501 W. Fireweed Lane
$6-$12 per plate
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 8 p.m. Sunday
While I’m one of the dwindling number of Anchorage residents who haven’t been to Hawaii, I happen to work with someone who's spent a lot of time there -- Morning Edition anchor Todd Walker. He’s recommended a Lunchbox stop for months now, and this week I finally took his advice.
Hula Hands Polynesian Restaurant is a small chain in Southcentral Alaska, with two locations in Anchorage and one in Wasilla, but I didn’t realize until recently that one of those Anchorage locations was in Midtown. The Fireweed Lane restaurant is tucked away on the north side of a stretch of road between C Street and Arctic Boulevard, one of a series of unobtrusive buildings that don’t really stand out from the street; when I pulled in and looked for parking shortly after noon on a Friday, though, it took several minutes to find a spot.
The first thing that strikes you when you walk into Hula Hands is how informal it is: the servers refer to customers as “brother” and “sister,” the pace is brisk but relaxed, and the seating plan is largely open. Although some tables are spaced apart those in the center of the room are set end-to-end, creating a communal seating area where I found an open chair when I was invited to take a place wherever I liked. The Fireweed dining room is small and cheery, with occasional posters and items of island décor adorning the walls.
While the varied menu includes entrees from both Samoan and Tongan cuisine ranging from lupulu (steamed taro leaves and beef with coconut milk) to teriyaki-style turkey tails, it focuses to a large extent on the Hawaiian plate lunch -- similar to Southern barbecue, but anchored by sides of steamed rice and macaroni salad rather than biscuits and coleslaw. A sign near the door proclaims Hula Hands “Home of the Plate Lunch,” so I tried a regular two-entree combo plate ($9.50), choosing kalua pig and pulehu chicken over teriyaki beef and beef stew. Despite the nearly full house and a bustling trade in takeout orders being conducted at the door, the speed of plate-lunch service meant I had food before me perhaps 10 minutes after I sat down.
In Hawaiian, the term “pulehu” refers to broiling over hot coals, and that’s exactly how the pulehu chicken arrived at the table: thin pieces of breast meat cooked in a teriyaki-style sauce, with slightly crispy lines of charring from the grill. Chicken dishes often have only an outer coating of flavor over a core of bland white meat, but Hula Hands’ chicken was marinated and juicy through and through, practically falling apart on my fork before I could lift it to my lips. It was a simple but delicious way to start the meal, and one that was served in a portion generous enough that I also ended the meal with a bite of it.
Where the chicken’s appeal was immediate and flavorful, the kalua pig’s was subtle and deep: at a glance it merely looks like a pile of pulled pork unadorned by sauce, but when chewed it yields a slow-cooked taste born of smoke and fire that channels the same enjoyment any good piece of steak does on its own merits. I found that it also went almost hand-in-glove with a bottle of modestly hot sauce on the table, akin to a heavily spiced barbecue sauce that easily blended with the meat and made the combination more than the sum of its parts.
The two portions of meat were divided on my plate by a low wall of steamed rice and macaroni salad, two ice-cream scoops of the former and one of the latter adding a nice but not overpowering amount of starch to the meal. I found the macaroni salad to be a particular standout from that of other plate lunches I’ve had, its accents with liberal doses of onion and pepper offering something to remember it by beyond the cool blend of macaroni and mayo contained in simpler versions of the dish.
I certainly understand Hula Hands’ devoted following much better than I did before my visit, in no small part because I’m on the verge of becoming a part of it. It’s a very reasonable place to stop for lunch, since you won’t leave hungry and the fast-food speed means it’s extremely useful when you’re in a hurry but want something beyond what a drive-through window can offer. That trip to Hawaii is still on my to-do list, but until then I’m glad a taste of the islands is so temptingly close to the station.