The people who bring you the Ritz Cafe on Pico have recently transmogrified the cavernous Kon Tiki down the street into the Sugar Shack, a Caribbean theme bar/restaurant. You have your Caribbean music, your elaborate rock waterfall (an entire wall, left over from the previous incarnation), your bamboo, your murals of happy, dancing Jamaicans, your steel drums and all that kind of hilarity. Waiters and waitresses scurry around in short-shorts and tropical shirts, as if they worked in the Marina. Blue drinks circulate in electric coolers behind the bar. "Rum," the menu reads, "The Elixir of Life."
In other words, the atmosphere at the Sugar Shack assaults you. "When I go back to a place," says a friend of mine, "I go back because I've had a good time there. This place tells you what you should feel before you feel it, with its relentless good-time music blasting and its ha-ha menu." (She's probably talking about things like the Jerk Pork, described on the menu as "just like de chicken, but it comes from de pig!")
Another friend has a good time there. "It's lively and friendly and there's no snobbery to it," he says. "The music is a good mix of cool things--rock 'n' roll, reggae and calypso. And it has a sense of humor about itself. I mean, here they've taken this hokey place, a Polynesian restaurant or something, and they've had fun with it. It's loud and garish and it spells things out, but it wasn't so subtle to begin with. The palm trees, the waterfall, the blue and yellow drinks--it's stupid, so it's fun."
Like the Ritz, this is not a gourmet sort of adventure. But I don't care what anybody says, I love the Ritz Cafe. I stick to simple things there--Drunken Shrimp, which are shrimp in the shell in a fire-hot, beery broth; blackened fish and beef. I love the corn sticks and the private booths and the white tablecloths; but most of all, I love the Cajun martinis, perfect drinks, drinks both hot and cold at the same time. After one or two of those, who cares about the food?
Unfortunately, the rum drinks at the Sugar Shack are a letdown. Zombies, banana daiquiris, mai tai's--all acrid and watery and undrinkable. If you want to see it done right, go to Kelbo's, several miles west. There, rum concoctions come in plastic skulls and coconut shells; blue drinks have sugar cubes on fire floating in them; and the drinks themselves, while ultimately rather awful, still manage to taste OK.
At the Sugar Shack, though, you'll do fine if you stick to well drinks or their delicious Red Stripe Jamaican beer. And, if you ask me, you can do OK in the food department, too. Again, this ain't gourmet cuisine, but at $6.95-$9.95 for generous, edible entrees, who cares?
I liked the Jerk Chicken (a smoky, spicy Jamaican preparation); the Coconut Fried Shrimp (Barbados); the Red Chicken and Green Rice (Haiti); the Curried Shrimp (Barbados). The only really horrible things were the stuffed crab backs which were so sodden and fishy-smelling, I don't want to talk about it.
Entrees come with "Moors and Christians" (black beans and white rice--get it?), baked yams, spicy cabbage, fried plantains or something called coo-coo. Appetizers good with a drink are shrimp-and-potato bambas (a sort of deep-fried potato/fish stick); a Montego Bay version of the egg roll and spicy chicken piononos (a complicated concoction made of chicken and vegetables wrapped up in plantain and deep-fried).
If you have to have dessert, forget the Key Lime Pie (it tastes like a refrigerator), the sweet yam pie (it tastes like nothing) and stick to coffee ice cream with chocolate Tia Maria sauce. I know you're not supposed to like that stuff, but, heck, fun's fun.
Sugar Shack, 8751 West Pico Blvd., Los Angeles (213) 271-7887. Open Tuesdays-Saturdays 5 p.m-midnight. Full bar. Parking in lot. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $30-$45.