The dream of theme restaurants and L.A.’s tiki bar era

Illustration of cake themed restaurant
(Pete Gamlen / For The Times)

Flaming tiki drinks, the ultimate crowd-sourced chocolate chip cookie recipe, a celebrity hummus crawl, restaurant gas bill woes, lots of tinned fish plus food snob penguins. I’m Laurie Ochoa, general manager of L.A. Times Food, with this week’s Tasting Notes.

Variations on a theme

Actors playing the role of the robot Jacques and his traveling companion Penelope
Actors playing the role of the robot Jacques and his traveling companion Penelope at the new steampunk-themed restaurant Toothsome Chocolate Emporium at Universal Studios’ City Walk.
(Todd Martens / Los Angeles Times)

I’ve been thinking about the old tiki-themed restaurant Bahooka Ribs & Grog in Rosemead this week. Game critic and theme park expert Todd Martens mentions the now-shuttered restaurant, one of Southern California’s greatest examples of the tiki bar era, in his cover story for Sunday’s Weekend section on Toothsome Chocolate Emporium at CityWalk just outside Universal Studios Hollywood. He considers whether the steampunk restaurant’s arrival is “a sign,” as Martens writes, “that the themed restaurant, which enjoyed an era of expansion throughout the 1980s and ’90s with the Hard Rock Cafe, Planet Hollywood and many more, is ready for a proper comeback.”

Before answering that question, he looks back at Southern California’s theme restaurant past, from the questionable Jail Cafe in which diners in the 1920s ate in a cell and ordered from waiters dressed as convicts to Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg‘s DIVE! in Century City from the 1990s.

Two couples give their order to a "convict" waiter at the Jail Cafe, which opened in 1925 on 4212 Sunset Blvd.
Two couples give their order to a “convict” waiter at the Jail Cafe, which opened in 1925 at Sunset Blvd.
(Security Pacific National Bank Collection / Los Angeles Public Library)

It’s the tiki-theme restaurant era, however, that resonates the most for me. In the mid-1980s, when I first started going out with Jonathan Gold, who would become my husband and this paper’s restaurant critic until his 2018 death, we often found ourselves in a tiki bar that had been open for decades, a reminder of a time when, as Jonathan wrote in his book “Counter Intelligence: Where to Eat in the Real Los Angeles,” “every Los Angeles neighborhood had at least one tiki bar, built to slake the tropical thirsts of men [and women] who had served in the far-Pacific theaters of World War II. James Michener and Thor Heyerdahl cashed in on ‘50s tiki-mania; so did Trader Vic and Don the Beachcomber.”

A young couple enjoy a flaming honey bowl  at the Bahooka Ribs & Grog restaurant in Rosemead.
A young couple enjoy a flaming honey bowl at Bahooka Ribs & Grog in Rosemead.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

You can still go to Tiki-Ti on Sunset Boulevard and Damon’s steakhouse in Glendale for a glimpse of the tiki era, but at the time, Bahooka’s was one of my favorite places to go with Jonathan, who had a collection of Hawaiian shirts that he wore like a uniform (before he switched to Brooks Brothers shirts and suspenders). It’s not that the food was so good, but it did what a theme restaurant is supposed to do — transport its customers to a different time or place and allow them to briefly trade real life for a fantasy life. When we sipped from the two long straws that came with the flaming honey bowl, a blue concoction served in what in a different restaurant might have been a salad bowl, with a sterno-fueled flame placed like a giant crouton in the middle, we could practically feel the tropical heat — or was it just the humidity generated from all of the restaurant’s live fish tanks?

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The hummus connoisseur

Actor Theo Rossi at Bavel in Los Angeles on Monday, Feb. 13, 2023 in Los Angeles. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
Actor Theo Rossi enjoys some olives at Bavel on his Middle Eastern restaurant crawl around Los Angeles.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Two weeks before today’s Film Independent Spirit Awards, where Theo Rossi will learn whether he won the supporting performance prize for his role as Aubrey Plaza‘s partner in crime and love in Emily the Criminal,” the former “Sons of Anarchy” actor was eating hummus and pita around town with L.A. Times Food columnist Jenn Harris for her series The Crawl. As they spent the evening eating at downtown L.A.’s Bavel, Open Sesame on Beverly Boulevard and Sunnin Lebanese Cafe on Westwood Boulevard, we learn that Rossi, as Jenn writes, “ate a lot of pita bread and hummus while preparing for the role of a lovable Lebanese criminal who dabbles in credit card fraud.” Indeed, he eats hummus nearly every day and has strong opinions on the subject.

