Everybody loves a luau

Everybody loves a luau. Almost everybody. My latest choice for a dining companion, for instance, has a strong aversion to the celebratory Hawaiian feast. His sad tale of woe goes something like this:

At age nine, while living in the country, his family adopted a wild boar piglet, which they aptly named Boris. Boris grew into a real boar, with tusks and everything. The day before my dining companion’s 13th birthday, his family threw a big luau. It was the ’70s, The Brady Bunch had just gone to Hawaii, and throwing luaus was the national rage. A fat pink ham graced the center of the dinner table. My dining companion eagerly gobbled down the salty cured meat.

The next day, on his birthday, he received a large wrapped box. Thinking it to be some longed-for audio equipment, he tore through the packaging, only to find the stuffed and mounted head of Boris—the final remains of the four-year-old pet pig he’d eaten the day before at the luau.

No, my dining companion wasn’t hot about luaus, which was a real drag, being that we were at Hukilau Island Grill, latest brainstorm of the Virga clan, the folks who brought you Paesano’s and Jack’s Urban Eats. Like those two popular Midtown locales, the Hukilau specializes in offering more for less: meaty sandwiches, entrees and beverages that won’t break the 20-something would-be hipster’s bank account. This time, however, the Virgas are taking us to Hawaii, because, well, because everybody loves a luau.

Like I said, almost everybody.

Truth be told, there’s nothing not to love about the Grill’s bright, airy L-shaped interior. The Hawaiian kitsch has been kept to a minimum, there are a few bamboo touches here, a surfing poster there, hardly any palm trees and thank God they haven’t made the wait staff don grass skirts. The Hawaiian theme is understated, but it’s still a theme, a concept, if you will, and of that more must be said. Or have I said enough already?

Anyway, there I was, with my luau-loathing lunatic of a dining companion, staring straight into a vat of Blue Hawaii, five gallons of rum and curaçao slush spinning in one of a half-dozen cylindrical containers set in the wall behind the bar. $4.75 a pop. They keep all the flavors topped off with 25-gallon barrels kept in storage. My horrendously blue and delicious drink came with a bright red cherry on top. When in Hawaii … just blue it.

We began our quest for paradise lost in earnest with an order of calamari—fat and meaty, lightly battered rings of squid served with cocktail sauce and a rather limp aioli. Nothing fancy, in keeping with the more-for-less theme, but they disappeared in a flash. Kentucky Fried Derby Salad was less impressive. The breading on the two smallish fingers of breast meat we were served was tasteless, calling the meaning of “Kentucky fried” into question. The house-made ranch dressing suffered from the same malady. In its defense, the salad was indeed large.

And now to the meat of the matter, which, when you come right down to it, is what a good bar and grill, be it Hawaiian or otherwise, is all about. To this end, my dining companion, who has not eaten pork since that fateful day so many years ago, ordered the Polynesian Chicken Platter. I settled on the barbecued rib and chicken combo. His chicken breast, marinated in teriyaki and ginger, then flame broiled, was juicy and delicious. My barbecued chicken breast was equally delectable, with blackened Mississippi-style barbecue sauce, but the pork ribs suffered from what I call “rubbery rib” syndrome, i.e. you’ve got to burn the damn things to get ’em right, people.

That’s the way they do it in Mississippi, anyway. But this is Hawaii, or the nearest you’re probably gonna come to it in Midtown. There’s a few bugs to be worked out—the “Molakai” chili fizzled rather than sizzled, shoestring French fries were McDonald-esque, some of the portions could be larger—but all in all, Hukilau Island Grill shows every promise of becoming the next hot spot.

After all, everybody loves a … well, you know.