Review of Hula’s Island Grill at Santa Cruz, California

Review of Hula’s Island Grill at Santa Cruz, California

Santa Cruz is one of America’s capitals of surfing. According to history, three Hawaiian princes who were in town to attend a military academy had crude wooden boards milled out of local redwood trees, and surfed here in the late nineteenth century, amazing the locals and launching the sport. Since then the town has become part of surfing history and legend, and is one of the West Coast’s most renowned places to catch a wave. For instance, the local high schools all have surfing teams. You see people riding bikes around all the time with surfboard racks attached to the side. And so on.

Hula is kind of a shrine to surfing. There is memorabilia everywhere, although much of it has a Hawaiian theme rather than a California one. There are video monitors everywhere showing loops of surfing movies. The waitresses all are tall, slender, tanned, and look like they just left the beach. There are surfing posters on every wall, surfboards used as decorations, and all kinds of cheesy fun surfing and Hawaii-themed stuff everywhere. The apex of all this kitsch is the tiki room in the back, which enshrines an impressive collection of velvet Elvises – not familiar with the concept?

Let Wikipedia fill in that gap: A Velvet Elvis is a painting of Elvis Presley on velvet. It typically represents a costumed torso of Elvis holding a microphone, painted on black velvet (or velvet of some other dark color, such as navy blue, red or purple). This iconic velvet painting is considered an archetypical example of kitsch.

Oh, and by the way, the evening we stopped by was some kind of a promotion for the local minor-league basketball team, the Santa Cruz Warriors. Therefore – of course – their mascot and some of the players were running around. Imagine dining amidst all the décor, accompanies by a six-foot guy in a green-sea-turtle-in-sunglasses costume, who eventually ended up sitting at the bar.

The Location

Address: 221 Cathcart Street, Santa Cruz, California 95060

Phone: (831) 426-4852

The Hours

Sunday: 16:00 - 21:00; Monday: 16:00 – 21:30; Tuesday – Thursday: 11:30 – 21:30; Friday and Saturday: 11:30 – 22:00

The Ambiance

Fun, but not out of control. Despite all the cheese on the walls, the place is reasonably quiet – maybe it’s because the walls are papered in woven bamboo, which absorbs sound. Plus, the room is divided up somewhat, with the tiki room separated. Bottom line: fun, but not annoying or distracting.

The Service

Good. Hula is a pretty well-oiled machine. Young, energetic and fast servers meant that everything showed up pretty quickly, with no mistakes and no mess.

The Price

Medium -- $86 for two people. Portions tend to be a little small, partially, I suspect, because the place is a well-run business (i.e. they control their portions) and partially because they seem to use fairly expensive ingredients.

The Food

The food is surprisingly good. It’s not exactly gourmet – it’s fairly basic and familiar, with a Hawaiian theme – but it’s expertly executed, and much better than the cheesy/fun atmosphere would suggest. This place will surprise you.

For appetizers, we began with spring rolls, which were great. Raw vegetables, rice paper and both peanut and regular dipping sauce. Very nice. The other appetizer was vegetarian potstickers. A mainstay of every Chinese restaurant on earth, these are usually big, soaked in oil and deep-fried. These were small, almost delicate, not drenched in oil, and just right. It was a nice start.

Hula’s has a menu with a list of different kinds of fish, prepared in a variety of different styles – blackened, pan-fried, etc. I ordered pan-fried Mahi as my entrée, which the menu describes as prepared with wok-seared shiitakes, miso, rice, and arugula. This is pretty accurate – what arrived was a lovely little piece of fish in a nice Asian-influenced sauce, served with rice and cole slaw. The only issue I had was that there really was not that much fish – it was a relatively small portion, so if you’re a big eater, you might want to rethink ordering the fish.

The other entrée was coconut chicken – a chicken breast, breaded in a combination of flour and coconut, pan-fried and served with a sauce, along with rice and beans. Also very nice – basic, but well done.

Dessert was a classic Key Lime pie, which was reasonably good, prepared with a graham-cracker crust and served with coffee.

All in all, Hula’s is a great place. Surfers are funny people – they will live in their cars, sell everything they own, forego having, say, a job and a family to spend as much time as physically possible out on the water. When it comes to food, they tend to think of it as simply fuel: if it keeps them going, they don’t care what it is, what it tastes like or what’s in it. For instance, there’s a place in Capitola called Paula’s that serves the world’s most basic breakfast for surfers for $2.99, and does great.

Hula’s, in the end, is about the basics. Dinner is fish, rice, cole slaw. Nothing tricky, nothing fancy, but everything really well-done and for that reason, in the end, very satisfying.


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Hula’s Island Grill, Santa Cruz
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Published On: Thursday, February 20th, 2014