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Hula Girl owner extols virtues of Spam

Mikala Brennan heads an all-female staff at Arlington-based Hawaiian bar and grill

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Hula Girl, gay news, Washington Blade
Hula Girl, gay news, Washington Blade
A sampling of the offerings at Hula Girl Bar & Grill. (Photo courtesy of Mikala Brennan)

From rocker chick to Spam champion, Mikala Brennan of Hula Girl Bar & Grill (4044 Campbell Ave., Arlington), brings her signature mahalo island vibes to D.C., all while being loud and proud. 

Self-styled as “chef/owner/dishwasher” of the restaurant, Brennan’s tiki roots and gay identity mean that she likes to stir things up, whether at the bar or “slinging Spam to the masses,” she says.

In 2011, Brennan introduced her love and passion to D.C.: Hawaiian food. Before that, however, she was a bit of a rocker.

“I lived in San Diego for 10 years where I learned to cook and also had a band,” she says. After moving to D.C. to work for Marriott and then traveling as a hospitality consultant, Brennan settled back in the District to return to her food (and family) roots. 

“The truck was inspired by my mom, who ended up in Hawaii after meeting my dad on the beach,” she says. And as a child, there was always cooking in the kitchen and kitsch in the living room.

“My mom had a lot of gay friends,” she says. “They would come by the house, drink horrible Mai Tais, and do everyone’s hair. By the end, they were totally sauced.” Brennan says her own hair took weeks to recover from that hangover.

But Hawaii was conservative culturally and it took her leaving home to come out. But while the girl has left Hawaii, Hawaii hasn’t left the girl. 

The truck — and later restaurant — pay homage to her family’s culinary roots. 

On the truck, Brennan’s focus was “plate lunch”: a meat, like braised pork or grilled fish, atop rice and alongside macaroni salad. 

Of course, there’s the true Hawaiian special, the Spam musubi. 

Brennan’s true love is for this beloved tinned meat. 

“It’s so damn good,” she says, but “it gets a bad rap.” 

Spam musubi is a convenience-store special of marinated grilled Spam resting on a rectangle of rice, wrapped in nori. Brennan also serves it tempura-style, deep-fried and touched up with teriyaki and spicy mayo. 

Though Andrew Zimmern, on his “Bizarre Foods America” show, expressed dislike for it, Brennan says “most people that try Spam love it. And the official Spam handle even follows us on social media.”

For her, the truck became not just a passion, but a job. 

“There were so few of us back then — we helped define an industry here in D.C.,” she says. (Brennan even took a couple shifts at fellow gay-food-trucker BBQ Bus to get her feet wet.)

Having served Spam on TV, Brennan wanted to go brick and mortar. In November 2015, Hula Girl Bar & Grill arrived in the Village at Shirlington.

Brennan keeps the restaurant low-key, in Hawaiian spirit. Sure, surfboards hang from the ceiling and flip flops from the wall. Requisite dancing hula statuettes sway in grass skirts (including one of President Obama, himself a Hawaii native). But the blonde wood paneling and retro low-slung blue vinyl chairs give off more calm than crazy.

The restaurant also “was set up to be non-gender-specific. I take great pains to have a safe workplace,” she says. Brennan earned her cooking education in progressive California kitchens, not at formal French institutions.

As it happens, she has an all-female kitchen staff. They helm spots that “aren’t usually run by women, like the grill. It’s a very different vibe,” she says. “I’ve brought on men with incredible pedigrees, but they just don’t last.”

These chefs churn out street food while also elevating a cuisine that has too often taken a back seat to tropical cocktails (though those make appearances too). 

Hawaiian food “is a melding of cultures, including traditional island, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, American and Portuguese, but it’s comfort food at the end of the day.” 

Diners may gravitate toward trendy poke bowls, but Brennan steers them to items she’s just as passionate about. 

Among napkin-necessary starters are the sticky glazed root-beer ribs. Mains include banana-leaf ensconced pork and cabbage, and the Loco Moco: two burger patties and two fried eggs smothered in mushroom-onion gravy. And there’s always Spam.

Brennan wouldn’t be herself without something shaking behind the bar. The signature cocktail is the Hula Girl Mai Tai, of rum, ginger, bitters, juice and a black rum float ($14). Also Hawaiian: the pineapple sparkling wine, straight from Maui. Hawaiian draft beers also make appearances. 

Hula Girl, though infused with rocker-girl fun, is about inclusion. 

“I just want people to fee like they belong.”

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Dining

D.C. restaurants, bars ready to celebrate Pride

Many drink, food specials to benefit local LGBTQ charities

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A bartender at Dacha pours a Pride Pils from DC Brau in 2019. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Capital Pride looks different this year as the city wakes from its pandemic closures. While official Pride events are mostly virtual in June, bars and restaurants will still have plenty going on to celebrate and commemorate LGBTQ+ Pride in DC.

