Thursday, September 21, 2006
I’ll not be coy: I love Hula’s Island Grill. Chris and Craig Delaney’s Monterey restaurant, with its kitschy Polynesian décor, cheerful ambiance and consistently good Pacific Rim fare, is a perfect getaway. I won’t be surprised if the soon-to-be-open location in Santa Cruz is the beginning of world domination. It has the same great formula.
The same goes for Hula Hut, the faster-food spin-off that opened in the Crossroads in May under the guiding hand of the Delaneys and former Hula’s manager Craig Gladstone. With the same quality ingredients and distinctive flavor combinations found at Hula’s, it’s the mother ship in miniature, the perfect lunch or light dinner stop.
Fans of Hula’s will recognize many of the offerings on Hula Hut’s menu, like Duke’s Luau Pork Plate ($9.95) and the Mango Chop Chop Caesar ($5.50). Starting this week, they’ll also find the familiar wraps and bowls ($8.95-11.95), which combine rice and beans with exotic ingredients like ahi and wasabi cream sauce or marinated steak and lime curry. They’re supplanting the takinis, inventive panini-style sandwiches, on the menu. That will disappoint a lot of people, including me. In fact, this review was almost titled “Requiem for a Takini.” But there remains plenty else to like about Hula Hut.
Ulia, Francine and I rendezvoused there one night after a hike through Garland Ranch. Not surprisingly, Hula Hut’s bright, casual interior is accented with a lot of Hawaiiana. A surf video was showing on an overhead monitor. Five tables and a row of stools at the small bar made for an intimate feel (as does the square footage—this is a small place).
We picked a table, agonized over the menu and ordered at the counter. Francine chose a glass of Twin Fins Cabernet Sauvignon ($5.50) from the tiny wine selection. Ulia and I both went for the snappy Bundaberg Ginger Beer ($2.50), and I got a Kona Brewing Company Fire Rock Pale Ale ($4).
We were hungry, so we ordered a mess of food, starting with the crispy coconut shrimp rolls and salad ($8.50). The platter was on our table in no time. The rolls were good and crispy and filled with a slightly sweet mix of bay shrimp and coconut milk. Mildly flavored, they were jazzed up by a dip in the pineapple horseradish sauce. The salad could have used half the dressing, as the vinaigrette was unexceptional and too plentiful.
Everything else arrived at once, and it was flavor fireworks from that point on. The Hula style, which draws from Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese and Hawaiian cuisine, is intensely flavorful. The Seaweed Salad ($3.25) was tossed with an in-your-face sesame dressing. The Island Slaw ($1.50) was similarly assertive, combining the cool simplicity of ordinary coleslaw with the unexpected heat and crunch of pickled ginger. On a plate of teriyaki pork or chicken, the way it plays off the sweetness in the sauce is sheer genius.
We shared a basket of sweet potato fries ($5.95). They were floppy, whereas I prefer crispy, but when dipped in the super-secret hula sauce, the combination of sweetness and astringency was addictive.
The fresh fish tacos ($3.95 each), Hula Hut’s number one seller, were also excellent. The fish was lightly fried hapu, crispy and tender, served on pliable corn tortillas with a crunchy slaw of cabbage, lime juice and cilantro. With a side of yet another tangy sauce, it was a flavor and texture sensation.
All this was good, but our sandwiches were truly superlative. Francine’s Hula Burger ($6.95), a half-pound of juicy goodness with hula sauce and grilled onions, was a real sleeper. It’s one of the best burgers in town, and I don’t say that lightly.
My Luau Pork Takini ($7.50) was a melted, messy expression of comfort food love. Soy-glazed shredded pork, provolone, slaw, pineapple and excessive hula sauce worked wonders.
Ulia, meanwhile, was working on the Beachcomber ($7.50), a takini of blackened mahi, provolone, cabbage and sun-dried tomato pesto aioli. This was the prize of the night; in fact, as we ate, Weekly music writer Stuart Thornton walked in on a quest for his regular Beachcomber fix.
I hear he’s pretty torn up about the whole takini/wraps and bowls thing. Maybe the high priests of Hula’s will soon receive a sign to bring back the takini. And if not, they still have a great little place in Hula Hut.
Crossroads Shopping Center (behind Wells Fargo), Highway 1 and Rio Road, Carmel • 11:30am-close Mon-Sat; 11:30am-4:30pm Sun • 624-8454.