Kua 'Aina / Soho, London


“As a certified US import we were pretty darn excited.”

Despite looking like a cafe that an eccentric old Londoner had decorated after being inspired on a recent ‘Polynesian Dreams’ cruise, Kua’ Aina is a renowned chain that’s been banging out burgers in Hawaii since 1975.

What Kua ‘Aina nicely summarises is the multitude of problems the American export has to face. Since we’re a scarcity-fuelled bunch, you can look at the list of chains that have jumped the pond and draw a few conclusions. To pull out a few examples:

  • TGI Fridays. Not really any different to how it is in the States, but we’d much prefer it to be a Cheesecake Factory. Or a Bennigan’s (RIP).
  • Taco Bell. The few franchisees who have taken the risk have stuck to the out of town locations (ie. Lakeside), and all they have to do is rehydrate some stuff that comes in boxes anyway.
  • Wendy’s. Tried in the 90s, failed, then left. Arguably they’d probably be doing quite well if they came back now.
  • Carl’s Jr. Oft-rumoured. Zero brand recognition on this side of the pond. Why bother?
  • In-n-Out / Shake Shack / Five Guys - breathless tweets from those in the know often fuel speculation that they’re ‘looking for sites in Soho’ or some other horseshit. Whatever.

And the problems they face if and when they do come over are plentiful. First of all there’s a totally different type of consumer with their own idea of what a burger should be. Then you’ve got a different set of supply chain hurdles: price, quality and geography can ruin you. The sheer thought of, say, the Cheesecake Factory invading us with their pricing and portioning strategies and somehow keeping it profitable is enough to make your head spin.

Those that rely on actual cooking could be in a bit of trouble.

So on to Kua ‘Aina. As a certified US import we were pretty darn excited. Seating upstairs is a tight squeeze, like Ryanair overhead compartment tight. But hey, it’s got seating, and a downstairs area too, and the staff were delivering food quickly despite the lack of space.

The 1/2lb Bacon Cheese and 1/3lb Ortega Chili Burger arrived promptly, but were sorry looking specimens indeed - the cheese that presented itself had barely melted, was pale, and sweatier than The Rock in Fast Five1. The peppers atop the Chili burger appeared deflated and apologetic.

And they were small. So very small.

Ortega Chili Burger
Sweaty Bacon Cheeseburger

Also, you’ll notice, they had been served open. Mayo generously slathered on the top bun. Now, Rob is immediately confused. He’s been served an open burger, with one condiment added, but other condiments placed suggestively on the table. We know what a pedant he is.

No hesitation, the Heinz and French’s went straight on. Even then, they’re not particularly attractive. The dusty black char look ominous, and the tightly seeded buns are tough to cut.

Bacon Cheeseburger
Bacon Cheeseburger split

But looks aren’t everything, so we persevered. It didn’t get much better. Whilst the 1/2lb patty was okay, the 1/3 pounder was covered with a thick gnarly crust that left an all-consuming burnt taste. Possibly a victim of the two-different-sizes-but-same-grilling-time issue, we pontificate. The bacon was rock solid and near on impossible to bite through, with whole chunks forcibly removing themselves in the first mouthful. The bun is too dense and the seeds go straight between your teeth, where they will then stay for for the rest of the afternoon.

Ortega Chili Burger

The word ‘chili’ in the description of the other offering takes you down a bit of a false alley, as there was not an ounce of heat in the burger at all. However, having read up on Ortega chilis now that’s not surprising. The lack of any flavour from the pepper was just as disappointing, as its only purpose was as an unnecessary layer of squish. No cheese either.

The liberal mayo smothering tries to cover many of the sins going on here, much in the same way a cheap fast food burger does from Sonic or Wendy’s or Carl’s Jr. The problem is the overall package doesn’t deliver the same salty, stodgy, satisfying hit.

We don’t revel in being negative, but there were few redeeming features to what we ate at Kua ‘Aina. As we looked around though, the club sandwiches we spied looked immense. Intrigue alone (OK, and greed) will probably get us back here to sample those.

The other conclusion is that maybe we just ordered badly. Perhaps if you roll your own instead of opting for a pre-packaged menu option, your experience may vary.

  • Simon & Rob.
Kua 'Aina on Urbanspoon
  1. You should see it. It’s actually great. The Rock spends all his screen time dripping everywhere. 
Kua 'Aina menu

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