It was just about a year ago that I was happily proclaiming the ascendance of the Iberian way of eating in Chicago, most notably with my review of Wicker Park’s Bom Bolla, which so far had come closer than any place in town to approximating the casual Spanish tapas bar, where no wine is ever drunk without a bite of something to wash down. Just a little more than six months later, it shut its doors, unable to capture the imagination of Wicker Parkers with fried whitebait, bocadillos, and splashes of vermouth.
Its replacement is having no such problem. The Hawaiian-themed Mahalo is hanging 11 on the crest of a Polynesian wave that’s left the city awash in tiki bars, kava, poke shops, and an increasingly annoying Buffett-style nostalgia for island vibes. The joint is run by the same folks behind the Hampton Social, which presents its own vision of unreality as a Long Island idyll.
The neighborhood has taken to it, on most nights easily filling the first-floor bar as well as a second-floor dining room and rooftop that Bom Bolla couldn’t even open. Decked out like a mall surf shop, the walls are hung with shortboards printed with geographic stats about individual islands, while frat reggae flows though the air and the denizens of the new Wicker Park, clad in Polo and seersucker short pants, slurp down ersatz piña coladas in a bright and airy room that could’ve been teleported from a corner at Halsted and Armitage.
Poke—the of-the-moment fish salad analog to Pokémon—sits atop a menu of nominally Polynesian retreads. These in fact are the most enjoyable items on the menu, all three of them available on a $31 sampler: blood-red ahi tuna dressed in soy and sesame, nori and green onions, and sprinkled with macadamia nuts; cold braised octopus treated with ginger, chile, and pineapple; and snappy shrimp tossed with lemon, mint, soy, and cucumber—all three to be scooped up with blistered fried wontons.
And from there . . . wipeout. The remainder of the menu comprises classic and tweaked pu pus and plate lunches. Tennis-ball-size Spam meatballs barely register on the potted-meat spectrum, instead getting filled out with pork and beef and drenched in a sweet coffee barbecue sauce, all which approximates a fair representation of mom’s meat loaf. The promised chile heat and saline soy barely register in pulled-pork fried rice with bean sprouts, corn, mushrooms, and midsummer asparagus. Dumplings stuffed with lump crab and enrobed in oversteamed wonton wrappers are drowned in globs of coconut cream redolent of canned curry paste. These bites are redeemed somewhat by the kitchen’s version of Spam musubi—a slab of the canned meat sandwiched between rice wrapped with nori and here rolled in panko and fried for a crispy exterior—though a better-quality sushi rice would certainly avoid the mush in the middle. A salad featuring sweet, gently poached shrimp, arugula, cashews (no macadamias?), and a winning pineapple vinaigrette is sabotaged by overripe papaya, barely sweet, barely aromatic, with all the charm of a December cantaloupe.
A pile of soft, oversauced ribs with the typical plate-lunch sides—salad of cold, mayo-clogged macaroni and a lump of rice—comes straight from the potluck playbook of, say, an all-you-can-eat fund-raiser for the swim team. Pulled roasted pork follows the same formula: barely spiced shredded pig with rice, a cup of tepid pineapple hot sauce, and cloying barbecue sauce. Meanwhile Hawaii’s iconic loco moco, a burger over rice with a fried egg and gravy, is somewhat scaled up, a gravy-drenched hunk of tired short rib subbing for the ground meat and a pile of sweet mashed purple potato standing in for rice. Remove the latter and you have a composition from any purported farm-to-table spot in town, lacking any personality or dynamism.
Compounding all these problems is a staff that seems to know business is strong and service doesn’t need to rise above a middling level of casual indifference, and a kitchen that apparently has no concept of coursing. One evening the aforementioned stir-fry and a bacon double cheeseburger arrived at my table just moments after the apps. A sharp-eyed manager spotted the problem and offered to age the mains under a heat lamp, which, while not quite delivering an appropriate level of service, managed to irradiate what little life was left in either dish. At least the burger showed promise before I let it get away.
Bom Bolla’s lonely empty pintxos case presides over sullen bartenders in floral prints, slinging teeth-crackingly sweet tropical drinks, a handful of wines, and a small selection of Hawaiian beers. Neon-lit slogans adorn the walls at Mahalo—i left my ♥ in hawaii—giving its wistful patrons permission to wallow in nostalgia for their two weeks on the Big Island, perhaps not noticing that the food isn’t so dreamy at all. v