A barren island in the San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz was from 1933 to 1963 the site of the notorious federal prison known by its residents as "The Rock" and famous for its inescapability. Rain forests, found around the world near the Equator, are wet jungles characterized by incredibly dense flora and fauna. The few people that live there are small indigenous tribes who have adapted over centuries to the hardships of this environment.
Neither Alcatraz in its heyday nor any tropical rain forests is the sort of place that one would normally associate with relaxing, hospitable dining for civilized people. Yet there they are, facing each other across the entrance to Neighborhood 5 of Tempe's Arizona Mills -- Alcatraz Brewing Co. and Rainforest Café. How blithely we've presumed to tame the dark corners of the Earth, both human and wild. What's next -- Antarctica Eatery and Devil's Island Diner?
Actually, both Alcatraz Brewing Co. and Rainforest Café are variations on a relatively new concept -- the restaurant as theme park. Almost all restaurants have themes, of course, usually based on the ostensible culture out of which their cuisines arise. Sometimes restaurant themes may even wag the dog of cultural perception -- our skewed ideas of, say, Italian and Chinese society probably derive in larger measure than we realize from the decor of Italian-American and Chinese-American restaurants.
But Alcatraz and Rainforest Café go beyond Chianti bottles on the table or dragons in the paneling. These two places, and others like them, are self-consciously thematic. They boast scenic elements and, in some cases, flat-out special effects that wouldn't shame Disneyland or a movie studio. The experience of dining at them has little relevance to the (high-priced) food they serve. Indeed, at times the experience seems engineered to distract you from the food.
Rain forests cover just 6 percent of the dry land on the planet, yet more than 40 percent of all terrestrial plant, animal and insect species and 50 percent of all trees live in one of them. As a result, rain forests are, and are meant to be, incredibly unharmonious, noisy, competitive, violent, venomous places. Plants and animals alike are often loaded with deadly toxins, and, in many cases -- arrow-poison frogs are a well-known example -- are brilliantly colored precisely to advertise their inedibility to predators. In this sense, at least, Rainforest Café accurately reflects the environment on which it's based. It is, I think, the most irritating place in which I have ever paid to eat.
The shockingly garish façade of the café is sculpted in green plastic to resemble a canopy of foliage. From between the trunks poke the sculpted faces of Peaceable Kingdom animals, rendered with such ugliness and vapidity that you'd think the designer was an anti-biodiversity propagandist. Out front, three unfortunate live macaws on perches are put through some sort of paces for the amusement of waiting customers and passing mall-rat rabble by an only slightly more fortunate trainer. In a pool, a huge animatronic crocodile lunges and yawns periodically, to allow kids to try to toss change into its mouth; a sign assures us that all money collected there goes to saving the rain forest.
Rainforest Café calls itself "A Wild Place to Shop and Eat." Unquestionably true, but "wild" is one of those words, like "different," that can be used euphemistically. The shopping part is in a little store adjacent to the dining room, full of plastic snakes, tree frogs and the like for the kids. For the grown-ups, there are tropical print shirts, some of which wouldn't be too bad except that they're wildly overpriced and most of them have the words "Rainforest Café" on them. This amounts to an overpriced advertisement of the fact that you're a big enough flake to shop there.
From the retail end of the Rainforest, we passed through an elaborate border of giant aquariums full of wrasses and remoras and other beautiful salt-water fish that have nothing to do with the rain forest, and into the dining room. At this point, a hostess named Lindsey in Hemingwayesque khaki took over, telling us she would give us a tour.
She showed us large robotic gorillas and larger robotic elephants and promised us that they would move and make noise every 10 minutes (this turned out to be true). She showed us a twinkling star map on the ceiling, and informed us that this was how the sky looked in the western hemisphere. I wondered, but didn't ask, if maybe she meant "southern hemisphere," as one could presumably see what the sky in the western hemisphere looked like by stepping into the parking lot.
We were seated by a fountain, in the center of which stood a large metal statue of Atlas, bearing a planet with the legend "Rainforest" emblazoned on it in neon. Much as we appreciated the proximity to this tasteful artwork, the roar of the water and the fine, cold, clammy mist that constantly settled upon us forced me, after a few minutes, to ask the server to find us another table. We were reseated cheerfully, but this only cut the din in half. Rainforest Café is a restaurant with a soundtrack. Roars, grunts, chirps, hoots, screeches and occasional thunderclaps, accompanied by -- no kidding -- flickers of lightning overload your senses every second, and are mixed with piped-in music of the sort played in the cabanas of package-tour island resorts.
I describe all this ambiance in so much detail because this, not the food, is what Rainforest Café is all about. The menu is full of perfectly ordinary brass-and-fern-style fare, tricked out with often hilarious names intended to make them sound more, well, environmental, or tropical, or equatorial or something -- names like Congo Catfish Plate, Planet Earth Pasta, Rumble in the Jungle, Rasta Pasta and the gloriously generic Plant Sandwich.
We started off with an appetizer sampler, which included Bimini Wings, Chimi Cha Chas and Caribe Coconut Chicken. All were adequate, but only the last were really memorable -- strips of white meat deep fried in a sweet, rich batter full of shredded coconut.
