Chef-owner Mikala Brennan is an Hawaiian native and knows her home cuisine.
What patrons first see and feel as they step into this relatively new Shirlington, Virginia restaurant is the vibe of Hawaii: surfboards hang from the ceiling and Hawaiian-stitched quilts line the wall. Hawaiian music in the background lulls the senses, and the restrooms are papered with the chef’s Hawaiian photos from her childhood onwards.
But what really clinches the tropical deal is the menu. It’s all typical of Hawaii, said chef Brennan, even the Spam sushi. Spam sushi, you wonder? Spam is a big-deal food in Hawaii, more popular probably than hamburgers and hot dogs and became a “food group,” said the chef, during WWII. And since much of the population is Japanese, a rice-and-seaweed rolled bit of Spam is ever so typical.
But every other menu offering is also typical, and while it may sound strange and a bit exotic, the Waialua root beer sticky ribs, the chicken katsu (Japanese-inspired crusted chicken) and the various teriyaki dishes are all island foods. But perhaps the most surprising element is the best-seller, said Brennan, a dish that sounds more German than Hawaiian: Kalua pork and cabbage. The big difference, of course, is that the pork is shredded and both pork and cabbage are roasted in banana leaves.
As you mentally assemble your meal, your appetizers must include the spam musubi (“musubi” means “to press”), which consists of Spam slices pressed between layers of sticky rice and wrapped in seaweed. These are served, as most sushi is, with a dipping sauce, one of which is wildly spicy. Another “must” is the poke, which is raw ahi tuna cubes served with ginger, scallions, a dipping sauce, and wonton chips. “This dish,” said the chef, “is a big trend on the West Coast.”
As for entrées, yes, the Kalua pork and cabbage are terrific, but the chicken katsu—an arrangement of chicken breast slices dipped in panko crumbs and then fried—is a “wow” dish, but so are the ribs. If you are a pork sparerib addict, these are killer ribs. And add on an order of North Shore shrimp.
This shrimp dish has its own Hawaiian tale: Shell on and cooked in garlic and butter, this was introduced to the north shore of Oahu by an Italian owned and operated food truck. These were such a big hit that patrons lined up down the road and ordered until the shrimp ran out. That made such a hit that now 5 or 6 other food trucks are on the scene selling the shrimp.
To wind up the meal, assuming you still have any appetite, order the malasadas (puffy, deep-fried doughnut balls) and the Kona coffee pot du crème (little cups of dark chocolate ganache). And to end your meal feeling quite giddy, start or finish up with one of the house cocktails. What about a Hula Girl mai tai?
What’s the vibe? Chef-owner Mikala Brennan knows her stuff, as well she should. A native of Hawaii, she decided on becoming a chef because she has always loved the kitchen, and her DC company was not fulfilling itself. So she ran a food truck, called Hula Girl, which was so successful that she decided to open a restaurant, one that holds all the warmth and sunshine as a beach day on the island of Oahu. In keeping with that, staff and even the chef welcome patrons, and the service is prompt and efficient. Because of that, the restaurant attracts foodies from all walks of life who want a ray of sunshine at mealtime.
It’s a vibrant place with delicious food and drinks. For a real foodie, it’s come often and eat plenty. And, as it says in the restaurant, “At the end of the day, it is home cooking.”
Hula Girl, 4044 Campbell Ave., Arlington, VA. 703) 998-4853. Hours: Lunch and dinner daily. hulagirlbarandgrill.com
Although chef Mikala Brennan did not train as a professional chef, she did start out early in life in the kitchen, working with her Italian grandmother and her mother. “I just love to cook,” she said. “It is where I feel the most comfortable and passionate.” As an adult, Brennan was able to work in a restaurant, however, starting at the salad station and working her way up through all the stations very quickly.
She started her Hula Girl food truck back in 2010 when food trucks were becoming quite the deal in Washington. Her consulting business was hit by the economic downturn, and the food truck gave her the chance to get back to doing what she loved most, cooking. And, to her surprise, the business took off. “I didn’t know if Hawaiian food would work out here, so I tried to keep the menu really simple – focusing on what I call the ‘gateway’ item, Teriyaki,” she said. Most of the public knew what Teriyaki was, so I made sure that the menu was not too traditional in the beginning…Then once I got people hooked, I started to add in the other more traditional dishes, like Kalua Pork, Spam Musubi and Poke. On busy days, we’d be serving about 200+ people during lunch!” Of course, there are no other Hawaiian restaurants or food trucks in the metro area, so she has a unique offering.
She keeps the flavors and the recipes true to their Hawaiian origins, only altering some of the presentations and toning down the amount of salt that goes into the Kalua pork. “The most essential ingredients, she said, are Spam and rice,” she said. “You gotta have rice.” And the most popular dishes? Kalua Pork, Spam Musubi and our Ahi Poke.