Chewy, gooey, a hint of salt

Chocolate chip cookies
The ultimate chocolate chip cookie?
(Stephanie S. Shih / For The Times)

Julie Giuffrida, who is the queen of recipe archives at L.A. Times Food, has been on a months-long quest to come up with the ultimate chocolate chip cookie recipe. It started in October when Julie went through our archives and tested nine different chocolate chip cookie recipes from many sources, including Clementine‘s Annie Miller, Sycamore Kitchen‘s Karen Hatfield and former Times Food editor Amy Scattergood. Julie analyzed each cookie and broke down what made each good. She and Food’s audience engagement editor, Amy Wong, who is also a formidable cookie baker, then asked readers to describe what they want most in a chocolate chip cookie. “Of the 16 chocolate chip cookie characteristics presented in the reader survey,” Julie wrote in this week’s story with the results, “82% of respondents said that chewiness is the most important. The next two highest-ranking characteristics were ‘with a hint of salt’ (68%) and ‘gooey’ (65%).” Try the recipe Julie came up with and let us know on our @latimesfood Instagram account what you think — and if you have a better recipe.

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Beyond Charlie the Tuna

WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 19 2023: inned seafood from Saltie Girl in West Hollywood,
Saltie Girl in West Hollywood has an extensive tinned seafood selection.
(Oscar Mendoza / For The Times)

Restaurant critic Bill Addison describes an epiphany he had at Saltie Girl in Boston five years ago when the restaurant’s impressive selection of tinned fish revealed just how delicious canned sardines and more could be. We’re now seeing places in Los Angeles like Bar Moruno and Kippered serving wonderful examples of tinned fish, a tradition that is prevalent in Spain and Portugal. Now Saltie Girl has opened a branch in West Hollywood and Addison is happy as a tinned clam. Read his review plus Jenn Harris’ earlier ode to Saltie Girl’s lobster roll.

Shocking, ‘impossible’ gas bills

Overhead photo of chopsticks lifting noodles from charred-pork pho near Thai iced tea and a plate of basil and bean sprouts.
Charred pork pho at Pho 87, a Chinatown staple since 1987.
(Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

Stephanie Breijo, with an assist from our newest addition to L.A. Times Food, reporter Cindy Carcamo, examine the effect that skyrocketing gas bills are having on restaurants — leading some to wonder if they will need to shut down if the rates continue. Consider that the Vietnamese restaurant Pho 87 in Chinatown saw its gas bill jump from $800 in December to $8,000 in February. “I want to fight the city, fight the gas company, because this is impossible,” said owner Tre Dinh. “I’m not just worried about us. I’m worried about the whole community.”

Also ...

— Assistant Food Editor Danielle Dorsey has put together a mapped guide to the best places to eat and drink in L.A. right now, collected from the writing of Food’s Bill Addison, Stephanie Breijo and Jenn Harris. Plus, Harris eats at Bar Chelou and Le Chateau de Tien Tao, two places that are establishing Pasadena as a newly revitalized culinary destination.

— And Stephanie Breijo talks with the creative forces behind the beloved sandwich shop Wax Paper about their highly anticipated new restaurant Lingua Franca, a “New California” comfort food spot “nearly six years in the making.”

Finally ...

It can be disconcerting to realize that a penguin might have more refined culinary tastes than one’s own. But recently, as I was happily eating saba mackerel at Little Tokyo’s Hama Sushi, I remembered the story of the very picky penguins at the Hakone-en Aquarium outside Tokyo. They were refusing to eat saba mackerel after cost-cutting measures forced their minders to stop buying pricier horse mackerel. I won’t let some food snob penguins shame me into not eating saba, one of my favorite sushi orders. But I must admit that when I recently rewatched the Midnight Diner episode on Netflix in which a retired stripper gets nostalgic over horse mackerel, I saw the appeal. Here’s a clip of the mackerel being cooked to the sounds of the show’s unforgettable theme song to whet your appetite.