I am in San Diego for a mini high school reunion and upon its finale, I stay behind an extra day to enjoy lunch in beautiful La Jolla before heading back to Orange County. We are at Duke’s in downtown La Jolla, a Hawaiian-inspired restaurant, which pays homage to Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, an Olympic gold medalist from Hawaii, who represented the United States in swimming for 20 years.
We sit outside on the patio overlooking gorgeous La Jolla Shores. What a glorious day it is to enjoy a leisurely meal.
Start with Lilikoi Ceviche ($12) a perfect marriage of Baja and Hawaii in one dish. Ceviche is the staple of the Californian coast. Raw fish is marinated in lime juice, and a combination of red onion, coriander stem, tomato, avocado, and Fresno chile to create “leche de tigre”, the milky juice which will ultimately “cook” the fish. I would have liked a little more passion fruit (lilikoi) in the marinade, as its flavors are too subtle to distinguish unless you taste a spoon of the liquid on its own. Serving the dish with Sky Flake crackers is a lovely touch, as this is what restaurants across the border typically serve with ceviche.
Most often than not, I will order some sort of poke (raw marinated fish Hawaiian style) when I see it on a menu. Poke Tacos ($14) uses fried won ton wrappers as its shell, then filled with raw ahi which has been tossed in shoyu (soy sauce), sweet Maui onions, avocado, and a creamy wasabi creme fraiche. We like these even though they are a little messy to eat.
The first two starters are good, but it is the Korean Sticky Ribs ($12) which blows us away. Crispy Duroc pork ribs are glazed in a mouth-watering spicy gochujang (Korean red pepper paste) glaze. They are indeed sticky – a little bit sweet and spicy – with hints of lemongrass. The pickles add a refreshing acidity, while chicharrones (fried pork skin) lend a textural contrast to the dish. If you love robust flavors, this is definitely not to be missed.
Moving on to entrees, we choose Roasted Firecracker Fish ($18), a perfect example of a fish dish I would find on the islands. Opah, a widely used fish in Hawaii, is flaky and pairs well with Suzie’s Farm cabbage, gailan (Chinese broccoli), and tender pickled ginger sprouts. The use of Asian produce and flavors is a true representation of the solid fusion menu at Duke’s.
For vegetarians, there is a Vegetarian Red Curry ($15) of a light coconut curry lime broth swimming with sunchokes, carrots, celery and eggplant. There is a little scoop of jasmine rice as well. It is extremely subtle for a curry, bordering on bland. I would have liked a stronger coconut presence and maybe, a little more Asian herbs such as kaffir lime to give it a bit more ooompf.
If you aren’t on a low carb diet, then by all means choose the Kalua Pork Sandwich ($14). The pulled pork possesses smoky aromas from roasted banana barbecue. The lime slaw cuts the heaviness of the pork, while the crispy onions add crunch to the mix. I especially enjoy the smoked potato salad using a selection of yellow and purple potatoes.
The Triple Cooked Fries are a must whether you’re eating a sandwich or not. These thrice cooked potatoes are crispy on the outside, and fluffy on the inside. I ask how they are cooked and am told they are first soaked in water, then dehydrated, before they are fried to absolute perfection.
Definitely do not leave before trying the Malasadas ($9) little Portuguese doughnuts that are the epitome of Hawaii — if you’ve never been to Leonard’s you’re missing out! These little balls of fried dough are dusted with cinnamon sugar and served with a jar of guava jam. The pastry is sweet, but the tart from the jam balances out each delicious bite.
If you find yourself in La Jolla one of these days, take a stroll down the steps into Duke’s and while away a little time on the back patio. The view is spectacular! If you can’t get yourself to Hawaii, then the next best thing is to spend a few hours at Duke’s, where you can sip on some tropical cocktails while nibbling on an array of dishes you’ll find on the islands.
Duke’s La Jolla
1216 Prospect St
La Jolla, CA 92037
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