Selected options for drinks, food, and events are listed below.

Food & Drinks

Aslin Beer Company (847 S Pickett St., Alexandria) made news this spring with an announcement of a planned second location on 14th Street where Dacha had sought to open a location. The brewery will again produce its “Now More Than Ever” beer, an 8.6% double IPA hopped with citra and sabro, in recognition of Pride month. It will be $20 for a pack.

Astro Doughnuts & Fried Chicken (1308 G St., N.W.) is circling the Pride square with fried goodies. At all three locations, the Pride doughnut ($3.75) is a vanilla glazed with rainbow sprinkles – plus other decorations, including one with a non-edible rainbow ring that can be worn after the doughnut is enjoyed. A portion of proceeds go to SMYAL.

ANXO Cidery (300 Florida Ave., N.W.) is producing a Pride cider, with a portion of proceeds benefitting Casa Ruby. It will be a Northern Spy apple cider, fermented dry in in stainless steel. It is sugar-free and gluten-free, and will sold nationwide. The can will be decked out in rainbow colors.

Karma Modern Indian (611 I St., N.W.) is offering a special cocktail for the month of June: the Banyan Shade ($14). It’s made with Tito’s Vodka, Domaine Canton, and “Spinach Aqua” and has a garnish resembling a colorful flag. Karma will be making a donation to Casa Ruby from the proceeds.

Dirty Habit DC is having “Colors of the Rainbow,” a month-long series during which the restaurant will feature a different color themed food and beverage offering each week. A portion of sale of every “Colors of the Rainbow” signature item will be donated to the Human Rights Campaign and PFLAG.

As an LGBTQ-owned business, KNEAD Hospitality + Design is supporting the Capital Pride Alliance by donating a portion of proceeds on punch cocktails at all KNEAD restaurants: The Grill, Succotash, Gatsby, and Mi Vida, on June 12 and 13.

Foxtrot Market (1267 Wisconsin Ave., N.W.), the new upscale corner store and café in Georgetown, is partnering with Brooklyn artist Cute Brute to create a Confetti Cake Brownie for the month of June. Proceeds from sales of the brownie will go to Casa Ruby.

In keeping to its annual tradition, DC Brau Brewing is making its hops queer, with a limited run of a special PRIDE PILS. Proceeds will go to benefit SMYAL. DC Brau will do a second run of PRIDE PILS in October, benefiting The Blade Foundation, set for the weekend of National Coming Out Day.

El Tamarindo, the Mexican-Salvadoran restaurant more than three decades old, is serving a Walter Mercado cocktail ($11), garnished with an elegant orchid. The front window display is dedicated to Walter Mercado and his cultural influence. Proceeds from the drink go to Casa Ruby.

The eco-friendly plant-based fast-food joint HipCityVeg is mixing up its first-ever Pride drink: The Love Shake, served all June long. This strawberry shake is topped with rainbow and glitter sprinkles and gets a compostable rainbow straw. A percentage of sales go to SMYAL and Whitman-Walker. “We wanted something colorful and festive that would both raise spirits and raise funds for organizations that serve the community,” explains Director of Marketing Aviva Goldfarb. “We have tons of LGBTQ+ staff members and customers and knew this would also be meaningful (and fun) for them. Plus, we have seasonal strawberry shakes in stores in June so adding the colorful and glittery sprinkles and the rainbow straw made sense.” 

Events

Dacha Beer Garden (1600 7th St., N.W., and 79 Potomac Ave., S.E.) is hosting a Cause Tuesday fundraiser with Gay for Good on Tuesday, June 7, and a Dacha Beer Club with local brewery 7 Locks on Wednesday, June 8. The Beer Club event will showcase the 7 Locks Surrender Dorothy beer, part of the sour series Bitch Monkey. Dacha will have a Dorothy Drag surprise, and guests are encouraged to wear their Wizard of Oz best. Special Dacha brand tank tops will be on sale at both locations.

Via the Capital Pride Alliance is its official weekly mixer of Pride Season, Hooked on Capital Pride! It will take place at Hook Hall (3400 Georgia Ave., N.W.) in Petworth. Every Wednesday beginning June 9, there will be drink specials, music, and celebrations. A portion of the proceeds from this event will support the Capital Pride Alliance and partner Pride organizations through the GivePride365 Fund. Every reservation will include a bottle of Rose Bubbly, and a celebration kit. This event will take place on June 9, 16, 23, and 30 from 3-9 p.m.

