Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Favorite Places - Part 6 - Hula's Island Grill and Tiki Room

(Photo by Andrew Wood)

Hula's Island Grill and Tiki Room is a welcome addition to the food scene in Santa Cruz, California: a tiki restaurant and bar with surprisingly good food and reasonable prices. It has become a weekly favorite of the Wood family, offering much needed assurance that the Polynesian-theme craze still manages to endure.

Hula's is located on Cathcart Street, just off Pacific Avenue, presenting itself somewhat shyly to outsiders. Just getting there demands some patience as downtown parking is usually packed. So you might be tempted to bypass the place altogether, but don't. Hula's is worth the hassle.

The fare covers lots of nautical miles; plates may be weighed down with sticky rice, plantains, and all sorts of tasty seafood. But if you crave heartier grub, order one of Hula's' overstuffed burgers or succulent steaks, impeccably marinaded and served in medallions. The deserts are equally fulfilling. My favorite is the Hula Pie, macadamia nut ice cream in a Oreo cookie crust and a pitcher of hot fudge on the side. And don't forget the Kona coffee. You'll hit the gym after a night at Hula's without losing too much weight in your wallet.

Best of all, Hula's has recreated a tiki vibe that reminds me of evenings spent at the (sadly departed) Kahiki in Columbus, Ohio, or the still delightful (but overpriced) Mai Kai in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Hula's contains an artfully designed stage-set of imposing Polynesian idols, blow-fish shaped lights, island music, and a terrific collection tiki mugs. The whole thing is set in a darkened space designed for sensory alteration. You can grab a seat next to the bar or in the general seating area, and you'll be glad you did. But for the best Hula's experience, ask to sit in the Tiki Room, where you'll need a few minutes to adjust to an even more dreamy Polynesian vibe.

Hula's is new and part of a tiny chain, with an older location in Monterey and a small branch in Carmel. Therefore some critics will withhold honors of tiki "authenticity." But I'm not sure that term means anything more than age. All tiki restaurants offer a kind of simulacra of various Polynesian cultures, mediated through books, films, and television shows: from James Michener to Hawaii 5-0. It's all tacky and fake, yet still charming. I suppose it fulfills a nostalgic memory from my childhood.

I still have a warm glowing recollection of the first tiki restaurant I visited with my grandparents, a place with aquariums for walls. It was something out of Disneyland's Enchanted Tiki Room, just down the street. It was a suburban "social safety valve," before I'd ever even come to understand what that meant and how necessary such a release can be. That place closed down decades ago, as did so many others. Today, the Kahiki resides only in memory (and mail order frozen meals), the Mai Kai is a bit too far distant for a weeknight meal, and the San Francisco Tonga Room is rightly rebuked for its overly syrupy Mai-Tais.

So about once a week I return to Hula's to drink some Polynesian-inspired confection in a mug shaped like a tiki idol. I tolerate when the music shifts from Don Ho-type Hawaiiana to reggae (which is island-music but hardly tiki). I order the same meal, mixing only my combination of rum drinks. And I thank my lucky coconuts that Hula's has come to town. It's an island fantasy 15 minutes away from home.

Oh, and watch out for those Mai-Tais. They can pack a punch.

Learn More:

Critiki: review of Hula's (Definitely check out the picture gallery)

(Photo by Andrew Wood)

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