OCEAN CITY — Think “boardwalk” and the flavors of a carnival come to mind, but this boardwalk eatery, the Hula Restaurant and Sauce Co., is not your typical Ocean City Boardwalk fare.
Offering tropical flavors and island-inspired cuisine, tucked inside Colony Walk between Eighth and Ninth streets, is a casual Hawaiian dining experience from owner and Somers Point native Dave Rihl.
Working in kitchens since he was 12, starting at the Clam Bar in his hometown, Rihl attended the Academy of Culinary Arts at Atlantic Cape before moving out to the North Shore of O’ahu, Hawaii in the late ’90s with his now-wife Amy.
Since moving back to the Jersey Shore in 2000 to open Hula Grill, Rihl has become a local favorite, popular enough to begin bottling his own sauces.
In Hawaii, after running the kitchen of someone else’s restaurant for a year, Rihl decided to go into business for himself. He leased and operated a lunch truck, which he called the Oceanside Grill.
“I’ve always been in the restaurant business since I was 12 and it was time to take the next step,” he said. “The lunch car became available, so we ended up leasing it.”
The cuisine was based off of the typical Hawaiian plate lunch, he said.
“When you’re in Hawaii, they do something they call ‘plate lunch.’ It would almost be comparable if you went to the south and they call something barbecue,” Rihl explained. “There’s different styles of it, but the main thing you get sticky rice, you pick your protein.
“What we did out there, the big thing is they serve macaroni salad with it, as well, and we were kind of in a real surf populated area. And we decided to do a nice, fresh green salad with it,” Rihl said. “That kind of was our little twist on it.”
Rihl and his wife, who now reside in Marmora with their two children, ages 6 and 8, lived in Hawaii for four years before the opportunity to open shop in Ocean City came about.
“It was actually around Waimea Bay there, there was a big rock slide and the road had closed,” he said, adding that at the same time, the lease was up on his food truck.
“We decided to come on back, and friend of mine from this area told me about this store here, which is actually the small one back there,” Rihl said, pointing to the kitchen.
The Hula Grill opened in 2000 in Colony Walk as just a counter, with an open kitchen and a few tables outside. About six years ago, Rihl’s Colony Walk neighbor, who operated a sushi business, closed and the space became available for him to expand the Hula Grill into the Hula Restaurant and Sauce Co.
“We needed it; the line was out the door and there was no where to go, and there was only so much you can do in a little spot,” he said.
The restaurant features booths and tables, with walls lined with weaved palm leaves and surf art. A surfing video plays on the television and upbeat music provides the background noise.
At Hula Grill, the menu didn’t stray far from where it started at Oceanside. Rihl sticks to the plate lunches, which are still served with sticky rice and his fresh salad, topped with the Hula’s signature Tropical Hula Dressing.
“You can pick fresh grilled tuna, you can pick the Hawaiian chicken, you can pick the roasted pork,” he explained.
Island flavors infuse the offerings, but Rihl said he has added some local classics.
“Teriyaki is very big out there. Our barbecue sauce has a lot of pineapple juice infused into it,” Rihl said. “As we came back to this area, we do some things like, there we would never serve crab cakes, but here people love them.
“So you’ll see some kind of ‘fusion’ of thing that people like here,” he said.
On Saturday, July 13, Rihl was serving up a Grilled Wahoo plate with shitake mushrooms and asparagus, salad and sticky rice topped with a creamy lemon-basil butter sauce, as well as a fresh Grilled Mahi plate with mango salsa.
Rihl said another special that is popular is the Thai Barbecue Scallop plate.
“There’s a lot of just different things,” he said. “We just keep the set menu basic and the specials just kind of evolve and change, year to year, day to day.”
For the last few years, the Hula Restaurant has made another expansion: bottling sauces.
“When we were in the small store, we had a lot of people requesting, ‘Can we buy your teriyaki sauce? Can we buy your dressing? Can we this and that?” Rihl said. “So basically, I think it’s probably been about six or seven years now that we took the steps to have a professional company adapt our menus into big batches and bottle them.”
The recipes are all courtesy of Rihl, who said he took traditional sauces and added his own flair.
“Anyone can make a teriyaki sauce, but maybe you tweak it your way,” he said. “A lot of things you kind of just take and tweak through the years.”
The three sauces – Tropical Hula Dressing, Hawaiian BBQ Sauce and Huli Teriyaki Sauce – are very simple to use at home, Rihl said.
“You can literally go out back with a chicken breast and grill it plain, and at the end just pour a little teriyaki on it,” he said. “Make yourself a salad. The same with the barbecue.”
“You can take a pork shoulder and throw it in the crock pot with this,” Rihl said, holding up the barbecue sauce. “Add a half gallon of water and walk away for a few hours and have a nice island-style pulled pork.”
Rihl said the barbecue sauce is “sweet, sour and spicy.”
“It works great with shell fish, with shrimp,” he said.
The Pulled Pork plate and sandwich both feature the sweet and tangy sauce, which finishes with a spicy kick, while Rihl pairs the Hawaiian Chicken and Salmon Teriyaki with his Huli Teriyaki Sauce, with hints of ginger and garlic.
“It’s just one of those things everyone seems to like,” he said of the teriyaki. “Ours is a little on the sweeter side, which makes it a little different.”
The salad dressing, with citrus notes, is the most versatile of the three, Rihl said.
“This is just one where you can do anything with this,” he said.
The dressing can be used to marinate chicken or tuna, he said.
In addition to the Hawaiian plates, Hula also serves burgers, sandwiches and salads, as well as a selection of daily specials. Most popular menu items include the Ahi Burger, a fresh tuna filet grilled and served on a Ginsburg Bakery sesame bun with a sesame spread, lettuce, tomato and onion; and the Fire Cracker Shrimp plate, fried jumbo shrimp glazed with a sweet and spicy sauce.
“That’s another one that maybe in the future we’ll be bottling,” Rihl said of the sesame spread.
The sauces are available for purchase in store or online at the www.hulasauces.com.
“It’s just been nice throughout the years to evolve and grow,” Rihl said.
He said that the best months for the seasonal operation are June and September
“We have so much local support,” he said. “Were fortunate that a lot of local people eat here.”
That local support leads to word of mouth advertising for the 13-year-old boardwalk business.
“It’s evolved to where were here and people know it,” Rihl said.
The prices are reasonable, ranging from $3.75 for a hot dog to $20 for a shrimp scampi plate with a beverage. There is no waitress service, keeping with the casual feel. Customers take a look at the menu board, order, pay and listen for their name.
“When you’re done you can just get up and go,” he said.
The Hula Restaurant and Sauce Company opens Palm Sunday weekend and closes in October when business slows down. They are open seven days a week from May 1 to Oct. 1.
For more information, call 609-399-2400.