Buffet to-go

Hula's reinvents itself and retains quality amid pandemic

Curbside service at Hula's Chinese Bar-B-Q. (photo by Ken Smith)

During a recently bygone time, I could take the healthiest vegetables from below a sneeze guard, combine them in ungodly ways and bury them under enough blue cheese to make a so-called “salad” capable of inducing a heart attack. You could show me to a cold-cut spread and I’d engineer a sandwich embodying the hubris of the Tower of Babel. I took an establishment’s invitation to “build your own burger” as a personal challenge, and man oh man could I inflict some damage at a buffet.

I have embraced the most American aspects of salad bars and their ilk: My way is best and more is better. Alas, in the age of COVID-19, the thought of rubbing shoulders with strangers and sharing ingredients from a table filled with tiny troughs is downright panic-inducing. The post-pandemic future of this serving model—like so many other things—remains unclear.

In Chico, this presents a minor problem for a handful of pizza parlors and burger joints, but could be downright apocalyptic for Hula’s Chinese Bar-B-Q. At this popular Chinese/Mongolian-style stir-fry buffet, building one’s bowl—and of proudly showing off or even sharing bites of that creation with one’s dining companions—is central to the experience. A secondary part is sharing plates of finger foods like fried wontons and spring rolls, another no-no nowadays.

I’d been wondering and worrying about the restaurant, a Chico institution since 1990, when I stumbled across a post about Hula’s on the COVID Responsible Places – Chico Facebook page. The private group features member observations on which local businesses are taking pandemic precautions—such as requiring employees and customers to wear masks—and which are not, and has grown to more than 2,000 members since it was launched June 13. It also offers glimpses at the innovative ways some businesses are adapting to this strange new normal.

Thankfully, Hula’s has adapted, and it’s still possible to enjoy a bowl filled with your selected stir-fry staples, soaked in sauce and grilled up by a 20-something kid with a machete. All without ever setting foot inside one of the restaurant’s two locations.

Customers can fill out an itemized list of the desired ingredients—noodles, choice of meat and a huge array of vegetables and sauces—and easily detail if they want less or more of certain items. Then, a masked server will take the slip and pass it off to kitchen staff for preparation.

Hula’s has also partnered with an online ordering service called Cake that makes it easy for patrons to build their own bowl virtually, for pick-up or delivery. I opted to pick up my order curbside at the 20th Street location. I admittedly had some problems trying to order online from my computer (maybe it was the Web browser I was using?), but I experienced no such problems ordering on my phone.

The big decision when eating at Hula’s in person is choosing between the all-you-can eat or single-trip options—the former permitting more room for real all-American gluttony, and the latter allowing the diner to take home stir-fry leftovers. That decision is now made for you. An order of stir fry—including rice, fried wontons, soup and a fortune cookie—is $15.25. I also added a side of Sriracha pork rolls ($5).

Hula’s take-out stir-fry, fried won tons and Sriracha pork rolls. (photo by Ken Smith)

While not quite as fun as packing your own bowl, there’s something to be said for picking items from the list online. The interface makes it easy to detail extra or minimal items and there’s room to type in special instructions. I chose extra sausage and extra beef, some noodles, and more than a half-dozen vegetables ranging from mushrooms to bok choy. My sauce technique involves mixing an abundance of garlic and fire oils with soy sauce, and the online system allows up to 11 scoops of each individual type (which also include Kung Pao Hot, cooking wine and other selections).

Outside the restaurant, there is signage everywhere with the pickup area clearly delineated. Within a minute of my arrival, a delightful, masked server came to my passenger window and took my name, returning another minute later with a paper grocery bag filled with my food. In another minute I was on my way, with the smell of garlic, grilled meat and cooked vegetables filling my car and making my mouth water.

Back home, I unpacked the bag, finding the crispy noodles, peanuts, wontons and other items individually packaged, with utensils provided. The largest item was a cardboard container bursting at its seams with my custom creation. Coupled with the sides, it took less than half of the box to make a meal, leaving me with heaping helping of those coveted Hula’s leftovers for a hearty lunch the next day.

It’s tough out there for restaurants, and Hula’s efforts are worth applauding and supporting. At the end of my meal I felt safe, well fed, content, and even a little proud to support a business doing its best to care for its customers and employees. Support your local stir-fry, and we’ll get through this together.

Hula’s Chinese Bar-B-Q, 1937 E. 20th St., Ste. B-10, 342-6304, hulasbbq.com

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