Since my loose local connection to Hawaiian food, Kealani’s, closed in 2016, I’ve not expanded my horizons to explore similar offerings in the area.
Maybe I never got over the emotional attachment I had to it and Manhattan Giant Pizza and the perfect fit they were for downtown Encinitas, but I never sought out a substitute.
Recently I was made aware of the Sunset Luaus at the Catamaran Resort Hotel and Spa in Pacific Beach and thought it the perfect opportunity to revisit some of my favorite food and attend my first luau.
And while I’m sure everyone has a general idea of what goes on at a luau, here is a brief refresher.
A luau is basically a Hawaiian party and cultural experience, an act of hospitality and one of the most memorable things you can do while visiting Hawaii, but one that I missed on my only visit there years ago. They date back to the early 1800s, so there is plenty of history involved.
It has been a few years since I’d been down to the Catamaran for a trade show and my memories were fuzzy at best. I had forgotten that it is in the heart of Pacific Beach (PB) and right on Mission Bay, the man-made body of water completed in the 1960s.
The density and youthful party vibe of PB is a bit of a shocker coming from mellow Leucadia, but once at the Catamaran on Mission Bay things become a bit more tranquil and island-like.
The waterfall in the lobby and lush foliage that connects the rooms give it a somewhat tropical feel and its location on Mission Bay, which reminds me of a glassy inland lake in Michigan, feels a world away from the bustle of PB.
I had no idea what to expect as far as crowd size for the luau so was blown away to see what I would estimate to be 400+ people already seated and milling about when we arrived around 6 p.m. Evidently this is a hot ticket.
One thing I thought was very cool about those in attendance was the melting pot of ethnicities represented. It was like a United Nations of luaus, with the common thread of gathering to celebrate good food in huge quantities and some fun Hawaiian entertainment.
It was also a mix of tourists and locals. Our table had a family from Houston in town for a family reunion on one side and some older parents with their grown kids from Ocean Beach on the other.
As we arrived, we were presented with the traditional lei, though made of paper instead of flowers, and a complimentary mai tai that seems to be the semiofficial drink of a luau. It’s a delicious blend of rum, orange curacao, almond syrup, sugar cane juice, lime juice, vanilla-infused simple syrup, pineapple juice and a sprig of mint and slice of pineapple to garnish.
It’s a tasty cocktail and perfectly suited for the occasion. One side note, though: After the complimentary drink, it’s a cash bar that accepts only cash, which I found to be kind of random and a bit inconvenient.
While folks eagerly await their table to be called for the feast that awaits, there is entertainment that includes the Pride of Polynesia show of island music, hula dancers and fiery-torch performers and, of course, the volcano that erupts confetti.
Given the quantity of people to feed, we were a bit concerned about the wait and lines, but that proved to be unfounded. This is a smooth-running operation and in no time, we were up at one of the long buffet tables loading our plates to full capacity.
Highlights included the Tossed Kula Greens with Poppy Seed Dressing, Ginger Curry Chicken Salad with Macadamia nuts, Spicy Bay Shrimp and Grilled Pineapple Salad, Island Pineapple Coleslaw, Traditional Macaroni Salad, Huli Huli Chicken with Grilled Pineapple and Shredded Coconut, Kalua Pulled Pork and Roasted Pork Loin, Kalua Roast Pig Display, Roast Salmon with Ginger Lime Cream Sauce, Pineapple Fried Rice and an assortment of Hawaiian sweet rolls.
I tried everything I just mentioned and was really blown away by the quality given the quantities involved. There is also a kids menu and dessert menu that one must save room for.
It was a feast for the ages and all-in-all a delightful experience. My suggestion would be to make a staycation out of it and eat yourself into a food coma without having to drive home. The luaus happen twice weekly, on Tuesdays and Fridays, through Sept. 2.
Other related activities around the weekly luaus include the poolside Keiki Klub happening daily, 1-3 p.m., that features complimentary Hawaiian-inspired arts and crafts. Guests of all ages can take complimentary hula lessons and fresh flower lei making, which take place bayside, 3-5 p.m.
Prices for the luau range from $49-$109 per person, depending on where you are seated, and include all-you-can-eat food and non-alcoholic drinks.
If you are driving from North County, give yourself plenty of time and arrive early.
More information and tickets at catamaranresort.com/sunset-luaus