Last year, when Lovely Hula Hands announced that it was moving from its signature flamingo-pink home off N Mississippi to a new, more spacious spot down the road, the news prompted conflicting responses. On one hand, Hula Hands seemed nearly perfect as it was—reasonably upscale but homey, intimate, and funky. Many of us had come to love the food, and now there was word of a new chef.
On the other hand—the waits! It could easily take an hour to get a table on the weekend, and once you got in, chances were that you'd be there for a while, as the kitchen wasn't big enough to push orders through quickly.
Hula Hands made the big move about six weeks ago and, somehow, owners (and sisters) Sarah and Jane Minnick and new head chef Troy MacLarty (pedigreed at Chez Panisse in Berkeley) managed to pull off the transition beautifully, improving and fine tuning elements along the way.
We started with arancini—perfectly golden fried risotto balls with mellow chanterelles and a hint of parmesan rolled into the mix. This was followed by a citrus, beet, and avocado salad, which I've been dreaming about ever since. Golden and deep purple beets mingled with slices of tart grapefruit and creamy avocado in a light blood-orange vinaigrette with just a tuft of microgreens on top.
My Cascade Farms pork chop arrived with braised cabbage and apples on the side, plus small crispy potatoes, and a mild stone-ground mustard sauce on top. I'm not sure what I was hoping for, but the meal was little more than a well-prepared, straightforward dish, and lacked any particular magic. Hula Hands has conditioned me to sexier, livelier meals—like that night's escolar dinner. A type of mackerel, escolar is steaky like swordfish, but a little more buttery and moist. On this night, it was served with a zippy side of puttanesca, tangy roasted fennel, and fingerling potatoes. Suffice it to say that it was pretty damn close to perfect. We finished things off with a navel orange upside-down cake—a tarter variation of the pineapple upside-down cakes my parents used to make—topped with a dollop of fresh whipped cream.
But don't show up at Hula Hands hoping to get any of these items. One of chef MacLarty's first orders of business was to institute a constantly rotating menu. Every night, two to five food items will be swapped out for new creations, so that if you show up every 10 days or so, you'll have an entirely new menu. (Only the Painted Hills burgers have immunity in this respect.) MacLarty says this rotation allows him to use the freshest ingredients from local farmers at all times.
And what of the rose-colored charm that marked the restaurant's previous location? Old fans will feel perfectly at home—it's almost as if the Minnicks picked up the former spot in one piece and carried it half a mile up the road. All the same knick-knacks and vintage prints are on the wall; even the dining room layout's remarkably similar. Only now, you'll be spending less time in the foyer, and more time at the table, marveling that it's virtually impossible to tire of anything on the menu.