I will eat my share of pizza and doughnuts and frozen custard. But there comes a moment in every Shore vacation when another trip to the boardwalk for dinner simply sounds like an invitation to junk-food purgatory. That’s exactly when I crave a trip to the Hula Restaurant, the Hawaiian-inspired seafood grill owned by Dave Rihl that has been a safe haven of fresh and affordable cooking on the Ocean City boardwalk for 17 seasons. The ahi plate lunches, inspired by Rihl’s younger days running a food truck in Hawaii, are a staple. So are the grilled local scallops in Thai BBQ sauce often available at night. Admittedly, I’ve had some plates over the years that have been better than others. Predictably, my kids enjoy the super-sweet Hula chicken more than I do. The salmon cakes were also a miss. But the nightly board specials are usually a prime source of fresh inspirations for the regulars. And a recent grilled ahi steak dinner special topped with gazpacho sauce was one of the best I’ve eaten here in years. To begin with, that eight-ounce dinner tuna steak was cut a little thicker than the standard six-ounce lunch portion, so it was easier for this busy kitchen to cook it perfectly medium rare (a doneness Rihl says can also be ordered on the standard ahi plates, though medium is the popular demand default). But then came the cool gazpacho sauce over top, a temperature contrast I enjoy as the zesty and rustic chop of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and garlic inspired by the soup mingled with the hot local yellowfin, rice, and salad. At $18, it’s a little more than your standard boardwalk fare. But for that price, you will be hard-pressed to walk barefoot off the beach and find something nearly as fresh or tasty. The specials always change, but Rihl has promised to make the ahi gazpacho available for a while.
— Craig LaBan
Ahi gazpacho special, $18, Hula Restaurant & Sauce Co., 940 Boardwalk, Ocean City, N.J. 08226; 609-399-2400.