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EAT, DRINK & PLAY   -   THE DISH
Eclectic Menu,Fresh Ingredients make Kona Crisp a Must-try
March, 2009 - Issue #53
Cal Kona Style Burger
Cal Kona Style Burger
In defiance of the looming recession and perhaps even conventional wisdom, The Kona Crisp opened its doors on July 5 of last year. Since then, the restaurant has found many fans in Santa Clarita by offering top-quality Hawaiian BBQ at affordable prices. A couple of friends and I stopped by on a Saturday afternoon to try The Kona Crisp for ourselves.

Our first order of business was perusing the expansive, eclectic menu. Barbecue pork, beef and chicken are featured front and center, available on a combo plate or sandwich. There are a number of interesting burger variations, 10 different salads, crispy fried-fish baskets and several unique sides and shakes.

While some of the food is Hawaiian-inspired, you'll also find dishes claiming influences from South Asia, California and even St. Louis. Owner Jeff Dollinger says his great-grandfather's life story unites the menu and sets the tone for the restaurant. It's what a food-lover would take from decades of world travel and dining experiences, and the sort of food Jeff came to love on his many trips to Hawaii.

We decided to try some of the most popular items: the "Kailua" Pork BBQ Plate, Cal Kona Style Burger and the Crunchy Peanut Thai Salad. We placed our order with Randy Bivins, Jeff's operating partner. Randy and Jeff have known each other for more than a decade, starting when Randy came to work for Jeff at another restaurant. Opening The Kona Crisp was a dream realized for both men, and it's clear they take a lot of pride in their ingredients, recipes and menu.

Expectations high, we found a booth and had a chance to take in our surroundings. Vintage travel posters adorn the walls; bamboo fans whirl overhead; even the chairs are embossed with pineapples. The Beach Boys "Don't Worry Baby" plays in the background, and the service staff stands beneath the corrugated tin roof of an indoor Tiki Bar, taking orders. It all makes for a fun, relaxing atmosphere.

Our server carried out a tray burgeoning with food, and we started by digging into the "Kailua" Pork BBQ Plate ($12.99), that comes with two sides and a roll. The pork was served in generous, primal hunks. Subtly smoky and perfectly tender, it's what only 10 hours in low heat and mesquite smoke can achieve. The three of us were instant fans. The pork comes with a barbecue sauce that is nicely sweet with a little vinegar tartness. A spicy version is also available.

The accompanying sweet potato kettle fries is a side dish made to steal the spotlight. We were served a generous basket of the crisp, beautifully deep-orange wedges. The sweet potatoes are lightly dusted with sugar, salt and spice, and the whole basket was devoured in moments. Said one friend in a fit of gastronomic ecstasy, "These are [expletive] awesome!" (They were.)

As for the other pork accompaniments, the slaw was fresh and not over-dressed. The roll that came with the BBQ plate was excellent. Think King's Hawaiian Roll, but freshly baked and still warm, tender and buttery. I could have polished off a dozen.

Next, we moved onto sampling the Cal Kona Style Burger ($7.39). It's topped with teriyaki, avocado, lettuce, tomato and onion. The meat was moist and flavorful, what you'd expect of a fresh-ground chuck patty cooked to medium. The salty-sweet teriyaki and cool, smooth avocado made for a really delicious burger.

Last, we tried the restaurant's signature Crunchy Peanut Thai Salad ($7.99). A bed of shredded romaine and cabbage is studded with chicken, chopped peanuts, cilantro, green onions, carrot, cucumber and won tons - lots of interesting crispy and crunchy textures. The homemade dressing is rich with a good peanut flavor, spicy but not hot.

Drinks have been given as much attention as the rest of the menu. You can pick from Tazo iced tea, Kona coffee, wine, or go for ice-cold beer or soda (even Hawaiian Punch!). The coconut milk shake is sweet and indulgent. It has a good vanilla and none-too-heavy coconut flavor, and there are plenty of other shakes (Kona Coffee, Caramel, classic Chocolate) that beckon to be tried as well.

Overall, the menu shows an island penchant for pairing sweet and savory, and all the food is well and thoughtfully prepared. The choices are varied enough to satisfy many different tastes (or many different visits). Whether you dine-in, carry-out, or have The Kona Crisp cater, the food is a crowd-friendly, delicious departure from the usual options. I'm already thinking about what I'll try on my next visit.

Kona Crisp is located at 24341 Magic Mountain Parkway, next to Target, in Valencia; 287-3123.
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