Lunchtime at the new sidewalk lanai at Hula’s Island Grill and Tiki Room made us feel like pampered tourists who’d found the exact right spot on a beautiful day to slide into the heart of downtown Santa Cruz. Here’s where you take those out-of-town guests with adventurous appetites and a yen to be in the middle of the action. Hula’s new parklet—a handsome bit of wood and stainless steel cabinetry corralling five tables, designed by Chris Delaney—brings a touch of holiday ambience into a vivacious corridor of Cathcart Street. From where we sat, we could watch the Wednesday farmers market folks setting up their stalls while enjoying the mixed sun and shade (thanks to large canvas umbrellas). I like the sun. Jack craves shade. So we both basked in our favored climate, sipping excellent jasmine iced tea and a high-spirited ginger beer from Cock’n Bull.
Taking up the space formerly devoted to two parking spaces (hence the “parklet” nickname), the little open-air seating area boasts five wooden tables for four, set with tangerine chairs and a happy bouquet of fresh flowers (pink pelargoniums and ranunculus). The entire mood is tropical, a dining spot in the key of coastal resort. Open only a few weeks, it feels like it’s always been a part of a tasty neighborhood that includes Lúpulo, 515, Logos, Kianti’s, and Assembly.
So what did we have to eat? Well Jack couldn’t get past the Ahi Katsu Tacos ($13) which arrived on a rainforest-green platter. On either side of the warm soft tacos were a mound of addictive rice topped with sumptuous black beans, and a little vat of molten salsa companioned by a wedge of fresh lime. Laid across the two tacos were long slabs of pink panko-crusted ahi, topped with cilantro and underscored by fresh slaw. Big flavors. Big fun.
Meanwhile on my side of the table sat a brilliant blue bowl of Spicy Thai Chicken ($13). Generously packed with rice, more of the crunchy cabbage slaw, and the delicious simmered black beans, my order was topped with fat fingers of succulent chicken breast and several sweet sensuous plantain fritters in turn lavishly sauced with a Thai coconut sauce. That sauce was exactly the right shade of spicy for my taste. Hot, but not palate-numbing hot. A perfect avocado fanned out over the sauce and I could not stop eating. Despite all my efforts, there was still enough chicken, rice and beans left—after I had pigged out in a semi-ladylike way—to form a huge dinner later that night. And yes, the ginger beer was the perfect ally for the spicy chicken bowl, especially with those faux bamboo straws. I could eat that lunch all over again right now. Even the idea of serving tropically-inspired foods in Fiestaware makes poetic sense. Fiestaware for fiesta food. If you get here at 11:30 a.m. you can count on scoring a table on the new lanai and watching the sunshine, clouds and locals glide by. Let’s just say that we were charmed by our lunch hour at Hula’s and plan to work our way through the dazzling tropical menu all summer long. After all, they’ve got a whole gluten-free dinner menu (and a vegan one too), as well as plenty of meaty dishes, all with serious flavor power. Oh, and there are plenty of tiki cocktails to help you into even deeper resort consciousness. Hula’s Island Grill, 221 Cathcart St., Santa Cruz; open 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. hulastiki.com.
Wine of the Week
An elegant, full-throated Meursault 2013 from Rodolphe Demougeot knocked us out at Soif last week ($21). Gorgeously flinty, full of peaches and salty minerals, this showpiece white Burgundy (Chardonnay) made magic with an exceptional appetizer of red chicory, avocado, clementines, and a nutty, earthy sesame vinaigrette ($12). While savoring the fine wine and menu of Mark Denham, we learned that Soif’s much-anticipated full bar will very likely be open by next month.