After months of postponing its opening, HiWi Tropical Fusion finally opened its doors in Isla Vista in January. Even though HiWi specifies “Tropical Fusion” in its name, a quick look at the menu shows that it’s influenced by flavors beyond the tropics. It borrows flavors from South Korea, Japan, China, Mexico, Vietnam, Canada, Thailand and more.
HiWi, like I.V. Deli Mart and Subway, offers only outdoor seating for customers. Though there are heat lamps and canopies, outdoor seating isn’t always ideal on a chilly winter night. They maintain the tropical theme with palm trees along the perimeter and pineapple-oriented decorations. Rather than napkins, they have a roll of paper towels on each table. Ordering is easy and the servers are helpful.
Unfortunately, HiWi had already run out of a few menu items three hours into service, even though they were by no means busy. After ordering, I was given a pineapple with a number and I scrambled to find seating next to a heat lamp. Our food finally arrived 25 minutes later.
They got my order wrong, but it was easily fixed. I got the signature plate featuring torikatsu chicken, macaroni salad, Hawaiian slaw, and coconut rice. My order came with mixed greens instead of rice, but it was easily fixed by giving me a bowl of rice. The portion was pretty disappointing, but not as disappointing as the flavors.
I am 88 percent sure the coconut rice had no traces of coconut whatsoever. It was a sticky rice, but was so dense that it bordered on porridge territory. This made for a poor combination with the torikatsu. The breading was flavorful, crunchy, and not at all greasy. However, it easily separated from the dry chicken. When eaten together, the chicken and rice easily got stuck in the back of my throat.
Furthermore, the sides did little to help the dish. The slaw was colorful because of the purple cabbage. The flavors were less colorful, with a slight tang from the pineapple. It was not overly sweet nor memorable.
The macaroni salad was also just okay. The pasta was cooked well, and it wasn’t drowned in mayonnaise. Celery, carrots, and pineapple all added nice diversity in terms of texture and flavor. Like the slaw, the flavors were subtle. It reminded me a lot of a macaroni salad you can buy pre-made at the grocery store. In fact, nothing in this dish really stood out. It was pretty bland, for the most part. It definitely wasn’t worth the $13 price point.
Additionally, I also ordered the poke bowl. I was pleasantly surprised by this dish. It featured cubed ahi tuna marinated in shoyu and furikake. It was on a large bed of rice with edamame, carrots, seaweed salad, avocado, and Hawaiian slaw. The tuna was pretty good, but its overly fishy aftertaste gave the impression that it wasn’t the freshest fish out there.
All the components of the poke bowl complemented each other well. The carrots were vinegary (and probably used for the banh mi), while the seaweed salad was the type you can get at Costco. When you take a bite, you initially taste the saltiness from the shoyu. What follows are the crunches from the edamame and the tanginess from the carrots and slaw. The avocado did a great job at bringing creaminess and breaking down the dense, sticky rice. There is no other dressing added to the bowl, which I appreciated.
However, there was way too much rice, making it hard to mix with the other ingredients. Additionally, I counted only ten pieces of ahi tuna total. I had to ration my pieces to make sure they lasted.
Joining me on this culinary adventure was my photographer. She got the french toast with torikatsu. She expressed similar concerns over the torikatsu. For the most part, her french toast tasted good. It was overwhelmingly coconut flavored, which isn’t bad if you like coconut. Unfortunately, one of the pieces was halfway raw. One side was cooked nicely, but the other side was completely mushy. Other than that, she praised its flavor.
For dessert, HiWi ran out of the mochi donuts, so I decided to try the HiWi Frog-i Salad. How do I begin to describe the Frog-i salad? Nothing particularly stands out, but it’s so interesting to eat.
It’s the long lost younger cousin to the ambrosia salad. It has mini marshmallows, bits of tangerine, bits of pineapple, pearl pasta, and a sea of dairy free whipped cream. I was prepared for a toothache, but it was surprisingly an appropriate level of sweetness. The cream really helped spread out the sweetness and balance it.
It’s mostly smooth in your mouth, with funny shapes and textures. The pearl pastas stood out the most, and I enjoyed trying to figure out what the other lumps were. There weren’t a lot of the other ingredients, though. I couldn’t stop eating the “salad;” it was somehow addicting. This dish definitely needs to be shared amongst friends. It was fun while it lasted.
Overall, nothing left a lasting impression on me. The flavors were mediocre. Given some time, they could truly be phenomenal. It seems like more thought went into the design, theme, and branding of the place. The ideas for the food were there, but the execution was not.
HiWi Tropical Fusion is located at 6555 Pardall Rd., Isla Vista, Calif.