Each day for months on my way home from work, I've passed that former sushi restaurant on Aloma next to the also defunct Habana Grill and wondered about their next incarnation. For whatever reason, Panera didn't like the structure of the Habana Grill and tore down the whole thing to put up its bakery, but the sushi place got a remodeling job. Now Jimmy Hula's aspires for Key West charm, with a pastel paint job and a wraparound porch facing Aloma in all its billboard-and-traffic-choked glory.
It's been open for a few weeks and is almost always packed. I've been there twice now. I was pretty excited when the signs went up advertising fish tacos. Fish Tacos! Something new on the Winter Park food landscape. I first had them in San Diego about ten years ago, supposedly the first place they crossed the border. Although undoubtedly they've existed for centuries in Mexico before Americans 'discovered' them, in 1974 a spring breaker from San Diego State named Ralph Rubio went to a town called San Felipe to surf. He tried his first fish taco, later opened a chain of restaurants, and is now a billionaire.
At their most basic, fish tacos are whitefish filets battered and deep fried, served in a tortilla with cabbage, sour cream, salsa and lime. Jimmy Hula's can do this. They can also do burgers and beer, chicken and pork, and a variety of improvisations on these themes: a "Venice Beach BLT," for example, a BLT featuring the addition of tuna, or "Teriyaki steak tacos," or "loco chicken tacos," featuring orange chicken, orange ranch dressing, lettuce, carrots, and scallions. Some of these sound more appealing than others.
The fish tacos are decent, and cheap - about $3.50 each. Two could feed someone with a good appetite. The basic, historical version is the "Epic Cali Fish Taco." I also tried the "Malibu fish taco," which additionally features cilantro-lime sour cream, guacamole, and pepper jack. They were a little bit too sauce-y, and the fish was good, but there wasn't a lot of it. I ordered mine with chips and guacamole - on my first trip, the chips were multicolored and tasty, though on the second visit, they were pale yellow and could have passed for matzoh. I have one objection to the guacamole - it tastes exactly like the stuff you buy in a package at Costco, which is to say, not as good as mashing up a few avocados yourself. How hard would this be for a restaurant to do? Chipotle seems to be able to accomplish this, and they are a giant chain.
And here lies my main issue with this place - the line and cash register suggest this is fast food, as does the fact that the waiters will only bring your food out, not let you order more from them. Jimmy Hula's has the decor to make you want to stay awhile, the free advertising of all those customers sitting out on the porch drinking beer while you gaze enviously from behind your commuter's windshield listening to NPR reports about the day's global disasters. Why not come in and just forget it all for a while? On my first visit, I tried to treat it as a restaurant. I sat down, the food came. It was good. I needed more chips, but there was a line out the door and the waiters would only bring what I'd ordered at the cash register, not letting me order more from them. I complained; the waiter shrugged and said, "You'll just have to get in line like everyone else." The second time, I tried take-out - queuing up in the staggeringly long line, ordering, taking a number. Then waiting 20 minutes.
Somehow this is immensely frustrating. You can't really pick up a couple of quick tacos on the way home from work without having to wait 20 minutes, but also you can't really sit back and relax, because if you need even one extra item, you'll have to get in line again, and nobody is going to help you. So what does this place want to be? Fast food? Sit-down restaurant? I don't think it can be both. And it's hard to really feel the Baja surf/Key West vibe when I'm staring at a parking lot and four lanes of rush hour traffic. Though it might conjure up certain parts of San Diego.