Mitchell’s Favorite Things: Hula’s Modern Tiki

by Mitchell Hillman

The location may have changed from Central to 7th Street, but the vibe is still chill, the service is still great, and the food is fantastic as ever at Hula’s Modern Tiki. They call themselves “A Modern Twist on an American Classic” and the homage to mid-century modern Tiki bar culture isn’t as clearly defined in the new spot as it was in the Central location — but it doesn’t take anything away from the spectacular dishes they serve night and day.

If anything, the new 7th Street location places it on the prime drive for foodies these days as the street is becoming a gustatorial destination for anyone looking to treat their appetites to a good time. And Hula’s is all about a good time with their fine art aim of blending American and Polynesian fare to a fusion that can satisfy very nearly any taste. Whether you’re an omnivore, carnivore, pescaterian or vegetarian–they have dishes that define culinary zeniths for nearly any diet.

Let’s get right into it with the appetizers. Hula’s is one of the rare places where you can make an entire meal out of appetizers and feel good about yourself afterwards. One thing to note about Hula’s in general is that the food leaves you feeling great–every time I’ve been there, I feel not just satisfied or full, but nourished and nutritionally enlightened. Their appetizers are outstanding and between these and the sides, you could visit a dozen times without ever getting to the entrees.

First off, their Hawaiian Ceviche is the stuff of local legend — if fish “cooked” in citrus juice is your jam, you might want to order two and little else other than a Mai Tai. If this dish hasn’t won awards it should and it’s served with these magical carbolicious things called crispy wonton chips that look like tortilla chips, but taste like wontons. When a restaurant’s fries are great, that usually an indication the rest of the menu will follow and here you get to choose from standard House Cut or Sweet Potato fries and both are delicious. You may want to request extra “secret dipping sauce.”

This leads me to one of my many asides, with perhaps the continuing story of fabulous appetizers in mind. Hula’s has an amazing array of sauces to compliment your dish, the more I think about it and the more I examine their menu, the more I realize it’s an essential element to the Hula’s experience. The Crispy Coconut Shrimp rolls come with a pineapple-horseradish sauce, the Samurai Beef sticks come with some Lime-Curry magic, the magnificent Crispy Fish Bites come with an Island Remoulade and so on, seemingly endlessly. There are so many aolis, sauces, dips and creams I can’t keep track of them all.

There is one I love especially though: it’s a blend of Jalapeno, Serrano and Thai peppers called “Madagascar Sauce” and it’s one of the hottest things I’ve ever found served to humans in a public place. I love it and no matter how many times I’ve tried to recreate it at home it never comes out the same. Now I just get some to go. I have no idea what they actually serve it with though. I was just trying out aiolis one night and mentioned I loved the heat of the Cajun one as I dipped my fries in it when my server Keith, brought me this magical container of unwieldy heat.

Returning to the appetizers, whether you love fish, seafood, beef, chicken, pork or vegetables they’ve got you covered with some amazingly tasty options, but you can also get impressive sides to round out an entree-less meal like the stunning Fried Sweet Plaintains which I get about every other visit, or the Sauteed Broccolini which is found in this inspiring soy glaze that I’m convinced is mixed with Oolong tea, but maybe that’s just what it does in my mouth. The Wasabi Mashed Potatoes and Jamaican Johnny cakes are some other essential and unique sides that Hula’s offers. I should also mention the Caesar Salad, which can be a dodgy order at other places–sometimes it’s too much anchovy in the dressing or there are weird vegetables that don’t belong there. Hula’s has my favorite Caesar in Phoenix. Period. I either get a small or a large on every visit.

Speaking of salads, as far as I know they only have two dressings, Caesar or Miso Vinaigrette and both are brilliant. I think that when you reduce options, you can better focus on perfection and that seems true of their dressing choices. Choose between Spicy Grilled Shrimp, Cajun Ahi, Mango Chicken or Asian Tofu–their salads actually satisfy and the price shouldn’t dissuade you, trust me, they’re worth it — plus they all come with those magnificent crispy wonton chips.

I’m pretty picky about where I eat “fresh fish” in the middle of the desert and Hula’s is one of maybe three or four places I trust for this and have for years. It’s a pick your fish, pick your preparation kind of place and the good news for vegetarians is that tofu is one of the options. So even if you don’t eat Ahi, Mahi, Hapu, Salmon or Snapper, you can get your favorite fermented soy pan fried or Lemongrass or Macadamia encrusted, blacked with wasabi, Jamaican jerked or given a seasonal treatment. If you’ve never been to Hula’s and your set on having an entree, I highly recommend starting with the fish.

The burgers at Hula’s are impressive, for a place that’s not centered around burgers. I can think of several places that make burgers their business and do it better, but I can think of a whole lot more places that make burgers their business and don’t come close to touching Hula’s. If you want something truly unique, go for the Hunkin Samoa Burger, which features fried spam, linguisa sausage, a sunny side up egg and spicy hula sauce.

