Tropical illusion

Ben’s Huli Huli Chicken

Good for: feeding a big family some takeout on a blazing summer day
Notable dishes: huli huli chicken plate, garlic pineapple shrimp, lumpia, shave ice

Ben’s Huli Huli Chicken

7967 Auburn Blvd.
Citrus Heights, CA 95610

(916) 742-8893

“Aloha!” my server greets me as soothing ukulele music plays in the background. Then, to the cooks listening to clashing hip-hop in the kitchen, he whispers playfully: “Turn that music the eff down.”

Ben’s Huli Huli Chicken props up the illusion that you’ve entered a casual Hawaiian oasis, and for the most part it succeeds with hole-in-the-wall simplicity. Dine-in meals are served in take-out containers atop humble picnic tables, and maps of Maui decorate the sparse walls.

Compared to another newly opened Hawaiian eatery, Coconut’s Fish Cafe in Midtown, Ben’s Huli Huli serves denser dishes that aren’t as cheffy, packing in a lot more barbecue for your buck. Not to mention, Coconut’s and L&L Hawaiian Barbecue, which has a few Sacramento locations, are both franchises. In contrast, Ben’s is homegrown—as shown by the whiteboard honoring the several families who have invested at least $1,000 in the restaurant in exchange for “food for life” (a meal per day).

After closing his Folsom location and reopening in Citrus Heights in late 2016, owner Kit Syn has expanded the menu to include more Hawaiian standards. Now, there’s a katsu chicken plate and saimin noodle soup, an island burger and kalua pork and cabbage on weekends. While the rest of Sacramento goes gaga for whisper-light Hawaiian poke bowls, Syn brings out the traditional and heavy meals.

This filling, affordable grub seems targeted at busy families. The lunch-and-dinner menu is divided into “entrees” and “value items $10 & under,” but there’s only a difference of $1 to $2. The entrees all come with a pineapple wedge and traditional macaroni salad, served cold and slightly bland with mayo and celery. A mound of sticky coconut rice can be topped with coconut shavings, adding a nice chewiness and flavor to an oft-neglected side.

But the meat is the main event. The huli huli chicken plate ($11) served up two pieces of chicken, your choice between white or dark meat. Supposedly invented in the 1950s for a farmers’ gathering, huli huli chicken translates literally to “turn-turn chicken” because the meat’s turned over on the grill to seal in its natural juices. Ben’s chicken does come juicy and with grilled skin that’s seared with a maplelike sweetness.

In the garlic pineapple shrimp entree ($12.75), the shrimp gushed with flavors from its bed of warm pineapple and garlic.

The most lackluster meal I tried? The loco moco ($9), which came with a tasty fried egg atop a ground beef patty so well-done, it might have been to the liking of President Donald Trump, who notoriously eats rock-hard steaks with ketchup. Granted, the beef itself was good. When I came in the next day, my server was somewhat surprised—turns out, he had made the loco moco because the chef was out of town.

The appetizers are noteworthy: katsu chicken strips ($5) and spam musubi ($2.50 each, or three for $6), which ropes fried Spam to a sushi rectangle of rice with a strip of seaweed. I opted for the Philippine “Shanghai” style lumpia (five pieces for $4). Thin sheets of fried egg roll surrounded flavorful pork and bits of onion, celery and carrot.

Leave with scoops of airy shave ice ($1.50 small, $3 regular, $5 large) made in the traditional style by shaving layers off an ice block. They come in several tropical and decidedly nontropical flavors like tiger’s blood, bubblegum, guava and passion fruit (try combining the latter two).

With scorching summer in full swing, Ben’s offers a welcome oasis—clashing hip-hop and ukelele tunes and all.