Before Don Ho, before Hawaii Five-0, before dashboard hula dancers, the idea of Hawaii held a particular romance for mainlanders. In Hawaii's golden era--say, late '30s to early '50s--the mere whisper of those sonorous syllables summoned unforgettable sensations: sleepy resorts serenaded by the whoosh of breezes through the palms. The tart and sunlit scarlet of a mai tai. The sun-bronzed, beckoning gestures of real hula maidens, as immortalized in the '40s popular song "Lovely Hula Hands."
With their new North Portland restaurant, sisters Sarah and Jane Minnick kindle the flames of Hawaiian nostalgia. Lovely Hula Hands, the restaurant named after the song, is housed in a grand old pink-painted 1910 foursquare just down the hill from the newly bustling strip of North Mississippi Avenue. Vintage details are blended with the island theme in the small dining room that occupies the front parlor and sitting room. Leafy wartime wallpaper and almond and coconut cream paint are the backdrop for decorative prints and framed sheets of the namesake song. All this might not be a very close approximation to old Hawaii, but the restaurant's charms are seductive just the same.
The amber antique light fixtures and bare wood tables--made from salvaged timber from the neighboring Rebuilding Center's ReFind Furniture--contribute to the honey-toned glow of the space. The homey effect is especially impressive, considering that the house was slated for demolition as little as a year ago.
The restaurant's cuisine hovers in that hazy category known as Pacific Rim, which mixes influences from Thailand, Korea and Japan, and--in quite a stretch--even stirs in touches from the American South. On top of that mix, add in country-style preparation--rough-torn lettuce, peels left on potatoes, food heaped and ladled rather than carefully plated. Chef Jesse Garcia once manned the stove at local restaurants as diverse as Mint, Fellini, Delta Cafe and Fernando's Hideaway, so perhaps the fancy-folksy, all-over-the-map vibe makes some sense. And considering Hawaii's hodgepodge history as a cultural colony, maybe this schizophrenia makes the menu authentic, after all.
Appetizers begin with an informal, elbows-out fried okra ($4) and calamari ($5), battered with flaky panko breading and served with a spicy yogurt-and-cucumber dipping sauce. A salmon katsu starter ($5)--something like upscale fish sticks--arrives on a steaming bed of jasmine rice with a ramekin of tart dashi soy dipping sauce.
Tom kha soup, another pan-Asian standard, is available plain ($6) or with chicken or shrimp ($9), and it tastes spicy and velvety, its coconut-milk base hiding long slices of carrot, onion, lemongrass and kafir leaf. Fresh strands of cilantro swim atop and wilt slowly into the hot broth, accompanied by a thoughtfully provided side dish of rice that serves to sop up the extra liquid once you've fished out all the veggies.
The high quality of the seafood and vegetables--the menu notes that the restaurant relies on seasonal ingredients from local suppliers--is well-served by the fresh, unfussy preparation. Best of all, starter portions are generous enough to be easily shared by two or three diners.
Entrees range from exotic and dainty to hearty and homestyle. Bul go gi ($10), a traditional Korean barbecue dish, is unconventionally styled, with romaine leaves serving as the wrap for the marinated strips of beef (heavily sauced so they're almost black), bean sprouts, basil, mint and rice. The dish is flavorful but comparatively sparse on the plate. The one vegetarian entree, Cuban pumpkin rice with tomato coconut sauce, fried plantains and long beans ($10), starts out strong, the tart and pungent sauce a perfect partner to the salty-sweet plantains and starchy rice. That said, you're left with a fairly giant heap of rice once the good stuff on top is gone.
A phrase like "the best hamburger you've ever eaten" never rings true, but this one-third of a pound of Painted Hills beef, topped with gooey caramelized onions and served with a mess of pommes frites ($7.50), gets everything right. The meat is moist without being over-rare, the fries crispy and piquant. The half-chicken ($13) is enormous, a mountain of rough-mashed potatoes and chicken pieces smothered in a thick, brown gravy Marsala sauce. All of this is topped with asparagus wands steamed to a fresh, grassy green, serving as an elegant respite from so much meat 'n' potatoes.
You can pass on dessert--the tasty-but-sodden molten chocolate cake will daunt your fork--but don't neglect the house cocktails. The Japanese Slipper ($6) blends Sauza and Midori with sweetened lime juice, while the Bee's Knees ($5) mixes rum and Cointreau with lemon and honey. All are mixed behind the makeshift bar, a salvaged mantel installed for the purpose, just another of the nice touches that reflect the restaurant's debonair, island-inflected sense of fun.
938 N Cook St., 445-9910.
5 pm-midnight Tuesday-Sunday.
Credit cards accepted. No checks. $-$$ Inexpensive-Moderate.
Picks: A whole-leaf Caesar salad ($6); salmon katsu starter ($5), fish sticks on a steaming bed of jasmine rice; a velvety-tasting coconut curry tom kha soup ($6-$9); a hamburger with caramelized onions, roasted tomatoes and bacon served with a mess of pommes frites liberally dashed with onion salt ($7.50).