Wow, there's the Incredible Hulk! and Spider-Man! As the newest and only full-service restaurant within the Universal Studios park, Marvel Mania celebrates the superheroes of popular comic books, playing its theme to the hilt. Geared toward kids (young and old, judging by the two guys in their 30s celebrating a birthday and scooping up souvenir menus), Marvel Mania's bright colors, bold graphics, pulsing lights and loud cartoons on big-screen TVs call to mind what eating inside a pinball machine must be like.
I check things out in the company of a couple of 10-year-old boys and their parents. Left to their own devices, the boys go for the kid-size deep-dish cheese and pepperoni pizza. After a couple of eager bites, though, their enthusiasm flags. "This doesn't taste like pizza," Joey, more talkative than C.J., says as he sets down his slice and grimaces. "It tastes like ravioli." I get his point. The bottom is doughy, the cheese on top is thick and, as it cools, increasingly gruesome. The fries, he insists, are "not as good as McDonald's." True, they do taste as if they're made from frozen potatoes. And as for the applesauce for dipping, well, my dynamic duo isn't interested.
That's when I order a few other things from the kids' menu (for ages 10 and younger). A Super Hero sandwich. Mighty Mutant macaroni and cheese. The Dare Dog, which a kid in the gift shop swore was terrific.
When the food comes, the Dare Dog, your basic wiener on a bun, meets with approval. But my little companions complain you can't taste the cheese on the pasta. One bite of the grilled Super Hero sandwich and Joey screws up his face. "I didn't know they made food like this in America," he says, scrubbing his tongue with his napkin. "Maybe in China or someplace, but not here. What is that?" I tell him: grilled cinnamon-swirled bread layered with peanut butter, banana slices and a Nestle Crunch bar.
Meanwhile, we adults start with Mutant Chicken Wings (vinegary lollipop-shaped wings) and Gambit's sugar cane shrimp (fat shrimp grilled on sugar cane and served with a cloying Louisiana barbecue sauce). Towering Lasagna, a conventional layering of pasta with ricotta cheese and marinara sauce, is presented in a truly novel form: two vertical rolls, breaded and deep-fried. The half-pound Captain America burger arrives nicely cooked and perfectly acceptable. C.J., however, is interested only in the pickle. Pork BBQ Lightning Skewers, highly recommended by our waiter, are dreadful hunks of pork so dry and overcooked that simply chewing them is hard work.
I ask Joey and C.J. whether they would order the pizza again. No, Joey says, adding that the Super Hero sandwich was the worst thing he'd ever eaten. "They make everything sound cool--Mutant Chicken Wings, Dastardly Dip, Tyrannus' Caesar," he says, reading from the menu, "just so kids will try it."
What did they like best?
The hot dog, Joey says. And the shrimp. The pickle, says C.J., putting on his jacket, eager t race back out and get on the "Back to the Future" ride. "And maybe the chicken wings," he calls over his shoulder.
A new restaurant in Brentwood is also banking on a cartoon theme. When we walk into Cartoonsville one Saturday, Matt, the savvy 12-year-old who joined me, his friend Ivan, Matt's little brother, Willie, and their mom give the decor the once-over. "What's so cartoony about this place?" asks Matt, unimpressed. Good question. The decor consists of toy airplanes hung from the ceiling, a wall of collectible children's lunch boxes, spiral-shaped lights and glass cases filled with vintage toys.
"Well, the chairs are kind of cartoony," somebody says, pointing out the blond wood chair backs with cutouts of winking eyes and jaunty smiles. "Oh, and they're showing cartoons on those TVs!" That's it?
Half the large restaurant (with a store attached, natch) on this day is filled with birthday parties. A "king" wearing a gold crown with a long purple velvet cloak trimmed in fake ermine presides over the many pint-size princes and princesses, belting out birthday songs and leading everyone around the restaurant in a snaking conga line. Shrieks are emitted by all.
We grab a table next to the window, away from the chaos and next to a couple of adults calmly dining sans children. (Mine is not to reason why.) We can't help but also notice how many dads manage to escape the fray to enjoy the relative calm of a table outside.
Presented with the choices, my young assistant critics aren't particularly intrigued with anything on the kids' menu until I insist they try at least a few things. Cheese pizza, Cowboy Joe's hot dog, the plain King's burger, the peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich are all voted down in favor of ribettes and Iggy's Chicken Finger Basket. Six barbecued ribs generously slathered with a sweet, smoky barbecue sauce seem to hit the spot. So do the chicken fingers, which are crisp, not dried out.
I think the onion rings are greasy. But that's the way they always are, Matt lectures, reaching for his sixth or seventh. And I certainly am not prepared for the chili cheese fries, envisioning something like the chili powder-dusted fries at The Buffalo Club. If there's anybody else unfamiliar with this snack food, it consists of French fries buried under chili (here made from minced, not ground, beef, which is a nice touch) and a blanket of melted jack and cheddar. It's gooey, probably has a zillion calories, but, I confess, I ate quite a few. Nachos made with red, white and green tortilla chips are disappointing; they're sparsely topped with beans, a tepid salsa and cheese.
The boys' mother and I want to duck under the table when confronted with what passes for Southwest tostada salad at Cartoonsville--a huge flour tortilla fried in the shape of a bowl big enough to do your dishes in, filled with decent lettuce, a scattering of beans and grilled strips of chicken breast. The burger is overcooked and comes on a squishy bun. The kids don't even want to sample what we've ordered, content to finish their cold, thick strawberry and black (chocolate) and white (vanilla) shakes for dessert.
Watching the goings-on from the vantage point of our table, the older boys speculate that this place is geared more for kids ages 3 to 10.
"Not for 10-year-olds," pipes up Willie, who has just turned 10 the day before. Well, 3 to 9, then. And what about adults on their own? I don't think so. Even those with children may want to retreat to the bar. Or one of those blessedly quiet outdoor tables.
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Universal CityWalk, 100 Universal Center Drive, Universal City; (818) 7-MARVEL. Lunch and dinner daily. Appetizers, $7 to $10; main courses, $8 to $16; kids' menu, $6. Valet and lot parking, $4 with validation.
12121 Wilshire Blvd., Brentwood; (310) 207-6070. Lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Appetizers, $5 to $7; main courses, $7 to $15; kids' menu, $4 to $8. Pay parking beneath building; entrance on Amherst Street. No reservations.