As a rule, I’ve never cared much for what I call “Garden Burgers,” vegetarian patties that usually contain a strange variety of disparate vegetables compressed into a disc and presented as a burger substitute. I was in a vegetarian mood and asked for recommendations and three different employees recommended the Big Sur Black Bean Burger. I had no choice but to order that, obviously. The truth is, it stole my heart and it’s one of the finest creations they feature – -I now substitute that patty everywhere I can, but as it stands on the menu it’s topped with grilled Maui onions, shiitake mushrooms, jack cheese, sun-dried tomato pesto aioli — Brilliant.

All of their sandwiches are way above par whether it’s the Polynesian Chicken, Blackened Ahi, Modern Tiki Hapu or the tenderloin steak, but one stands above all the rest and is a serious island treat. The Luau Pork sandwich, really should be the medalist here anyway. I don’t normally go in for slaw of any type on my sandwich, and at best tolerate it on the side, but I learned long ago not to modify anything on the Hula’s menu and enjoy it as the kitchen wants to make it. That said, the sandwich is simple, pulled pork in a soy glaze topped with coleslaw — brilliant and delicious every time. Also available as sliders, if you dig miniature versions of things.

You can also get that amazing pork as a taco, like nearly everything else they offer it can come to you in the ultimate Southwestern delivery system — the taco. And their tacos are just as fantastic as everything else, whether you go with the pulled pork, shrimp, hapu, steak, ahi, habanero lime chicken, or spicy tofu, there’s no wrong decision from their taco selection. Their classic Baja White Fish tacos are my favorite go-to in this category, which I usually use to follow up the aforementioned ceviche when I’m on a white fish bender.

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Habenero Lime Chicken Tacos | photo source

They feature a few bowls served on a bed of rice, black beans and cabbage, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t let you know they existed. In this category, I have to say the vegetarian option is my favorite. The Mongolian beef is a close second, but I fell in love with the boldly named Vegan Jungle Tofu, which is fried tofu in jungle curry sauce, and fried sweet plaintains. If you’re going for it, I dare you to ask for some Madagascar sauce on the side.

After all that, I guess I should mention the full fledged entrees, the Hula’s Favorites, which honestly, I rarely get around to, unless I’m being disciplined with myself. Duke’s Luau Pork plate is exactly what it sounds like, as is the Jawaiian Jerk Pork plate, the latter being my favorite of the two and also available in chicken. There are two choices for ribs, the Bali Hai BBQ Ribs and my favorite the Kalbi Korean short ribs. There is also a ten ounce Teriyaki Ribeye, that if you get it, I demand you order it medium rare, with shiitakes on the side for ultimate pleasure. Their wok sautéed shiitakes are out of this world and also available as a side.

Special mention must be made of my favorite entree, and in fact my favorite Hawaiian dish of all time — Loco Moco. I used to have a Hawaiian roommate that made this for me frequently and I’ve loved it ever since. You get a burger patty, slap it on a bed of rice, smother it with sinfully delicious mushroom gravy and top it with two sunny side up eggs. It’s beyond comprehension how good this is and it’s damn difficult not to order it every time I go there. Lately, I’ve been substituting the Big Sur Black Bean patty in this and I think it’s even more amazing than a regular beef patty. Stunningly brilliant.

When I drank, I lived inside their Mai Tais and rum drinks, but now I stick to the tropical iced tea, which needs no sweetener, magically, or their delicious Cold Brew Kona Coffee… which is out of this world, but it’s made by one of my favorite coffee shops in Phoenix, Hava Java. So of course it’s brilliant. One last confession, I have never had dessert at Hula’s, I’m not much of a dessert guy and after wandering their menu for an hour or so, I’m too full on the magnificent Polynesian fusion happening in my mouth that there’s simply no room for a Warm Brownie, Key Lime or Housemade Coconut Cream Pie. I am certain they are excellent, because everything else is here, why would dessert be any different?

I’m amazed every time I visit Hula’s how great I feel about everything I put into my body and the people who bring it to me. The crew they have their is amazing, Keith always makes sure I have Madagascar Sauce by my side, Tia is totally attentive and get’s me some to go, while David behind the bar is one of my favorite people in town — it’s a cool crew hinged on serving up some of the best food in town with a smile and they’ll often go an extra mile.

I cook at home a lot and I’m currently unemployed, the last thing I want to think when I go out to eat is that I could have made this better at home for less — at Hula’s this is never the case, their food is magic that I can never quite reproduce it with satisfaction. I cannot encourage you enough to check out Hula’s Modern Tiki on 7th whether you’ve never been there, haven’t hit the new location, or maybe you just need to go back to remember just how good every bite can be. Day or night, lunch or dinner, Hula’s Modern Tiki is a definite Phoenix favorite for me.