Terrific tropical-style cocktails and mostly pretty good small plates are served in this amusing new tiki operation
A smile stretched across my face the first night I settled into a small table in the Huli Huli Tiki Lounge & Grill. This was two days after Dick Dale had died, but that trailblazing “King of Surf Guitar” sounded very much alive in Huli's speakers. In fact, Dale's ferocious licks momentarily seemed to emit the luminous beams of purple, orange, red and green that pierced the dark room.
As my eyes adjusted to the fanciful lighting, I saw that Huli — a new Powell operation with a bi-level bar — is quite nice looking. The window-filled place manages to integrate wooden masks and tiki heads — some serving as colorful lampshades — with swaths of bamboo, new and reclaimed wood and TVs tuned to what might be called the “Virtual Snorkeling Channel” in a manner that eschews outright kitsch. The playful, laid-back atmosphere seems geared to encourage patrons to relax with a terrific tropical-style cocktail. And you'll find several here.
Shaken with fresh juices and good rums, Huli's summery libations are oceans away from the sugary drinks adorned with cute little umbrellas you encounter elsewhere. Huli's adult beverages are more apt to be refreshingly tart, garnished with a pretty flower and deceptively potent.
That describes the mint-accented Mai Tai ($10) and the Spiced Pineapple Daiquiri ($11). Both are delightfully crisp, but note that this daiquiri's “spice” is cinnamon. If you'd like a capsaicin bite with your citrus kick, pick the equally good Ancho Daiquiri ($10).
If you're only having one and you'd enjoy some bells and whistles, order the rum-rich Zombie ($14), garnished with a flower and a pineapple leaf. Presented in a wonderful ceramic mug that looks like a huge-headed monster in a voodoo trance and wearing a spiffy bow tie, it's a large and tart-sweet cocktail that keeps on giving.
You'll need a little food to soak these up, and that's what Huli serves — little plates of food. Some of it's pretty good, some of it's pretty forgettable, but none of it's bad.
The best bang for your buck is the recommended Salmon Teriyaki ($12) which, unlike everything else I sampled, is more of a meal than a snack. A sizable piece of teriyaki-sauced fish with a crisp exterior and flaky, juicy interior is crowned with onion straws and perched atop a salad with a gingery dressing.
Huli's three-bite sandwiches are good, too. The Big Island Sliders (two for $8), with melted Swiss and mild wasabi mayo, are uncommonly nice vehicles for seared Spam. The equally irresistible “Puaa Puaa Bao Bun” ($9) is two golden-brown fried, sweet, Chinese-style buns packed with warm-and-juicy pulled pork, slaw and crispy onion straws.
Fried Tofu ($8) arrives in nice and crisp cubes atop a bed of steamed broccoli and white rice, but the best thing about this wishy-washy dish is that it's healthful. The commonplace steamed Chicken Dumplings ($7) are edged out by the crunchy, cabbage-filled Vegetable Spring Rolls ($7), but I'd put both in the “perfectly fine, if lackluster” category.
I assume this place is named for huli-huli chicken, and that Hawaiian-style barbecue favorite is available as two whole wings ($7). Glazed in a pleasantly tangy, thick and sticky sauce (likely made with ketchup, soy sauce and pineapple juice) and bearing grill marks on their crispy skins, these are easy to like but a royal mess to handle. As with many of Huli's tapas-style dishes, they're designed for fun, not filling up.
As with other tapas-style restaurants, the tab for ordering multiple snacks can really pile up at Huli. But if you're enjoying a pineapple-celebrating, gently sweet, creamy (and aptly named) Painkiller cocktail ($11) when your bill arrives, you might not really care about the bottom line.