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Hula Oops

Well-meaning people sometimes open rotten restaurants. Addressing here a specific instance of this phenomenon fills me with angst, because I am well- aware of the financial exposure of the people involved. Restaurants demand top-heavy capital expenditure. You have to buy all the stoves and all the tables and all the plates before you take a single credit card impression.

Nevertheless, it is my job to help the readers of this column make intelligent decisions with their dining-out dollars. I intend to honor that responsibility as I report my experience at Taki's Luau Garden. And the net-net of Taki's is this: Do not go. Not. No. Stop. No way. Bad idea. Take a pass. Unh-unhh. Forget it.

Frankly, I expected Taki's to be one of two things. At best, I hoped that Taki's might be a remarkable find, a romantic Polynesian supper club with great South Seas cuisine and high energy entertainment, odd amidst the local culture and geography, but outstanding fun. At the other extreme, I'd not have been surprised to find a good-natured goof, a sort of rambunctious and ramshackle South Seas send-up in a Tempe strip mall, a little stupid perhaps, but still plenty of fun.

As you likely have surmised, Taki's great failing is that it's practically no fun at all. Granted, at one point the greeter-bartender-waiter does deliver quite a spiel about how much fun the place had been the night before. That's nice, but my guests and I are there on a Saturday night, and listening to the hollow ring of this guy's rambling about "last night" is about as far from fun as I'd ever care to be.

For a place that calls itself a "garden," Taki's is a disappointingly dark and somber place, reminiscent of a dimly lit rec room with a garage-band setup. Although there are some mild touches of tropical ambiance, most notably a large but muddy photo of a sunset, this place is about as lush as a library reading room. Not for one second do you forget that you're in a strip mall several hundred miles from the nearest beach.

My guests and I are led to a reserved table, although the name on the reservation card is only a broad approximation of the one under which we've made our reservation ("Well, it's probably yours, anyway," the host finally decides). We are quickly attended to by a bartender, who initiates no suggestions, but capably picks up on our lead when we ask about tropical drinks. Unfortunately, our Mai Tai, Blue Hawaiian, and "virgin" Pina Colada are all served in the same standard-issue glassware and lack any real flavor or interesting garnish except a particularly generous addition of maraschino cherries.

We are practically finished with our drinks before anyone approaches for an appetizer order. This is another job that falls to the bartender, who turns out to be a particularly poor choice for the task. A representative exchange: "So, how is this Lomi Lomi Salmon prepared?"

"I don't know, I'm just the bartender. Ask me about something else."

"Well, what's this Bulgoki [sic]?" "Oh, it's really good."

Although he seems a trace miffed when we are adamant, he finally agrees to fetch someone who can actually answer our questions. I'm going to assume that the charming and well- informed woman who comes over to the table is Taki herself. With her aid, at last we are able to order some food.

Happily, the culinary effort at Taki's is not entirely without merit. The relatively short menu features favorite dishes from the cuisines of Japan, Korea, Hawaii, and the Philippines, and there is a savory soy/chile/vinegar character to some of the dishes that comes off particularly well. In all cases, the food is conscientiously cooked.

On the down side, many of the plate presentations are amateurish and the portion sizes too small. The latter does indeed help keep menu prices down at an attractive level, but a hungry diner will be disappointed with some of the selections. Even more significantly, though, a lot of Taki's food simply falls flat in flavor.

As a group, appetizers are the best course of the meal. Hawaiian Hot Wings are well-marinaded, crispy and truly hot chicken wings; Crab Puffs are crisp and greaseless won tons filled with crab and cream cheese in an attractive ratio; and Lumpia are entirely acceptable spring rolls. Served along with these savories are a potent Thai peanut oil sauce and an astringent sweet-and-sour sauce. Thanks largely to the flavor onslaught of the appetizers, the soup course comes off as pretty bland. Of Miso, Saimin, and Long Rice with Chicken, only the soy-based Miso sustains any interest. To its credit, the restaurant unhesitatingly complies when, after tasting one variety, a guest requests a substitution.

Main dishes are reasonably pleasant, although largely without distinction. Lamb Skewers are flamed with brandy tableside, but the action seems less dramatic than trite. The flavor and tenderness of the lamb are fine, but this is one of those shish kebab creations in which you find yourself involved primarily with onions and bell peppers.

Although the serving is more generous, the Kalua Pork and Cabbage is hardly the sort of dish you're going to wake up craving in the middle of the night. Think of it as a juicy, slightly salty Polynesian pork machaca. I guarantee that with every bite you'll wish you had some guacamole, sour cream, salsa and flour tortillas on the side. Shrimp and Mushroom Teriyaki is the best of the dinner dishes we sample, thanks primarily to a luscious, faintly sweet brown gravy. There's no problem with generosity here, either, with lots of shrimp, mushrooms and sliced onions adding taste and texture to the mix. So good is this dish that when one of my guests doesn't finish it, I happily pour the remains over the Kalua Pork, which benefits greatly from the application. While my guests and I dine, we are "treated" to the divertissement of a band hauling in equipment and doing a sound check. Although island-style entertainment is part of the package here, my guests and I do not stay for much of the show itself. Perhaps you've a greater tolerance than we have for Hawaiian humor and hula dancing, but in a virtually empty restaurant, such choreographed weirdness is: a) boring, b) dispiriting and c) embarrassing. (The correct answer is "All of the above.")

Before we go, however, we sample the restaurant's one dessert, a Hawaiian Snowball. I'm not sure what's in it exactly, but I'll wager that cream cheese, whipped topping, shredded coconut and crushed pineapple comes pretty close. "Uggh" may not be an actual Hawaiian term, but it works just fine to describe this creation.

In all, there are decent folks with a dream behind this place. You can tell. But, frankly, I don't see how they have a Hawaiian Snowball's chance in Arizona of making it.

On a far sunnier note, the superb Aloha Kitchen continues, gastronomically speaking, to lei them in the isles. Although this modest enterprise dishes up Polynesia on paper plates in a fast-food format, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better low-cost feed this side of Fiji. From the de rigueur Waikiki Burger to such esoteric edibles as Kalbi (charbroiled Korean short ribs) and Fried Saimin (stir-fried noodles with Japanese fish cakes, Chinese barbecued pork, cabbage and green onions), this is well-worth-the- excursion fare. On a recent visit, standout dishes include Bulkogi and Chicken Katsu, available as a tandem on the highly recommended Mixed Plate #2. The pounded-thin Bulkogi beef is tender, smoky and sharp; and the juicy Katsu chicken pieces in their crispy corn-flake coating simply could not be better. Garnished with rice, a pile of lettuce topped with a tasty tropical French dressing, barbecue dipping sauce and a small island-sweet pineapple wedge, this mouth-watering meal is a steal at $3.95.

While there's much to rave over here, the dish that really does me in is Island Hot Wings. Although the menu says that there are six wings to an order, the Aloha Kitchen does not separate the wings at the joint, so these are the plumpest wings you'll ever come across. Fried crisply in a light batter, subtly hot and served with a bronze-hued teriyaki- style sauce laced with red pepper flakes and sesame seeds, this is one for the Wings Hall of Fame.

Best of all, and fans of this place will happily vouch for this, the Aloha Kitchen has taken over the retail space next door and now has indoor seating for more than fifty customers. No longer do you have to live through the desperate delay of hauling this stuff back home. Just grab some chopsticks, pick a place in the pink-tiled dining room, fasten yourself for a fluorescent tan and take a taste trip to the islands that's the next best thing to eating there.


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