What the house does best

No need to ask the folks at West Sacramento’s Hula Hawaiian BBQ to step on it—there’s a reason the menu is ordered thus: “Take Out, Dine In, Catering.” Dine in? Sure. But it’s still lidded Styrofoam boxes and the very chicest synthetic cutlery. Tucked into the mall at Jefferson Boulevard and Linden Road where the redoubtable Club Pheasant is located, H.H. BBQ is clean, bright and profoundly plastic. Ambience isn’t the attraction.

For the 20-odd predominantly high-school kids occupying most of the tables, the attraction is the $2.99 hamburger-and-fries lunch special. The allure appears more economic than gastronomic, based on the thinness of the very obviously prefab patty.

Economics is one of Hula Hawaiian’s strengths. Consider the $23.99 Feeds-Four Family Meal, which the menu understates as “hearty”: barbecue chicken, teriyaki chicken, curry chicken, katsu curried chicken, plain chicken katsu, barbecue beef, mahi-mahi and Korean-style kalbi short ribs. Oh yeah, with rice, vegetables and macaroni salad.

A word on the macaroni salad. During the first island adventure, starring the Hawaiian BBQ mix—quite the steal at $6.99—and a not-so-fresh spicy salmon and tuna roll, the accompanying macaroni made pabulum seem piquant by comparison. Such a profound redefinition of bland that the question instantly arises: Why include it with each meal?

Yes, in Hawaii macaroni salad is a luau and plate lunch staple that, unlike the mainland version, tends to be merely mayo and milk with some grated carrots. Between the first foray and subsequent visits, the macaroni Menehune visits H.H. BBQ and adds a pinch of palatability to the salad. Is it a switch to Miracle Whip or a sprinkling of sugar? Whatever the Menehune’s magical contribution, the salad sweetens into not only edible but also enjoyable. Enjoyable enough that a woman at a neighboring table has ordered a heaping $1.99 side order. This is why the Restaurant Reviewer Code of Ethics insists on multiple visits.

That insistence on multiple visits also yields a reassessment of the sushi offerings. More than half the pieces of the spicy salmon and tuna roll stay in its Styrofoam coffin. This is not because the mixed grill’s abundance of tender barbecue beef, tasty barbecue chicken and sweet, wafer-thin kalbi short ribs is a meal unto itself—although it could be. It’s because, while imminently affordable at $4.49, the roll tastes neither fresh nor particularly spicy.

The lesson is one that repeats itself at other eateries: Stick with the house specialty. Here, that specialty is grilled or deep-fried meat, chicken, seafood and Spam. Filter sushi selections through that prism. The Hawaiian Roll and, more significantly, the Beef Teriyaki Roll, showcase those strengths. Crab salad and avocado top the $7.99 Hawaiian Roll’s heart of crispy chicken, a well-conceived combination. The simplicity of the second roll—thin slices of beef teriyaki rolled with lettuce shreds—in no way diminishes its delight, which is augmented by a dab of sriracha, the versatile hot sauce with the rooster on the bottle.

Oddly, given pork’s fat content, the kalua is dryish. At first blush, the shredded pork appears to be a portion roughly the size of a brick. But digging down reveals a sizable mound of cooked cabbage. Mouthfuls comprised of a mixture of each take a bite out of the dryness, but the best result is dousing the pork with a little clear plastic cup of teriyaki, although it dampens the singularly smoky flavor of the meat.

Juicier than the pork is the parts-is-parts Spam musubi—a slab o’ Spam lashed to rectangle of sushi rice. Soy and sriracha enhance. Also, the Hawaiian Sun sodas and juices add an authentic and refreshing touch.

Judging Hula Hawaiian by what it is, a fast-food joint, and the caliber of its specialties, it’s fairly appealing. The sushi, with the noted exceptions, not as much.

Finally, to further bask in the Aloha State oeuvre, visit the adjacent Big Kahuna Yogurt. The nonfat cookies ’n’ cream, low-fat peanut butter and nonfat Tahitian Vanilla form a festive trifecta even without piling on the scads of sweets, squiggles and syrups offered. Mahalo!