It is raining hard the second time I make it to Kona Grill. One of those bad boyfriend summer rains--the kind that shows up unexpectedly, sticks around long enough to dampen your hopes and then moves on.
As the hostess shows me to a table near Kona's front window, I notice the only guy on a stool at the bar, head bowed low over his drink. He picks up the glass, sips, licks his lips, closes his eyes and shakes his head sideways. If it is his first of the day or his fifth, he looks like he needs it badly. I am sure he'll need another.
Business is slow on this stormy day. I've been here before and eaten perfect filet mignon and so-so baked sea bass. That was in the evening, though, when pretty young things and the off-the-rack suits who want them crowd the outdoor patio to play kneesies under the tables. With its view of a mall parking lot instead of palm trees, the patio at Kona lacks glamour as a holding pen for the hot-to-trot.
My friend S. is late for our mid-afternoon lunch. We've both been stood up by men over the weekend and have decided to hash it over with girl-talk, sushi and cocktails. She'll be here eventually, that I know. S. is great to hang with, but she tends to show up later than a gambler's alimony check.
I go ahead and order a Cosmo, one of those girly drinks as pink as the ribbon on a rich dame's poodle. To look less like a lonely foot-dangler I pull out a paperback copy of The Big Sleep.
The waitress, Beth, slips a slick black menu in front of me. "Happy hour," she says. "Everything on here is half-price." The term "happy hour" is right up there with "first wife" for getting me down, but I dig Kona's time zones for it: 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays. They have "reverse happy hour" (that's more like it) from 10 p.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday and 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday. The happy hour prices are slap-your-forehead cheap--coupla bucks for sushi, four bucks and change for pizzas.
The other marked-down menu choices are varied if unspectacular: tacos, calamari, pot stickers, "Sweet Maui" onion rings. "Take your time," Beth says, backing away like a servant in a Charlie Chan flick.
S. suddenly blows in the door behind the bar, blond hair twirled up in a rain-swept tangle. S. is a looker and knows how to make an entrance. The bartender gives her the twice-over as she skinnies past him and over to the table. She's wearing no-secrets jeans and the sort of high heels that make good men forget to go home for dinner.
"I'm starved," says S., grabbing the menu. "Crying for three days made me hungry."
We ditch our plans for a sushi-only lunch and go for the works, ordering one of just about everything. "I'll bring it in stages," says Beth, kindly not raising an eyebrow. We trust her judgment. She disappears into the back, somewhere behind the 1,000-gallon saltwater fish tank that's a signature of all these casual Kona joints from Scottsdale to Omaha. I turn and stare at the fish in their pretty prison. They're those fancy tropical things, doing slow, silky turns between bubbles.
S. and I are barely into our Cosmos (her first, my second) when Beth returns with huge plates of calamari and onion rings. The former are delicate little rounds piled high beside a ramekin of spicy aioli sauce. The baby squids are tender and hot, no rubber-band chewiness and with just the right amount of batter. The sauce is freshly made, not out of a bottle.
The rings are another matter. Wide as a tycoon's shirt cuff and big around as a baby's head, each slice of white onion is coated in panko breadcrumbs and deep-fried. We knife into one and share. Disappointment. These are Trump Tower onion rings--spectacular-looking outside, but inside, tasteless and dull.
Next is the sushi. The California roll may be the PB and J of sushi orders, but it's easily muffed if not made with care. Kona's is such a beautiful gem I want to wrap it up for Mother's Day--not too much rice, no sticky orange roe to overpower the morsel of cooked crab within. And at happy hour, the eight pieces are less than half the cost of grocery store portions.
The pot stickers. Hmm. Think Polish pirogi on a quick ride through Chinatown. Not bad, not good, just stuck somewhere in between.
We push aside the uneaten onion rings and abandon the pot stickers and dig into the pizzas. On S.'s pizza Margherita, sliver-thin tomato slices sit atop bits of fresh basil half-buried in a thick layer of mozzarella. S. moans so loudly with pleasure at her first bite that the bent-over guy at the bar (now on his fourth Dewar's--I've been counting) peeks over his shoulder to see what's what. He gives a half-smile at S. and turns back around. "One more," he says to the bar back, not fooling anyone.
The crust on my Kona pizza is a sweet cracker-crisp layer under a topping of peppery cheeses and red quarter-size andouille sausage slices. The crust builds to a thick, bready rope all the way around. Both pizzas are too much for one, and after one slice each--Who am I kidding? We eat up half of both--we wave Beth down and ask for takeout containers. She thinks we're done and starts to pull out the check. Oh, no. We're not nearly finished. We are brokenhearted gals on the verge of dyspepsia, and we need more of...something.
Beth whips out the dessert menu. Her tip and my esteem for Kona's waitstaff training go up immediately. S. orders turtle cheesecake. I opt for Key lime tart.
The rain's just starting to turn from downpour to drizzle when a couple of chefs wearing uniforms from one of NorthPark's cafés stop in for beers. They bookend a woman sitting at the end of the bar. She's wearing a T-shirt that stretches the word "Juicy" across parts that turn it from a promise into a threat. From across the room the woman looks like she might have some class. Up close she looks like she's made up to be seen from across the room.
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I watch the chefs sandwich their juicy conquest. S. has stopped talking and is enjoying her cheesecake, forking methodically from the tip of the creamy triangle back to the bumper of nutty crust. I ask for a bite, and she gives me a look like I've asked to borrow rent money. My Key lime tart is all mine, and it's divine. Every bite bites back with a sweet green smack of the tropics. Neither of us leaves enough dessert for a take-home box.
We've been here for two happy hours. A few more patrons have wandered into the bar area and the roomy mahogany booths in the main dining room are starting to attract some interest from shoppers wagging bags full of purchases from stores on this new side of the mall.
We pay the check--all those drinks and eats, some of which we're toting home, and the total's under half a C-note--not forgetting to honor the obliging Beth. As we gather umbrellas and handbags, the bartender cranks up the windows, opening the wall between bar and patio. The rain has stopped and on the breeze is a hint of wet pavement and broken promises.
On the way out I hear the Dewar's guy tell the bartender, "I'm an occasional drinker." Sure you are, buddy. The kind who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Budapest with a full beard and an empty wallet. 8687 N. Central Expressway in NorthPark Center between Macy's and Nordstrom. Open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 11 a.m.-12 p.m. Friday-Saturday. The bar is open till midnight Monday-Thursday and until 1 a.m. Friday-Saturday. 214-369-7600. $$$