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Duke's Hits Rocky Shore

Huntington Beach restaurant squanders its location and energetic service with often below-average dishes.

October 29, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The lively beach town of Huntington Beach has long been a surfing mecca. So a steak and seafood place named after legendary Hawaiian surfer Duke Kahanamoku must have seemed ideal for a prime location fronting the Huntington Pier.

You can certainly understand. And as you drive up to the supercharged team of parking valets in gaudy Hawaiian-print shirts, Duke's looks as inviting as a Maui beachfront hotel.

The decor features surfboards, black-and-white photos of the surf scene in prewar Huntington Beach and a load of palms, ferns and twirling fans.

The restaurant is also equipped with an ample bar, a patio and an athletic team of waiters sporting Pepsodent smiles. Youth isn't just served at Duke's; youth rules.

This may partly explain why people are flocking to eat here; the food is generally unexciting. Of course, the same is true for the vast majority of beachfront restaurants. And Huntington Beach, in particular, is not exactly known for cutting-edge cuisine.

On the other hand, when the wait for a table averages 75 minutes, as it can at Duke's, I tend to credit youth appeal, the buzz of being recently opened, the fact that there hasn't been a big-time restaurant in the pier area for a long time--or maybe just the gorgeous ocean sunsets. Technically, it could be the mai tais, the prime beef and the grilled mahi-mahi you see on every table, but I suspect not.

There's nothing compelling about Duke's first courses, though some are better than others. Mac nut and crab wontons are reputedly filled with Dungeness crab, macadamia nuts and cream cheese, but it's the cream cheese taste that predominates. The ones I've had were limp, with oily, tepid skins.

The grilled and chilled Asian shrimp were reasonably good, but the advertised sweet Thai chile flavors were conspicuously absent. Poke rolls are deep-fried rice paper packets filled with lightly seared ahi tuna and sweet Maui onions, and I would have liked them much better without the soggy cream sauce coulis.

The best starter is probably Duke's famous Caesar, particularly if you like a heavy hit of shaved Parmesan. The greens are nicely crisp, and the dressing has a pungent, anchovy-rich bite.

I would not recommend Duke's pizzas or the fisherman's chowder. The soup has a pasty consistency, and the taste reminds me of canned chowder. The pizzas are doughy and almost completely neutral in flavor.

Things improve if you order fish or steak. The fish are prepared in four styles the menu refers to as Pacific Rim preparations, and they are generally pretty good. I tried the halibut baked Duke's style, and it was flaky and tender in its garlic, lemon and sweet basil glaze. The Parmesan- and herb-crusted mahi-mahi also had nice flavor, though the fish did come swimming on a shallow pool of oil.

Roasted firecracker ono is probably the best fish dish I've tried at Duke's. Ono is a mild, sweet white fish, and my perfectly cooked piece was nicely offset by a balanced tomato and cumin aioli. I also can give a nod to hibachi-style teriyaki ahi, a good chunk of Hawaiian tuna paired with a subtle, delicious papaya lime relish.

The only steak I've tried was a USDA prime teriyaki style top sirloin, and the meat was juicy and extremely flavorful.

A bonus is garlic smashed potatoes (which come with every steak). The lumpy mashed potatoes are mixed with a little potato skin and just enough fresh chopped garlic.

Still, the water gets pretty shallow after that, and the menu section called Island Favorites is especially weak.

The seafood curry, served with jasmine rice, is a mushy, under-spiced melange of fish, shrimp, scallops and roasted cashews. Big Island pork ribs are brushed with a shiny, sticky, sugary mango barbecue sauce that struck me as insipid, and the ribs are baked, not barbecued. Huli Huli chicken, which the menu actually stars and footnotes as a "family recipe used with permission," is merely a nondescript soy-drenched broiled chicken breast.

*

My waiter was honest enough to reveal that the restaurant's double chocolate fudge cake was a commercial product kept semi-frozen in the kitchen, so no one was surprised when the cake gave off that stale Freon aftertaste. ("Hey," he said cheerfully, "I'll just put it in the microwave.")

As for Kimo's Original Hula Pie, a macadamia ice cream cake with a thin chocolate crust, our mammoth wedge came to the table frozen so hard that we had to wait a good 10 minutes to chisel off the first bite. Ditto the tropical sorbets, which I gather are returned to an industrial deep freezer after being scooped into balls, ostensibly to speed up service.

Maybe, after the novelty wears off, these inexcusable glitches will have a negative effect on Duke's business, but so far, I am making no predictions--except to say that the surf's up in Huntington until further notice, and that the sunsets will surely remain as gorgeous as ever at the corner of PCH and Main.

Duke's is expensive. Starters are $5.50 to $7.95. Island favorites are $12.95 to $18.95. Steaks are $11.95 to $19.95.

BE THERE

Duke's, 317 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach. (714) 374-6446. 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-10:30 p.m. Friday, 4:30-10:30 p.m. Saturday, 4:30-10 p.m. Sunday. American Express, Discover, MasterCard and Visa.

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