Hula Hotties Holds Sway in Oak Cliff

Owners Roger Simpson and Jill Inforzato ditched a tropical paradise for, um, Oak Cliff.
Sara Kerens

They don't mind telling you their story, the basic outline of which involves a graying couple moving from Hawaii to Oak Cliff and setting up a tiny café.

Yeah, I know—doesn't make much sense. She baked for 12 restaurants and two hotels, including the Kona Village Resort, and he's a musician. Together they ran a hot sauce company turning out bottles of a chipotle and habanero combination called Hula Girl, so things were going pretty well on the big island. Now the couple operates a narrow room on the very fringe of Bishop Arts, scattered apparently with second-hand furnishings.

"So far nobody's said, 'Wow, that was a great move,'" says Jill Inforzato, part owner, baker and cook. She laughs.

Sounds about right; I mean, who in their right mind heads from tropical paradise to Texas' version of the Bronx? Really, the story behind their arrival in Dallas is one of business and happenstance. The big move and the café, Hula Hotties, came about during a trip to some fiery foods convention here back in 2004. Inforzato and her partner, Roger Simpson, roamed around the city, recognized the local appreciation for spicy sauces, saw the big airport promising easier access to other markets than they had in Hawaii and began looking for a space to call home.

In a sense, Hula Hotties is a bit like an island home—or perhaps an island gift shop: pastel colors, decorative parrots, plastic grass skirts and chintzy dolls on a sale rack, the rickety tables of a people who spend far more time outdoors than in. Except for the ubiquitous Oak Cliff tire shop across the street...ah, never mind. There's no way you can imagine yourself near the beach.

But the pair remains true to home-style Hawaiian cooking. "These are all my recipes," Inforzato says. "I created the menu and every sauce is homemade." So you end up with satisfactory meatballs rolled through what looks like Catalina dressing, which smacks of smoky pepper and bittersweet honey with a snarling, tangy background and they simply call "hot honey wing sauce." Their spring roll salad resembles the Asian staple, deconstructed, or, rather, a bloated spring roll that exploded, gushing lettuce, julienned carrots, crumbled peanuts, glassy noodles and other innards all over a plate. The whole, including four or five shrimp, is glazed in an intricate (yet quite prickly) chili sauce layering sweet, sour and spicy flavors en echelon—an arrangement that works beautifully with the grilled shellfish.

This is the type of place those living in Oak Cliff really like. It is funky and relaxed and most definitely un-Dallas. Stumble on Hula Hotties while wandering the Bishop Arts area and you'll be quite pleased with the discovery. Fight traffic from East Dallas or the northern 'burbs, on the other hand, and you'll likely form a more modest appraisal.

It's not what you'd call a destination restaurant, after all. Maybe 20 seats, a laggardly two-person kitchen, music played so softly (on the nights when Simpson isn't performing live) that carrying on a conversation is like spilling all your personal information to other guests. For instance, the folks next to me on my final visit were taking a lunch break from their KDFW-Channel 4 offices. The guy behind me kept trying to reach a real estate client on his mobile. And when I first dragged a friend to the place, two guys at another table shot several glances our direction, looking as if one of us had done them some great wrong in the past—likely (from the looks of it) having them banned from the fitness center.

The more intriguing menu listings tend to fall further from expectations the further you've driven to reach the place. A short jaunt and their macadamia burger seems like a cute vegetarian (not vegan) twist on the American classic, a patty of ground nuts, complete with lettuce, tomato and pickle. Cross town to reach the place, that same sandwich lacks any counterpunch, any toasted depth or streak of almost overcooked bitterness—anything to make it interesting. At the moment it's an overly mellow and vague novelty. Something called "Thanksgiving on a bun" shows more promise. As you might guess, it's a sandwich combining pretty much everything you find on the holiday table but pumpkin pie: turkey, stuffing, cranberries and so forth—a proven combination that works as well as post-Thanksgiving leftover lunch. At its best, this is a double-dose of Americana. But would you really bump draft an SUV for half an hour for it? Ah, but this is the potential genius of Hula Hotties and other places in Bishop Arts: the district itself is the destination, and this rickety Hawaiian place fits the neighborhood's funky, artistic vibe.

So while you might not haul yourself in from Plano for a plate of, say, Spam, once you're there, why not give it a try? That's the curiosity value of musubi, an island specialty involving Spam and rice, which they serve only on Friday and Saturday evenings unless you phone ahead. And Inforzato will whip up off-menu Spam dishes, if you're really intent on learning the culture. ("We can do all kinds of Spam stuff," she assures me.)

Side dishes are disappointing, almost across the board—although not overly so. What they refer to as "potato-mac" is a common version of potato salad. The "Indonesian" version, however, rivets your palate with sweet spice and a nutty undertone. Curried rice...well, you've run into these flavors from a box.

So there's a lot of filler. Inforzato's cookies, however, may be worth a peek, whether or not you stay for dinner.

Her selection changes on a regular basis. After years of baking for so many establishments, she explains, "I can fill that display case in my sleep." There are perhaps 1,000 different cookies in her repertoire. But if you're lucky, the showcase will have at least one tray of the lime, coconut and jalapeño recipe. These are impressive fat rounds—dry like powdered sugar, crumbly and light, each bite unleashes a tangy-sweet sensation, followed by the unusual grassy sting of chili. The heat is held in reserve, a clever, multi-tiered creation.

In the end, it's a question of travel. Why did they move to Dallas, of all places? Well, that probably has more to do with the hot sauce than Hula Hotties café, although they admit the café takes all their time at the moment. For the rest of us, well, the distance isn't that far.

Hula Hotties is not a destination in and of itself. But if they branched out and put one in my neighborhood (and bought a liquor license), I'd almost be a regular.

Hula Hotties 244 W. Davis, 214-943-2233. Open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Saturday. $

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