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The Funkiest Place In Town

August 24, 1986|PHIL TRACY | Tracy has spent more time than most in dark, quiet restaurants while covering politics for the Village Voice, New West and other publications

Kelbo's, 11434 W. Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles, (213) 473-3050. Open Monday-Saturday for lunch and dinner. Full bar. All major credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$25.

Friends assume my love affair with Kelbo's springs from some deep-seated well of perversity. Au courant gourmets to their last chopstick, they blanch whenever I suggest this Hawaiian-style barbecue emporium as a likely place to eat. So instead we wind up sitting on lawn furniture, confronting tiny swirls of vegetable baby food and discussing the house white, since it's the only thing any of us can afford.

My friends don't know what they're missing. I've been going to Kelbo's off and on for 10 years, and to me it's the funkiest restaurant in Los Angeles, the only place where I feel completely at ease and always have a good time.

Legions disagree. Nearly everyone has driven past Kelbo's, situated on the corner of Pico and Gateway boulevards just west of the San Diego Freeway, and none has failed to notice it. The large neon sign, the thatched-hut appearance, the watchtower that tops it and the painted exterior walls festooned with cartoon characters dressed in grass skirts guarantee recognition and produce, in those we may call the subdued, the opposite effect of what was first intended.

Once inside, the timid may further recoil at a decor that employs pulleys, barrels, old bottles, street lamps, plastic spheres encased in fishnet and the best collection of illuminated blowfish this side of Tahiti. And this is not to mention the bamboo overhang discreetly encasing the bar and most of the booths. Indeed, they may be repelled by the playful "silent partner," an empty deep-sea diving suit of old that rests above the cashier, the fluorescent photo showing several of the lush Hawaiian drinks available (it incidentally provides the only light by which you will dine), and the ever-present Hawaiian music that complements this baroque assemblage.

Which is exactly why I like the place. Kelbo's effortlessly screens out precisely the kind of people who make me most nervous at restaurants: the ones with high school French accents who insist on discussing with the waiter the exact origin of the pickle in the relish dish. Kelbo's is a shrine to the '50s, nay the '40s, when vegetables were something you served children and meat reigned triumphant. Started by two ship welders from San Pedro, Kelbo's has been serving up the same combination for 39 years.

First stop is the bar, where three salt-water tanks filled with tropical fish compete for your attention with a silent large-screen TV showing the latest sporting event. You can order standard stuff: beer, wine or blended whiskeys. But Kelbo's concentrates on tropical drinks made with rum, vodka, gin and their own concocted fruit-juice bases. The names tell the tale: Skull & Bones, Blue Pacific, Hurricane Marj, Scarlet Surf. Prices run from $2.95 to $3.95 for single drinks, doubled or quadrupled for flaming bowl drinks for two or four. Our party, myself and the last two women in Los Angeles willing to accompany me here, stayed with single drinks. I had the Pilikia (Island lingo for trouble), a guava and vodka combo mixed with a juice base, while the ladies stuck to the traditional, ordering a Singapore Sling and a Planter's Punch. I'm partial to blue drinks that turn my tongue the same color, so for the second round I tried the Blue Pacific made with gin and curacao. The women had a full order of assorted appetizers--shrimp strips, ribs, egg rolls and pineapple wedges--and argued over who was going to drive me home. (More than two drinks, even with a full meal, and you probably should not be allowed behind the wheel.)

The menu at Kelbo's is not extensive, but what they do, they do well. And what they do best is Hawaiian-style spare ribs. The ribs are marinated for 10 days and cooked in a wood-chip smoke oven. They come six to a platter. One of my companions ordered a lobster, which tasted as if it had been frozen and was slightly overcooked. But the ribs were universally excellent. Dinner comes with a mixed green salad with King Kelbo's Fifteen Hundred Island Dressing and a choice of yams or baked beans for vegetable addicts. Entrees I've encountered at other times include honey-dipped Hawaiian-fried chicken (fried chicken with plum sauce and coconut sprinkled on top) and mahi mahi, filets of dolphin marinated and cooked without oil in a rotating hot-air oven.

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