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Hook, Line and Sinker

Bahooka isn't Polynesian. It's a beached ship, complete with fish tanks, Cantonese ribs and silly, wholesome fun.


Alas for Polynesian cuisine, they say; alas for Don the Beachcomber's, the Luau and all the other tiki palaces that ruled L.A. in the '50s. All that's left (apart from Trader Vic's in Beverly Hills) is the Bahooka.

So they say. And it's true that this Rosemead landmark has the appropriate Cantonese glazed pork ribs and colorfully named rum drinks, and even some of the South Seas decor. But the Bahooka is actually on a non-Polynesian tangent of its own.

Take the soundtrack. No sweet falsetto Hawaiian ballads; it's surf music oldies, nonstop Beach Boys and Ventures. And the decor is not the '50s vision of a sensual island paradise, despite the giant tiki statue just inside the door. The Bahooka is not an island thing. It's a ship thing.

The architecture is widely praised as a classic of the Googie school of flamboyant canted-roof-beam '50s futurism. Imagine a ship's cafeteria without windows (probably why a friend of mine who's driven past it hundreds of times says she has always been slightly afraid to go in). The Bahooka hunkers on its lot like a beached oceangoing vessel.

Inside, no vistas of bamboo and hula skirts and Javanese shadow puppets. It's like being inside a ship, or even a submarine. (Sometimes you hear the hostess calling out, Navy fashion, "Now hear this. Jensen party, your table is ready.") Just about every table is down a dark, winding cul-de-sac. The effect would be claustrophobic if it weren't for the cluster of illuminated tropical fish tanks at every booth.

So don't think Polynesian, apart from the rum drinks and the ribs. Think silly, wholesome fun in dark, cozy corridors clotted with anchor chain and other naval surplus knickknacks.

With dinner you can get soup, usually rather greasy vegetable soup or over-thickened but surprisingly flavorful clam chowder, or an iceberg lettuce salad with a dressing in the Thousand Island family. Apart from these items, and the ribs and a couple of dinner salads, nearly everything else on the menu is deep-fried: shrimp, chicken breast, crab balls, cheese sticks and, in a rather non-'50s mode, chicken wings, zucchini strips and cheese-filled jalapen~o poppers. The good news is that everything is fried very competently, not terribly mushy or greasy.

You can get the jalapen~os, chicken, cheese and zucchini either by themselves or on the Sampler Platter. (The wings and the crab balls appear to be available only on another combo plate, along with barbecued ribs.) The fried shrimp, in particular, are quite good in their crunchy breading, as are the chicken breast slices in a smoother breading. The fried crab balls are definitely more flavorful than the crab stuffing in the stuffed shrimp entree.

There are a lot of fried seafood entrees, and needless to say a Captain's Platter of fried fish, shrimp and scallops (or so the menu says--the scallops tasted like the crab balls to me). All the fried items come with three sauces: a dark sweet hickory barbecue sauce, a bland pineapple-orange sauce and a tomato cocktail sauce with a squiggle of ferocious Chinese mustard.

But the best entree by far is the barbecued ribs, varnished with a sweet Cantonese glaze. There's a reason the official name of this restaurant is Bahooka Ribs and Grog. These semi-candied ribs are hard to resist.

Nothing else is anywhere near as good. The teriyaki chicken is very plain, just a rather slovenly-looking broiled chicken dabbed with teriyaki sauce. The ham is a nicely smoky piece of rolled picnic shoulder but has a distracting chewy skin. The burger is humdrum and the steak tastes like one of those hotel restaurant steaks that have been baked en masse and given ostentatious grill marks at a later date.

At dessert time, the waitresses announce gleefully that the dessert of the evening is . . . Jell-O. Sometimes they make a point of telling you the color. And after a lot of fried food in sweet sauces, maybe that's all you should have.

But if you feel the need of something sweet at the end of the meal, don't ignore the tropical cocktails, based on tropical fruits and coconut and served complete with the traditional paper parasol (there are even nonalcoholic versions for the kiddies). Order a flaming cocktail for two, such as the Honey Bowl--it comes in a large laminated salad bowl with some flaming croutons in the middle, and you drink them with straws well over a foot long. You'll have fun, fun, fun. . . .

Sorry, that was the Beach Boys soundtrack talking. But you probably will have fun.


Bahooka Ribs and Grog, 4501 N. Rosemead Blvd., Rosemead. (818) 285-1241. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday, noon-10:30 p.m. Saturday, noon-9 p.m. Sunday. Full bar. Parking lot. All major cards but American Express. Dinner for two, food only, $23-$43. What to Get: sampler platter, barbecued ribs, fried shrimp.

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