For many years, Hula Hands Polynesian Restaurant flew under the radar, an Eastside staple and one of Anchorage's best-kept secrets.
Word got out. Now the homely hub in Mountain View fills tables at lunch and dinner with customers in military uniforms, blue and white collars, and Hawaiian shirts. They all cram together with plates of hearty Hawaiian comfort food -- satisfying meats and starches with sweet, rich sauces and flavors.
Today Hawaiian is suddenly hip on our dining scene. In addition to Hula Hands and Kansha Japanese Restaurant (off Dimond Boulevard), in the past year two Hawaiian haunts have opened and expanded island flavors to all ends of town. A second Hula Hands opened last May and L&L Hawaiian Barbecue sprang up in the Dimond mall in November.
Hula Hands' Fireweed Lane location differs so much from the original, regulars might not believe the two are affiliated.
Hardwood flooring, track lighting and subtle color schemes. Impressive, affordable beer and wine lists. A spacious dining area, a bar nook, a party room and two big, clean bathrooms. We aren't in Mountain View anymore.
But, not only is Hula Hands' popular menu intact, so are its flavors and textures. Most entrees for both locations are prepped by the same chef.
Hula Hands built its empire on combo plates. Diners choose two entree items (seven chicken, beef and pork options) which are plated with two baseball-sized scoops of steamed white rice and one scoop of macaroni salad. They are feasts and, at $9.50-$10.25, great deals. Mini-plates are just $6.
"That's our niche -- a good-sized plate for a good price, and it's quick," said Jonas Patterson, the Midtown manager. "Customers like that (the food is) consistent. Nothing has changed in that way."
I agree. A friend and I recently visited Midtown to indulge in Hula Hands' best: two combination plates featuring pulehu chicken (grilled boneless chicken with light teriyaki sauce); teriyaki beef (chewy strips of thin beef married with sugary teriyaki); kalua pig (a pile of long, dense, meaty strings of juicy pork with subtle smoke flavor); and laulau (pork wrapped in taro leaves and steamed to a soft succulence which dissolves richly in your mouth).
Even Hula Hands' sides stand out. Steamed rice balls are wet and sticky -- a perfect pairing with any dish. Macaroni salad is redefined: light mayonnaise, tiny carrot and cabbage bits for texture, color and taste, and a liberal sprinkle of pepper.
While shiny and new, the Midtown Hula Hands does hold some of the original's charm -- plastic tablecloths adorned with floral patterns, happy Hawaiian music. But don't try to find the dry erase board. Mountain View uses one to advertise its specials; Midtown doesn't.
"Customers come in and look for it," Patterson said with a laugh. "I just put specials on the menu."
L&L is a national chain bringing Hawaiian, Polynesian and Pacific Rim standards to mainland America food courts since 1988. Its first Alaska location is in the Dimond Center's basement food court, next to the ice rink.
I stepped up to the counter and ordered a combination of classics from the big bright menu: laulau and kalua pork.
"We're out of laulau," said the friendly teenager at the register.
Not a good start, even for fast food dining. It's like McDonald's running out of quarter-pound patties.
Owner Ryan Kim doesn't think a "fast food" tag fits.
"It looks like fast food, but it's not, per se -- when an order is placed, that's when we make it," explained Kim, who has more than 20 years of restaurant and hospitality experience and owns Downtown Deli & Cafe.
About the laulau, Kim told me: "Getting the laulau to Alaska is too expensive. We're reworking the menu right now."
I regrouped, ordering L&L's bestseller, the Hawaiian Barbecue Mix combination ($9.95), along with mini orders of chicken katsu ($6.25) and kalua pork ($6.95). L&L's menu is surprisingly broad, covering fish, beef, pork and even Spam. There are even lighter options like salad and brown rice.
The Hawaiian Barbecue Mix combo was a beast: two giant strips of chicken; a massive, messy clump of wiry, thin steak dripping with teriyaki sauce; one band of short ribs, about a foot long and a half-inch deep; two scoops of rice and one scoop of macaroni salad. The results were like the name: mixed. The familiar flavors were there in all the elements, and the chicken was sweet, juicy and nearly perfect. The single short rib was small, though, and one clump of thin, delicate teriyaki beef was raw. Not rare, raw -- red, fleshy and wet. Yikes.
I returned the beef and received a new combo plate restocked with all the meats in five minutes. Everything was thoroughly cooked. Later, I called Kim and brought up the beef.
"With the beef, sometimes people complain that it's overcooked and sometimes they complain it's undercooked," he said. "We're trying to find the medium. After I talked with you, we cook it all the way."
The chicken katsu was cooked -- fried, technically -- to a tough, stringy and crunchy finish. But it was still tasty, particularly when dipped in the mellow katsu barbecue sauce. The kalua pork was sticky, juicy and had a nice touch with thin strips of cabbage throughout, but there was too much liquid smoke in the mix.
It made me long for laulau.
Really, it isn't fair to compare Hula Hands and L&L. It's like comparing burgers from Long Branch Saloon and Burger King. Technically, they're in the same Hawaiian area code, but the quality, care and overall experiences aren't even in the same time zone.
But the increased options from Hula Hands' expansion, as well as L&L's arrival, should be celebrated by Anchorage diners. For the best Hawaiian dining, go to Hula Hands in Mountain View or Midtown. If you're a south-sider short on drive time or a Dimond Center shopper craving something different, L&L will scratch your island itch.
Hula Hands Polynesian Restaurant
*** 1/2 $-$$
Location: 501 W. Fireweed Lane
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
Phone: 339-HULA (4852)
Options: Dine-in, takeout
L&L Hawaiian Barbecue
* 1/2 $-$$
Location: Dimond Center food court
Hours: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.- 6 p.m. Sunday
Options: Dine-in, takeou
By Josh Niva
Daily News correspondent