Though it’s been eight years since I devoted a full column to the amazing allure of Coconut Joe’s, the place is so different it’s like reviewing a completely new restaurant.
Such is the MO of owner Joe Coughlin, who is a restless tinkerer if ever one existed, always trying to make his business better, adding that banquet room for parties that is located on the other side of the movie theaters, trying to help young people through his Coconut University projects and basically living life largely. (Check out his fascinating bio on the restaurant’s web page, complete with family pictures: Virginia native, Naval reserve, time in Hawaii.)
A few years ago he spent months working with a man from the coast on perfecting the fish and chips he added to the menu, which we love. We’ve visited many times since the last column ran in 2011, but there are new delights available, such as Hawaiian pulled pork and pit-style beef.
We sampled them on a pair of recent visits. My companion ordered the chili bread bowl with salad ($9.99) while I ordered the shrimp and chips ($10.99). The chili is an amazing repast on a cold Bakersfield winter night, a bean-heavy creation with beef that is chopped into various size pieces with just the right amount of tomato chunks and not too much cumin. This soup holds up better in a bread bowl than that chicken noodle soup we’ve praised extensively in the past, and both are a resourceful kitchen’s use of the leftover chicken and beef from the previous day.
We’ve seldom got past the fish and chips, but these shrimp offered in beer batter are large and in charge; amazing, crispy with a thick sweet batter, six of them presented on a plate of functional fries. On the one hand, I’m hard-pressed to think of another place that can match what these shrimp deliver. On the other hand, standing at the counter trying to decide what to order will be more torturous. My companion said the shrimp reminded her of the old Rice Bowl fried shrimp her dad used to bring home for dinner.
On a second visit we sampled one of the “meat lover plates” spurning the seasoned tri-tip and mesquite grilled chicken that we’ve loved for decades (sampled at a visit last year — it’s still great) and went for two of the new meats, the Kalua pulled pork and deep-pit beef ($10.99 for a big plate), as well as one of the burgers, the Monterey Jack with fries ($9.49).
Both the pork and the beef are very moist, the pork slightly sweet but not too much compared to what I’ve sampled in Hawaii, with sides of rice, beans and tortilla you’ve got a great meal. Why are the burgers worth your cash? The bun is bakery fresh and toasted, the half-pound beef patty is thick and juicy, and the lettuce and tomato were exceptionally fresh.
There’s so much else worth recommending, including the coconut rum shrimp with blackberry sauce ($11.99), the burritos and bowls, the sourdough chicken sandwich ($8.99), the surfer’s salmon salad ($11.99) and if you want a chicken soup in a bread bowl get the jerk chicken gumbo ($9.99), which has more substance like the chili. The chicken soup ($2.99 for small, $5.99 for large) is available in a regular bowl and should be near the top of your list when a cold or flu hits. All four meats are available in family packs with the side dishes, priced from $26.95 to $40.95.
A word on desserts: Always save room for it. There was once no dessert at Coconut Joe’s, but they now offer treats that wouldn’t be out of place at Sugar Twist or Sweet Surrender. The banana nut cake ($2.95) is one of my companion's favorite, largely because the cake is so dense and rich in banana flavor and the cream cheese frosting on top is light, as if it were whipped, and it is thin enough to droop down the side as you consume it. The double dark brownie ($4.49) is another animal entirely. I had two female companions with me on that visit, they took one chunk and almost rolled their eyes back. It’s the quality of the chocolate used in this thick (almost two inches high) creation that does the job.
Prices are crazy reasonable too. A glass of wine is only $3.49, a draft beer (four are on tap, including an excellent lager from Kona called Longboard) is $3.95. Unlike so many places, they’re not jacking up the alcohol prices to pay the rent. With drinks, dessert and dinners, you’re likely to walk out with a bill under $40.
Service is so pleasant from the young crew, which took our order with a smile at the counter and brought the food to our table after a reasonable wait. The atmosphere is perfect for our dark, foggy winter days with all the legit signs from the islands, videos showing surfing and skiing and comfortable booths with a sound level that encourages conversation.
On the way out during one of the recent visits, my companion said we’ve got to get to this place more often. That’s the kind of impression it makes.
Coconut Joe’s can be recommended for a fine dining experience.
Pete Tittl’s Dining Out column runs Sundays in The Californian. Email him at email@example.com.