500 Tacos: Hula Hut
An Austin taco a day for 2015 — and then some
Hours: 11am-10pm Mon-Thu; 11am-11pm Fri; 10:30am-11pm Sat; 10:30am-10pm Sun
By Mike Sutter | © Fed Man Walking | 10.06.15
Maybe it’s different on the coasts, but the irony of waterfront restaurants like Hula Hut is that there’s rarely anything from those waters on the menu. Not that I especially want the fruits of Lake Austin on my plate — turtles, hydrilla, jet skiers. No, I come to Hula Hut for a subgenre of food that marries coconut and mango with tacos and queso. A subgenre that puts a thatched roof over a cartoon pastiche of mango margaritas, wonton flautas and Hawaiian fajitas. Hula Hut calls this fantasy island mashup Mexonesian. I prefer Mahalo-Mex. Or better yet, Aloha-Mex, to remind me that aloha means hola, but it also means adios.
The taco: Hawaiian beef fajitas
These are fajitas for people who don’t like fajitas so much as a cotton-candy version of them, dripping with syrup like a Polynesian pancake breakfast. The beef itself is good, with the fat and lean tug-of-war we want from skirt steak, sizzling with red bell peppers and stalks of green onion. But the plum sauce and grilled pineapple that ostensibly give these fajitas Hawaiian citizenship work as cloying, saccharin negatives. The sauce is a flooded basement, squelching with every step. And it’s not like I saw cans of pineapple with my own eyes (nor fresh pineapple, for that matter), but if a key element in a signature dish looks, tastes and mushes like canned fruit, it’s being poorly used. ($14.49 for a half-order combo with grilled chicken, served with guacamole, pico, lettuce, cheese, sour cream and handmade flour tortillas; rice and beans $1.69 extra)
► Tortillas: Hula Hut defies novelty with one key element: tortillas. They make flour and corn by hand on a wide, spinning comal behind a big glass wall for the whole dining room to see. The flour tortillas are among the best in the city, simultaneously tough and fluffy, with a big bakery taste coaxed out by a thorough palomino toasting on the comal. Corn tortillas with a full maíz aroma are as wide as their floured brethren, but not nearly as sturdy under duress. Or sauce.
► Fajitas. It’s what’s for dinner: Purists will appreciate the Shiner Bock fajitas, with all the big grilled swagger but none of the diabetic fusion confusion. ($14.29/half order)
► On the waterfront: Hula Hut’s grilled mahi takes the tilapia grit out of the fish taco experience, even as it struggles to find a balance between the watery whitewash of jalapeño-lime sauce and the earthy crispness of cabbage and lettuce. My guest — a grown man — had never eaten a fish taco before this moment. And vowed never to do it again. But I’ve eaten dozens of fish tacos for this series, and this one’s good by comparison. Advice: Go with corn tortillas for their complementary sweet and toasted flavors. ($9.99 for two with rice and beans/$4.99 a la carte)
► Pineapple vs. pork: If there were a U.N. taco ambassador, it would look a lot like a pig in a suit. Roasted pork is every bit as Hawaiian as it is Mexican as it is Chinese, and so on. The menu says that Hula Hut cooks its pork overnight with beer and spices. That drunken revelry might account for how soft and mushy it is the next day. The spices and bits of pineapple nudge it in the direction of al pastor, but it’s too tipsy to get there. ($9.29 for two with rice and beans/$4.59 a la carte)
► Mang-go, mang-went, mang-gone: A quesadilla made with hand-patted flour tortillas sounds promising. And with cream cheese, roasted poblanos and mango, it has the trappings of an exotic grilled cheese. But the dish came out too quickly, before the tortillas were crisp enough to hold everything together, and the hard, underripe mangos tumbled out, leaving the cream cheese schmear and limp peppers behind like a grocery store Philly roll. I added mealy pulled chicken, but it just compounded the sloppy stampede to the exit. ($8.99)
► Salsa: Hula Hut’s cool, fresh salsa of tomatoes, onions and peppers is all you need, really, for chips and tacos and quesadillas and fajitas alike. I say that possibly to ease the sting of paying $2.50 for a monkeydish of mango-pineapple salsa. I understand an upcharge for specialty salsa, but there’s nothing special about knobby, unripened fruit overpowered by the insistent sour sting of red onion.
The 500 Tacos Project
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)