrance. Some of LA’s best ramen serves in a Japanese grocery store food court, while top-notch coffee and breakfast burritos flash past on Sepulveda Boulevard in a blink. It’s important to pay attention in neighborhoods like these, because there are rewards for the curious.
In San Pedro, that curiosity could lead one to the longstanding Gaffey Street Diner, hugging the northern edge of the peninsula just as it dumps drivers off from the terminus of the 110 Freeway. It’s a clogged arterial that lacks the seaside charm of much of the rest of the community, but inside this longshoreman’s breakfast enclave hides what may be the South Bay’s most inventive new pop-up in ages.
At first Instagram scroll, Fiyahnesian looks like any number of other popular, social media-aware spots operating around Southern California. There’s the signature sauce zigzag on top of the quesadillas (there are always quesadillas), and close-up overstuffed interior shots of freshly-sliced burritos. But the photos hide what may well be the main attraction: chef BJ Yandall, a Hawaiian-born mountain of a man with full sleeve tattoos and a fast smile. He’s the one, along with his cadre of family helpers, turning out truly unique takes on LA cuisine and the flavors of his island home. Simply put: There is nothing quite like Fiyahnesian in Los Angeles right now.
As the name — a misshapen portmanteau of ‘fire’ and ‘Polynesian’ — implies, Fiyahnesian plays to its Hawaiian strengths with mounds of teriyaki chicken, bright red char siu chicken, rice, fried eggs, and cheese. There are big, rich sauces on and in nearly everything, plus pineapple and mango salsas and plenty of coleslaw on the side. Catch Yandall on a different night and there might be poke bowls and mac salad, or better yet a loco moco burrito, dressed wet and served in a takeaway Styrofoam container that must weigh two pounds by itself.
On busy nights Fiyahnesian becomes a true family affair, with BJ’s mother helping out in the kitchen and his sister, daughter, and anyone else running food and ringing customers up. The Big Uce burrito (“uce” means brother) is probably the most popular item in the kitchen’s arsenal, a huge tortilla filled to the breaking point with both teriyaki and char siu chicken plus runny eggs, sweet salsa, rice, and soy sauce.
Rotating taco flavors also get heavy play, as do the big, thick quesadillas that require either a fork and knife or about dozen WetNaps at the end. They tend to serve everything in to-go containers, in part because it’s cheaper and most of the customers opt for takeout anyway, but there’s also something psychological about it all. “You’re not going to finish this massive meal,” says the Styrofoam, “So why not enjoy it from the box you’re going to take it home in?”
Big is about the only way Yandall does anything. Like many other kids his age and size, he left Honolulu to come to the mainland in search of a life playing football. After a stint at El Camino College in Torrance, Yandall pivoted to the Mixed Martial Arts scene, again employing his natural abilities.
After the arrival of one child and then another (with now five in all), he made the decision to trade the octagon, or the common name for the mixed martial arts arena, for a kitchen. Yandall enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Pasadena, which led to a job at Wolfgang Puck’s catering operation, and eventually solo jobs for friends and family in the dense South Bay, where much of Los Angeles’s Hawaiian and greater Polynesian community resides. Church families and gym friends in Wilmington, Harbor City, Torrance, and San Pedro all started calling Yandall in search of his unique creations, and from there the word was out.
For the first six months Yandall was doing illegal lunch service pop-ups right out on the street, letting anyone walk up to place an order. But that approach proved unsustainable, and with catering orders continuing to increase, he sought out a more permanent space that would allow him the opportunity to grow. Now in any given month Fiyahnesian might end up on the food lineup for a Polynesian festival in Orange County or a weekend-long music series up in Seattle. Yandall doesn’t like to limit his range or his possibilities — he’s always thinking big.
The Gaffey Street Diner pop-up is now closing in on 18 months of service, with Fiyahnesian running Monday, Tuesday, and Friday nights from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. or sellout. The gig came about through Yandall’s tattoo guy, whose uncle happened to be running the diner. One chance conversation later and the historic building (for years called the Bridge House Cafe) is now his, three nights a week, serving a growing roster of intrigued diners looking for something they haven’t had before. Fiyahnesian fits that bill.
The next logical step for Yandall is a food truck, a merging of his offsite catering and pop-up lives. He’d like a couple of cafes eventually, maybe one in LA and another in Las Vegas. But the ultimate goal is to return to Honolulu with a full-time Fiyahnesian restaurant. That way he can bring his family, his LA fusion flavors, and his heart back home. For now it’s just Gaffey Street Diner, but Yandall isn’t afraid to dream big.
247 N. Gaffey St.
San Pedro, CA