Bark Social (935 Prose St, North Bethesda, Md.) is partnering with Montgomery County Council member Evan Glass to celebrate D.C. Pride with a PAWrade and canine costume contest on Saturday, June 12 from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. This beer garden and coffee house for dogs and humans will create a rainbow-filled canine festival of pride + paws. The bar will pour a special Pride-inspired cocktail with proceeds donated to the Moco Reconnect Center to work with other local creating inclusive spaces for LGBTQ+ youth.

Capital Pride is hosting a citywide Sunday funday on June 13 to support local LGBTQ businesses with the first-ever city-wide Taste of Pride Brunch. Various local restaurants have made a commitment to support Pride and local LGBTQ+ charities, featuring food items, drink specials, and entertainment. The event will raise awareness and resources for the GivePride365 Fund, benefiting local LGBTQ+ charities, and help to ensure the return of a full-scale Pride in 2022.

The speakeasy-style back room at Capo Deli (715 Florida Ave.) rounds out Pride weekend parties with an post-brunch event Sunday, June 13, 2-5 p.m. The event, called Bubbles & Bass, features DJ Babbitt and DJ Chris Adam playing disco over rose, Champagne, and other drink specials.

Caboose Commons (2918 Eskridge Rd., Fairfax, Va.) and its dog-friendly patio is hosting an event for Pride on Saturday, June 19 with Beer Babes Drag. There will be two seatings (12 p.m. and 3 p.m.) and a portion of sales (including items sold) will support PFLAG and the National LGBTQ Task Force.

Celebrate PRIDE with a staycation, via Kimpton Monaco. This hotel is the Trevor Project’s “Premiere National Hotel Partner.” When guests make a reservation at Hotel Monaco D.C., Kimpton will donate $10/night to The Trevor Project, and guests receive 15% off the hotel’s “Best Flexible Rate.”

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Dining

There’s no place like Lyle’s

Hollywood art deco style in Dupont

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Lyle’s is a neighborhood restaurant and bar serving breakfast, brunch and dinner. (Photo by Tom Sommers)

The moment Eric, suited in navy blue and gleaming white sneakers, welcomed me into The Lyle Hotel’s art deco lobby, I half-expected him to say, “We’ve been expecting you.” I knew we were in for a sophisticated, relaxing dinner.

I opted to get the party started so Eric ushered me to Lyle’s restaurant where I waited for my real estate pal, Josh Hedrington. We were passing through the private dining room when my eyes caught, two black, human-hand chairs – in sharp contrast to the other multiple red chairs.

Our dinner was a preamble to The Lyle Hotel’s opening last month. This newest, old hotel, stands like a neighborhood matron underneath New Hampshire Avenue’s lush tree canopy near the quirky shops of 18th, 17th, and U Streets.

The Lyle Hotel is the second U.S. property from London’s Lore Group. The hotel closed in September 2020 for a $15-$20 million refurbishment. Now, The Lyle Hotel and Lyle’s evoke the former halcyon days as the Hotel Carlyle.

As Eric and I walked past the human-hand-chairs toward Lyle’s, the anticipation was like waiting for a curtain to rise on Broadway. Enter Lyle’s and the soft lights against the white and caramel-colored banquette tables was immediately wondrous, spacious, and intimate. The vibe is reminiscent of 1950s Hollywood and Tinseltown’s celebrity restaurant scene.

Eric seated me, and on cue, Isaac, our waiter, glided by to welcome me and ask for water preferences. I settled into the plush table for six anticipating Josh’s arrival.

Moments later, he arrived, and it was time for cocktails and food.

The menu features nearly 70 wines, beer, and Lyle’s own cocktails. We each chose the Peach + Basil Collins. The surprisingly tall, cold glass of dark-lime-colored libation was hard to resist and as refreshing as the color suggested.

I expected watered-down cocktails. Au contraire. It had a surprising punch. For our second round, Isaac nudged us to sample the Lyle Smash. Its resemblance to a snow-cone made for a treat.

It was our first Lyle’s experience, so we opted for a mix of the chef’s creations.

For starters, we had the Small Plate (hardly small) of the Viking Village Scallop Crudo with jalapeno, green apple, and yuzu (an East Asian citrus); and the Spring Pea Fritter; plus a Large Plate of the Ravioli with spring onion, goat cheese, and asparagus.

The latter two were our favorites for the ravioli’s seasoning, creamy cheese center, and al-dente consistency. The Spring Pea Fritter came with a smooth hummus-like dipping sauce for the melt-in-your mouth fritters.

The listed entrées included seven meat and fish options. We chose the King Salmon with soy-ginger, Calrose rice, bok choy, and scallion, plus the fried chicken with hot honey, sunchoke, and pickled vegetables.

The chicken’s hot honey, crispy/crunchy coating made for a novel texture. The salmon’s topping reminded me of sesame seeds, adding a crunchy contrast to the smooth fish. After three starters, the entrée portions were plenty.

