What’s My Name, Fish?
As Don the Beachcomber, the former Kona, which was formerly Sam’s, goes freaky for tiki—and loses a step when it comes to cooking seafood
It was a Saturday night at the new Don the Beachcomber in Huntington Beach, and the parking lot was a mess. As car after car pulled in from Pacific Coast Highway, tikiphiles piled out, tossing wads of keys to frantic valets and marching into their mecca, the restaurant under the blue-neon marlin. Most were couples, decked out in matching Hawaiian shirts and dresses.
Inside, there were even more of them, all belonging to this not-so-hidden subculture of people who long to relive tropical vacations past. These were normal, everyday folk you might see at the office who dress up like tourists on their off time and converge upon places such as Don’s for the pure escapism it brings.
Since they all drank the punch, so did we. The elixir of choice: a stiff, fruity mai tai with a cherry in it. Other drinks had wedges of pineapple stuck to the rim or a dangling umbrella, concoctions that looked too silly to be sipped while wearing anything other than island wear, or to be made in a place that didn’t have thatched roofing as a design scheme, bamboo made into chairs and mugs adorned with grotesque Polynesian totems.
In this scene, my friends and I were confused and bewildered, strangers in a strange land that looked like an Eyes Wide Shut Kubrickian orgy crossed with a luau. It had been more than a year since we visited the place. Since then, the restaurant had been through at least two other owners and more name changes than Sean Combs. But I’d never seen it livelier than that night.
When it had just reopened as the revived Sam’s Seafood, we enjoyed the food. Whole bone-in red snapper deep-fried to a bone-picking crispiness. Salmon pan-seared to exacting standards. Everything decorated with an orchid garnish. Someone back there cared about how the food looked and tasted.
Now, as we were being lulled into a happy mood by the serenading ukulele player and the refreshing, faintly apple-cinnamony mai tais, we got nostalgic for the meal we remembered we had, and we looked forward to reliving it. Unfortunately, there were rough seas ahead.
Whether they were overwhelmed by their early success or just too eager to party with their guests, Don’s kitchen and wait staff wouldn’t have survived tribal council that evening. After a long delay, our soup and salads came out before the appetizers did—and without the signature toasted crouton they called “the longboard.” And the complimentary basket of Hawaiian rolls that every other table got? We had to ask for ours. Twice. And two different servers.
Starving, we reminded them of our apps and proceeded to destroy the salads and gulp down the soup. The C-Zar, a remnant of the old menu, was not overwhelmed by dressing or anchovy, as most Caesars are. The Kona Chop salad had welcome bits of chopped egg and pineapple. And the soup of the night, spicy chicken, was as fiery as a Mexican pozole.
When the appetizers finally arrived, they were also smooth sailing. Best was the brie quesadilla, a griddled green-flour tortilla stuffed with shredded kalua pork, quartered into wedges and fanned out on the plate like petals on tropical flora. The ahi poke tacos were as brisk as ever, with freshly cubed tuna tossed lightly in soy and wasabi, then enveloped by a freshly fried wonton wrapper shaped to a rigid curve. Each taco sat atop a guacamole dollop, which acted as foundation and condiment.
The entrées, though, put the “not” in nautical. There was the Kona Trio, a combo platter of piña colada shrimp, sweet-and-sour glazed salmon, and opakapaka with citrus beurre blanc. All three proteins were overcooked to the consistency of compacted sawdust. And the mashed potatoes they straddled were marooned without salt. A stir-fried side of carrots and onions was just as bland, setting us further adrift.
Rescue came in the form of the Chilean sea bass, which was recommended by our server as a substitute for the whole bone-in fish. (The latter, while still on the printed menu, is no longer offered, an artifact of the old restaurant, our waiter said.) Unlike the unfortunate trio of sea critters that died in vain for our last dish, the sea bass was cooked perfectly and melted like pudding on our tongues.
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But we felt stranded again when we started on the mai tai chicken, a flavorless, dry, freakishly large white-meat piece of breaded hen. Then we realized that they had forgotten to give us the mai tai sauce.
“Sorry,” our server said, “we’re out of the mai tai sauce. But to make up for it, here’s another mai tai from the bar!”
Well, okay, but don’t think we’re going to start wearing matching Hawaiian outfits. You have to draw the line in the sand somewhere.
Don the Beachcomber at 16278 S. Pacific Coast Hwy., Huntington Beach, (562) 592-1321; www.donthebeachcomber.com. Open Mon.-Sat., 4-10 p.m.; Tiki Lounge open Sun.-Thurs., 4 p.m.-midnight; Fri.-Sat., 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Dinner for two, $40-$80, food only. Full bar.