"Kua 'Aina does great burgers but we aren't really a burger restaurant," Kua 'Aina co-founder Ed Bardos told me at an event to celebrate three milestones in the life of the Hawai'ian mini-chain. The original location on the Hawai'ian North Shore is 40 years old this year, the second London branch, on Goodge Street, just turned one and their first European restaurant outside London will open in Belfast in December.
I first visited Kua 'Aina's Carnaby Street restaurant a couple of years ago and I have been back a few times since then, always ordering the burger. Why wouldn't I? It's a good burger. Still, when I was invited to join the celebrations at the Goodge Street branch and to taste the new menu, I jumped at the chance.
It was a chilly, drizzly Monday night but the leis were out in full force in Goodge Street and the restaurant was bustling. They do 'beat the clock' burger deals between 4 pm and 7 pm — the earlier you arrive, the cheaper your burger — and the location, a stone's throw from Tottenham Court Road is pretty convenient for both Soho and Fitzrovia. I started with a cocktail (£6.95). I've tried their piña colada a few times and it's always good, so I decided to go for something different. The Avocado Wave (rum, avo, mango, orange and lime) was refreshing, smooth, fruity and dangerously more-ish.
We moved over to a table near the lava-rock grill, which is a healthier way of grilling meat and fish. We tried a sampling of some of the starters and fish dishes first. The 'nibbles' are £3.95 or £4.95 each and because the portions are generous, they are great value. The beer-battered onion rings were particularly good: the batter was light, golden and crispy and the garlic mayo was garlicky enough even for me. Squid isn't something I tend to order myself but I usually end up pinching other people's, and Kua 'Aina's take, with the squid coated in breadcrumbs and seasoned with 'secret salt', was very good; you get five rings in a portion, which should be enough to share and yet... Then there was the mahi mahi fish finger, which was really tasty (the fish was very fresh and flavoursome), although probably wouldn't be something I would order in a Hawai'ian restaurant in London.
Soon, it was burger time. You can order your burger cooked however you like, which is great news for people like me, who prefer their meat medium-rare. The burgers arrive with a flag to show how they have been cooked — "we're that confident". We tried one of the avocado burgers (£8.25 for the 1/3 lb-size, £9.45 for the 1/2-lb beast) and there was half an avocado inside. The burger itself was juicy, flavoursome and perfectly medium rare; a little tricky to eat elegantly, but if that's your main concern, you are missing the point. Why the carrots? "Pickles are very divisive."
The pudding menu includes a variety of British and American classics with a hint of Hawai'i (most are a very reasonable £3.95). The Eton mess, for example, comes with pineapple and passion fruit. I had the hazelnut brownie (from Paul Rhodes), which was rich and very chocolatey. If you are in the mood for pancakes, Kua 'Aina has a broad selection of toppings, from chocolate to banana and bacon (most are £5.45 or £5.95). I prefer to have pancakes as a breakfast or brunch dish, but my arm could probably be twisted if I hadn't already eaten too much burger.
Kua 'Aina's Goodge Street branch feels a little more spacious than Carnaby Street, which can get very crowded. There are a few tables in the basement if the main area is full. The atmosphere is lively and the décor funky and whimsical. If you're looking for a fun all-day-dining spot in Fitzrovia where you can have a burger but don't have to, give Kua 'Aina a try.
Kua 'Aina. 40 Goodge Street, London, W1T 2QP (Tube: Goodge Street). Website. Twitter.
Disclaimer: I attended the tasting as a guest of Kua 'Aina. All opinions are my own.