Among the entrees, the funniest thing on the menu was the Mayan Meatloaf. I talked my wife into braving that, while I ordered the Pastalaya: shrimp, chicken, sausage and pasta in a jambalaya sauce. Our server, Olaf, asked me twice if I liked really spicy food, but somehow I failed to take the hint.
My wife got the better deal. The Mayan Meatloaf had nothing that I could see to do with Pre-Columbian culture, and it certainly wasn't worth the $11.50 price tag, but it wasn't bad. The three slices of meatloaf were smooth and flavorful, even though they were covered in a bland, ketchupy-tasting barbecue sauce. I just hope they weren't made from the ground-up flesh of cattle grazed on land from which rain forest had been cleared.
The meat was accompanied by uninspired garlic mashed potatoes and a coarse, shredded-vegetable dish which was referred to as "slaw," and which would have been pretty tasty if it hadn't been served lukewarm. It's as if the kitchen staff wasn't sure whether it should be served hot or cold and so split the difference.
The above may sound like faint praise, but the Mayan Meatloaf was a culinary masterpiece compared to my Pastalaya. The thought of all those beautiful shrimp and chickens giving up their lives only to have their meat covered under an impenetrable nuclear-level layer of gritty Cajun spice seemed an environmental atrocity in itself. After four or five bites, I was woozy. Oh, well, it's not as if the wise Olaf didn't try to warn me.
Indeed, it should be said that our service at Rainforest Café was brisk and attentive, and that my iced-tea glass was never allowed to fall below half-full. Considering the conditions in which these souls toil, they're to be commended.
In perfect fairness, it should also be said that the several youngish kids around seemed pretty captivated by the robot animals and other gaudy spectacle at Rainforest Café. If you have a young science geek in your family, you might consider treating him to an outing there. Once.
As we studied our dinners, two middle-aged ladies passed behind us. "This is terrible," one of them remarked. I got up and went to the men's room, but I kept remembering the stories I'd heard about the urinophilic candiru, the little Amazon catfish that has been known to trace its way up a urine stream and lodge itself in a bather's urethra. So I didn't linger at the urinal.
After this dining adventure, I felt a strong urge to crash into Alcatraz. Being within the walls of the big ale house was downright relaxing, even with the ubiquitous TV monitors pouring out sports coverage. The design of the place sends up the archetypal American hoosegow -- the walls are covered with scowling portraits (and bios) of its namesake's more famous residents and would-be escapees, and with posters for films like The Rock and 1937 Warner melodrama Alcatraz Island, starring Anne Sheridan.
A mural of the San Fran skyline as seen from the Rock fills one wall. Statues of pelicans and seals gaze down from ledges and crannies above. Some of the booths, which are illuminated by bare light bulbs, are situated beneath the girders of remarkably large mock-ups of guard towers and catwalks, and the room is dominated by a massive model of the Golden Gate Bridge, spanning the space between the bar and the nonsmoking section.
Yet all of these silly trappings are less assaultive than those at Rainforest Café, and thus more enjoyable. It also helps that the Bay Area-style grub, while maybe a tad pricier than it needs to be, is plenty good enough to prevent any cellblock riots. Although the specialties of the house are its beers and ales, made on the premises, the solid food is just that.
Appetizers include an intriguing spread of roasted garlic, tomato chutney and cambozola cheese on flatbread ($6.95), and a plate of yummy deep-fried calamari ($7.50). The winner from the starter's menu, however, was the surprisingly bountiful bowl of steamed mussels in a red ale broth -- it's $9.95, and worth it.
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Among the entrees, the Rock Burger, topped with Wisconsin White Cheddar, was serviceable, if not a knockout. The Turn-Key's Turkey sandwich was better -- top-quality sliced bird on cashew bread with Swiss cheese, beer mustard and cranberry sauce, served with a generous side of dill-tinged potato salad. Better still was the Big Bens' Fish and Chips. Well, the fish part, anyway. The French fries were dull, but not so the four nice pieces of fluffy cod covered in a satisfyingly crunchy batter made from the brewery's own Searchlight Ale. And the tartar sauce wasn't too creamy; it had a faint, agreeable sting.
Desserts included a fine Guard Tower Cheesecake. The smart choice after a big meal, though, was the Prison Portion Brownie Sundae, three bites of brownie and three of vanilla ice cream drizzled with fudge, all for $1.95.
My favorite dish at Alcatraz, however, was the Tent City Caesar. The name is a grim joke -- why not just offer a Gulag Borscht? -- but the salad was a beaut, and a small portion ($5.95) was plenty big enough to make a meal. The dressing was punchy but not overpowering, and there was lots of texture mixed into the greens -- corn, tortilla strips and, most delectably, black beans.
But shouldn't a tribute to our own county turnkey have been a fancied-up baloney sandwich? To be enjoyed, perhaps, with a glass of Pink Underwear Lemonade? Who knows? Maybe 20 or 30 years from now, malls around the country will feature Tent City Family Buffets.