There was a commotion at the table nearest the hostess podium. A man, who was with his wife and young daughter, had just discovered a still-smoldering doobie on their table. And he wasn’t happy about it. I couldn’t hear what he said to the hostess, but I imagine it was something like “What is this?” and “What’s it doing here?”
Cool and collected, the hostess explained that it came with the drink he ordered. It was clipped on the side of the glass, she said, and it must have fallen onto the table before he noticed it. He calmed down after that but still asked for her to take it away. The hostess obliged and apologized for the confusion.
After things settled down, I went up to the hostess.
“What drink was that?” I asked.
“Oh, that was the ‘Dazed and Confused.’ It comes with a sage and oregano cigarette,” she explained. “The smoke is supposed to smell like . . .” She hesitated.
“Pot?” I asked, finishing her sentence.
“Yes,” she smiled sheepishly.
And I meant that. It was my second visit to Pacific Hideaway in a week, and seeing that mock ganja garnish was just the latest in a string of surprises. This, after all, was a hotel restaurant. Before I went, I had expectations of bar burgers, chicken wings, flatbread pizzas—you know, the usual suspects.
But as soon as I arrived, I realized I had it all wrong. Pacific Hideaway resembled nothing I’ve seen from the Hilton or Hyatt portfolio. There was a cinder-block wall and a colorful mural of a Frida Kahlo-esque figure covered in flowers painted on brick. We sat on metal chairs that screeched when we moved them. Most important, a series of windows let in the sunshine and capitalized on the view of the Huntington Beach Pier. The place felt less like a restaurant and more like a tropical beach-side shack where I could order an umbrella drink while in flip-flops.
I read later that this third-floor eatery, which used to be Zimzala, was part of a $3 million revamp of the Shorebreak Hotel. The hotel also got a face-lift. Through it all, Zimzala’s chef, JT Walker, stuck around. Now seemingly free of constraints, he’s built a menu that’s nearly all Asian, Latin-inspired or a combination of both. We ate a refreshing amberjack crudo in a tangy aji Amarillo sauce that was almost a Peruvian tiradito. Mussels were steamed in a Thai red curry, lemongrass and coconut broth, hitting the sweet spot between tom kha gai and beef panang. There were also bulgogi tacos that nod to Kogi, and a tender fried calamari served with a chipotle-honey dipping sauce so perfect I can’t decide whether to call it Latin-inspired or just inspired.
I also noticed that Walker seems to delight in lettuce wraps. There were no less than three dishes supplied with lettuce leaves to cradle the featured dish. The best might be the excellent house-made Lao sausage with crispy rice that has quickly become the restaurant’s most popular. But the most show-stopping menu item is the crispy snapper, which comes in a huge tray with a mess of Vietnamese herbs, lettuce and a bowl of warm bún noodles.
At $48, the snapper is the most expensive thing you can order. It’s meant for two, and when it arrives, it does so with more flair than the starring dish at a lavish Chinese wedding banquet. A whole snapper is fileted, the meat cut into chunks, covered in a light batter, and then deep-fried along with its bony carcass and head that join it on the platter.
If it sounds a little like Vietnamese cha cá thang long, you’d be right, but only slightly. Just to prove he can, Walker serves his fish with a variety of banchan (yes, he calls it that), including homemade green-apple kimchi, an addictive Thai shredded-papaya salad and cucumbers pickled in a nuoc cham-esque sauce. Not content in just paying homage to three distinct Asian cultures in one swoop, he also blends a few more by mixing gochujang, Sriracha and chipotle together in a sauce that was supposed to be the fourth banchan.
I didn’t like this sauce; it wasn’t working with the rest of the dish. But I stopped short of huffing, “What is this?” and “What’s it doing here?” like that “Dazed and Confused” dad from earlier in the evening. Instead, I rejoiced that the chef, like the bartender, had the huevos to do it.
Pacific Hideaway, 500 Pacific Coast Hwy., Huntington Beach, (714) 965-4448; www.pacifichideawayhb.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 7 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 7 a.m.-midnight. Dinner for two, $50-$75, food only. Full bar.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.