Another surviving remnant of Tiki culture in L.A. will soon sleep with the fishes when
Bahooka Ribs & Grog closes in March. That means no more drunken treasure hunting for maraschino cherries and stray shreds of pineapple at the bottom of giant icy bowls of coconutty cocktails. No more eating ribs under dusty plastic macaws. And no more Ruffus, the giant 36-year-old fish who chomps carrot sticks like cigars in Bahooka's lobby.
Located in undersea Rosemead (at least that's what the shipwreck atmosphere would have us believe), just down the street from the faux-snow topped Clearmann's North Woods Inn, Bahooka first opened in 1967 at its original West Covina location. It moved to Rosemead Blvd. in 1976, and there it has stayed, playing host to hipsters, boozers and youngsters for more than a generation.
The closest modern counterpart to Bahooka might be the Islands burger chain, where the tables are made to resemble slickly polished surfboards and one, maybe two plastic parrots perch in sunny corners and perky waitresses push buffalo wings and sliders. But at Bahooka, it's dark, and the fake birds always seem to have the patrons outnumbered. Patrons stare up at the aged wood undersides of fishing boats on the ceiling and peer into the murky waters of fishtanks on the walls that may or may not contain fish. On the menu, a two-pound plate of ribs is listed under "appetizers."
Despite a glowing Elmer Dills review, proud and prominent on the entryway wall, you don't really come to Bahooka for the food. But it's not really as godawful as some Yelp-ers would have you believe either. When you come to Bahooka, don't order anything but the ribs; keep it simple and you'll be fine.
Bahooka goes by two different names: either "Bahooka Family Restaurant" (the sign outside) and "Bahooka Ribs & Grog" (the old menu and the check), which illuminates the place's dueling identities: a restaurant for families who come here to say, "Look kids, they have over a hundred fish tanks!" and the drinkers who just want to get their booze on, sucking the rum-soaked pineapple off of a paper umbrella toothpick with no greater hardship but to decide whether the next drink should be a Island Itch or a Lak-A-Nooki. (And if you pay extra, you can take the souvenir mug home with you.)
Of course, there are non-alcoholic mocktails for the little boozehounds-in-training to enjoy, possibly the most fun of which is the Flaming Captain Cooke Goat, which is lit afire with a lemon-extract-soaked crouton. And it's entertaining for kids and grownups alike to watch fish bully each other in their tanks as Annette Funicello's "Pineapple Princess" trills in the background.
It seems like a place with as much character as Bahooka would be able to stay afloat for at least another half century, so it's demise is hard to figure. It's tempting to suspect the off-the-beaten-path location might be to blame, but then again a more central location wasn't enough to save West L.A.'s similarly themed Kelbo's. So Bahooka's end, taken in context, has a wistful feeling of inevitability about it. When the central appeal of a place is its sense of nostalgia, it already feels like a part of the past, even as it lives and breathes.
Manager Darlene Fliegel did admit that upkeep on all of those fish tanks was a significant expense, but maintained that Bahooka was closing simply because its owners were ready to retire. The restaurant was opened by the first generation, she said, is now run by the second generation -- and as for a third genreration, there simply is none. News of Bahooka's closure -- which leaked out before the family intended it to -- had made for a very busy lunch hour, and Fliegel had her hands full, so she wasn't inclined to spend a lot of time hashing out the details.
You still have a few short days to come by for one farewell cocktail. Bahooka's last call is on March 10.
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