A couple of weeks ago at lunch, a foodie friend and I lapsed into our monthly debate on the merits of Emeril vs. Rachael Ray. Emeril's a fine chef, though I'd rather follow his recipes than watch him puttering around the small screen saying "Bam!" every five minutes.
Ray is spunky and effervescent. I could watch her all day, whether she's telling anecdotes about her dog, Isaboo, or using ridiculous hybrid words like "stoup" (stew/soup) and "spoonula" (spoon/spatula). But when it comes to the food, there's no question who I'd rather have in my kitchen. Emeril is a bona fide chef. Rachel Ray is style over substance — not a good thing when your dinner is on the line.
That's the problem plaguing Hula's Modern Tiki, the Hawaiian-inspired eatery that opened a few months ago in a circa 1965 building on Central Avenue in Phoenix. Hula's has one of the most creative and visually appealing dining spaces I've encountered in Phoenix. Chris and Craig Delaney (who own the two Hula's locations in California) and partner Dana Mule capitalized on the retro sleekness of the original 1,600-square-foot structure by staining the vaulted ceiling a deep, rich mahogany color and keeping the quirky 18-foot-high hexagonal window. Lighted shelves of tiki glasses under the bar add Hawaiian flair without being kitschy.
The newer addition to the building is more of a dining room, with Mid-Century Modern chairs, stained concrete floors, and wall-to-wall garage doors that open the space up to the patio. A tiki statue carved from a fallen palm reminded me of the Brady Bunch episode in which the kids steal a cursed idol. Black-and-white photos of wood-paneled station wagons and swanky pool parties hang on the wood plank walls. It's hard not to feel a twinge of nostalgia while sitting in Hula's.
That's where the good vibrations start fading. Hula's food is inconsistent at best, beginning with appetizers. The sweet potato fries were crispy, with just a hint of cinnamon and very little grease. Hula's version could hold their own against the fries at Stax or Delux. Tuna poke was well seasoned but had a fishy aftertaste that even the earthiness of diced avocado and the salty crunch of macadamia couldn't cover up.
Abalone-style calamari, on the other hand, was a knockout. I'm not a huge fan of calamari, because it's often fried into little nubs that are 90 percent breading and maybe 10 percent meat — if you're lucky. Hula's isn't stingy with the squid meat. Large strips of calamari were lightly breaded and drizzled with lime-ginger cream sauce. The appetizer was savory and toothsome, with the texture of soft-cooked mozzarella and a mild shellfish flavor. I could've downed the whole platter myself, but my dining companions managed to wrest a few juicy bits away from me.
The coconut shrimp rolls arrived so overdone that I was surprised our server didn't push the chef to remake them. The outer skin was charred, the shrimp inside gummy and overcooked. Not even a thickly slathered layer of the strong pineapple-horseradish dipping sauce could hide the kitchen's blunder. After a few reluctant bites, I was pining for another order of the calamari.
Entrees were equally hit and miss. Both the Cocojoe's chicken and Jawaiian jerk chicken plates were decent. Rolled in coconut breading and fried, the Cocojoe's chicken was juicy and sweet, while jerk spices gave the Jawaiian chicken a pleasant kick. The accompanying johnnycakes were like a tasty hybrid of muffin and cornbread, but too heavy when paired with beans and plantains. The dish screamed for a green vegetable to balance out the starchy sides. Other than plain greens, you're out of luck here. Fish tacos were solid but not outstanding, and the scoop of rice served on the side was undercooked to the point of being chewy.
Hula's pork dishes were universally disappointing. The meat in Duke's Luau Pork Plate was greasy and unappetizing. The Bali Hai BBQ Ribs were tender, and the sweet teriyaki glaze beautifully caramelized, but there seemed again to be more fat than meat falling off the bones. The ribs came with a spicy ginger slaw that had an offensive sourness I couldn't identify. Kimchi? Pickled veggies?
A quick check of Hula's most recent health inspection report revealed two items found not properly refrigerated (though the restaurant fared okay overall, earning a Silver award). Perhaps that explains the strange taste and the queasy feeling several of my dining companions had after eating the slaw. On subsequent visits, the slaw was spicy and flavorful, with a savory zing from fresh sliced ginger. Guess we were just unlucky with the first batch — or perhaps that palm tree carving really is a cursed idol.
Macadamia-crusted hapu (also known as hapu`upu`u, or grouper) was flaky and buttery, with a thick later of nut coating. The crust was among the best I've sampled. Too bad the hapu was undercooked in the center. Sushi is one thing, but no one likes getting raw fish if wasn't ordered. Our server reluctantly took it away after we questioned the doneness, and we were offered a replacement plate of the same undercooked rice, slaw and fish. Oh, goody! The second fillet arrived just barely cooked, enough that some bites were glassy and others opaque. Needless to say, we didn't ask for a third.
We fared better with dessert. There's no printed dessert menu, but Hula's offers a few standards mixed with daily specials. Key lime pie was rich and creamy, with a heavy graham crust that balanced the tart filling. The chocolate brownie was slightly underdone, which made it super-moist and delicious. My favorite was the macadamia nut ice cream sundae special. It was subtle and light, with a slight saltiness that paired well with juicy caramelized pineapple tidbits.
With so many local eateries to choose from, quality ingredients and well-executed dishes are crucial to a new restaurant's success. For Hula's, that means focusing on more than just looks. A restaurant cannot survive on tiki glasses and sleek retro décor alone, any more than Rachael Ray can entice true food connoisseurs with made-up words, boring recipes, and a winning smile.