The chocolate hazelnut cake with caramelized marshmallow fluff and the banana bread with chocolate walnut topping completed the show. I’d return for the hazelnut cake (with ice cream).

The wait staff was the evening’s brightest star. Isaac was omnipresent without hovering, delightful, and gracious without being disingenuous. He knows his social cues. Isaac and Giovanni were impeccably attentive.

The delights didn’t end when we put down our forks. Isaac left us with a hand-written thank you note.

Then while Josh and I stood under the NH Avenue canopy, a woman walked by and asked, “Is this a hotel? Are they open? Are they serving food?”

We assured her that they are indeed open. Once we sated her curiosity, she smiled with a sense of relief and excitement — the neighborhood again has a buzzing centerpiece.

As we headed to the car, Johnny, the front-office supervisor came out to ask about our dinner. Such warmth and follow-up. The three of us chatted about the neighborhood and friends. Johnny thanked and welcomed us to return for dinner and a stay.

We’ll be back, and hope you’ll make this a regular stop. There’s no place like Lyle’s.

Tom Sommers is a D.C.-based writer, editor, and data analyst and former chair of CenterGlobal. Follow today @tomsommers1.

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‘Jew-ish’ cookbook is a queer love story

Celebration of a young gay man who found connection to ancestry at the table

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‘Jew-ish’ by Jake Cohen is a cookbook and a love story.

It is in the kitchen, elbow-deep in flour, or in a dining room crowded with friends, that Jake Cohen has found the ability to connect with his queer and Jewish identities.

“This book,” he says, “is a queer love story all about me and my husband.”

Cohen is a culinary school graduate and social media darling – and is embracing his truest, proudest self through his first cookbook, “Jew-ish,” released March 9.

“Jew-ish” “offers that representation to create a normalized story of a queer Jewish relationship, and how they explore that through food,” he says.

His cookbook is a triumphant, jubilant celebration of a young, modern, metropolitan Jewish gay man who found himself and his connection to his ancestry at the table and with the written word. His reimagined, repurposed recipes bring to life ancient dishes that still speak loudly to us today.

The task was not a simple one. Cohen expressed that, as is the case for many young Jews, participation in Jewish traditions only takes place during the holidays. This was not sufficient for Cohen and his husband, whom he met on Hinge in 2015 and whom he married in 2018. As they created their relationship, they wanted to ensure that being Jewish was as far out of the closet as being gay.

“We don’t need to set aside Jewish ritual just because we may not fit a certain mold. We don’t have to give up one to be the other.”

“Jew-ish,” then, is firmly grounded in Cohen’s experience exploring his husband’s Sephardic (Spanish and Middle Eastern Jewish) identity while better understanding his own Ashkenazi (Eastern European Jewish) ancestry. Dishes from the Sephardic tradition meld easily alongside Ashkenazi classics that American readers are more used to. The book is suffused with stunning, color-blasted images and a colloquial and familiar writing style so that his peers – those possibly disaffected millennials — can connect to their heritage in a way that works for them.

Before writing the cookbook, Cohen explains that he sought a gay circle outside of the bar and club scene. He happened upon OneTable, an organization that supports young Jews in creating Friday night Shabbat dinners in a personal and meaningful way. OneTable allowed him to be part of ritual throughout the year. “Jew-ish” means that his readers can do this on the daily.

But “Jew-ish” wouldn’t be whole without Cohen repeatedly discussing his family. Jews in popular media are increasingly represented by shows like “Seinfeld” or “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” that hardly recognize the Jewishness of their characters. Meanwhile, he notes that media focuses on queer trauma and the queer struggle.

Cohen writes a celebratory story of a gay couple that is also unabashedly Jewish.

It was seeking that community and criticality of representation that Cohen turned to social media. He says that he encountered ‘gatekeepers’ in institutional media on the recipes he could publish or discuss, and in what way. Social media has democratized the content process, and he can push out to his hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram and TikTok recipe videos for everything from the trendy and mundane (creamy one-pot pasta) to the intricate (babka). Social media, he notes, also democratizes voices, something he also embraces by partnering with queer voices like Adam Eli and Evan Ross Katz.

Cohen draws his inspiration, then, as much from Ina Garten as from TikTok. He will craft several kinds of brisket, but also explain in the headnotes for the Za’atar Pesto Risotto that his “love language is carbs. And luckily, it’s my husband’s, too.”

Cohen notes that depending on circumstance, people still sometimes need to put away pieces of themselves, like their Jewish identities or gay identities. But through the lens of “Jew-ish”, he – and the reader – is able to bring the whole self to dinner.

And as this writer can attest, the struggle – the balance – in bringing our whole selves to all spaces is an unending challenge. Creating my own authentic gay and Jewish experience is a journey every day. This cookbook is one way to facilitate that journey.

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