Kowabunga! (or Big 4 Goes to the Beach) must have been an awful lot of fun to dream up. Following on the heels of the group's other high-concept restaurants, like Ed Debevic's pseudo-Fifties diner and Steamers' display-kitchen fish cookery, this restaurant is a send-up of the beach culture of California and has a surfeit of good-natured, next-to-the-ocean notions.
There's a large central bar with a corrugated-tin roof, an eye-catching bikini-bottom fan, attractive pop wall murals of Venice beach, nonstop surfing movies, a kitschy clothing kiosk, fast-food huts, a large dance floor and more funky beach bric-a-brac than you'll find on the average tropical island.
Add the ministrations of a superlatively well-cast staff and throw in an every-night live band policy and there's more bounce to this place than a beachball. In an engaging way, the servers seem to be partying rather than working. While you may have cause to wish they showed a bit more concern with the most direct route to the kitchen, their mood is infectious.
"There's nothing very special about this ginger ale," chidingly remarks one of my guests to a waitress. "I'll be happy to stick my finger in the glass," is her wonderfully flip response.
During my first visit to Kowabunga! I happen to run into one of the owners. "We'd like people to think of the place as sort of a Debevic's of the Sixties," is his candid comment.
Certainly there's some similarity in energy and campy informality and, like its corporate predecessor, Kowabunga! is very likely a place to which kids will want their parents to take them.
There is another sandal to be dropped here, however, and its nature should be readily apparent. Consider the concept.
Now, quickly, what foods come to mind?
Squid burgers? Shark tacos? Surfboard-shaped pizzas? Lots of greasy, snacky stuff your mother would prefer you didn't eat?
If any of those came to mind, you probably can get a job in creative development with Big 4, because that's exactly what Kowabunga! serves. At best it's a cuisine of cute ideas, but it's not likely the sort of fare you're going to wake up craving in the middle of the night. In fact, the most telling difference between Ed Debevic's and Kowabunga! is that the former has its origins in solid Midwestern food, while the latter treats its menu like a collection of conceptual beach toys.
Yes, there is some appeal to this sort of stuff. I particularly like the Clama-Lama-Ding-Dongs (a savory- sauced mixture of clam pieces and vegetables baked underneath a coconut crust), the World Famous Squid Burger (the thick calamari cutlet is a bit chewy, but the hot Thai chili slaw used as a condiment is inspired), the "totally killer" Q sandwich (a generously portioned and savory barbecued beef sandwich) and Banana S'mores (faithful to the Girl Scout graham-cracker- marshmallow-chocolate original, right down to the foil wrapper).
It would also be unfair not to mention the slightly more adult-oriented entrees (items like fried chicken, beef ribs and seafood kabobs), the "seaweed specials" (a limited assortment of entree salads) and, especially, the Frankie Avalobster and the Big Kahuna Klambake (extremely generous portions of steamed, fresh seafood and side dishes, each offered at the nearly giveaway price of $9.99).
For the most part, though, there is really very little art to the culinary effort. Dreaming of California vacations, the creative team has blurred the distinction between laid-back and lazy. Like the rest of the place, the menu has the high spirits of a beach blanket movie but, in a lifetime, how many of those can anyone stomach?
Of course, in the long run this eclectic, happy, casual approach may prove to have appeal over a wide demographic spectrum. Singles can munch through the midweek bar and music scene, business people and tourists can chow down at the luncheon buffet and local families can flood the place on weekends. Perhaps the corporate thinking is that if everyone in the world can be persuaded to come see the place just once, the stream will never end.
But, Frankie, I miss the much more assiduously crafted fare of the site's previous tennant, the Lunt Avenue Marble Club. Because of its food, Kowabunga! is Annette ho-hum.
A few weeks ago, I had the most enjoyable privilege of dining and speaking with a group of "cub" reporters from Bear Essential News for Kids. This monthly newspaper, which features the work of local schoolchildren from ages eight to thirteen, is a serious and impressive journalistic effort that boasts a circulation of nearly 350,000 readers in Arizona and California's Orange County. The cover story of the January issue, to give you an idea of the earnestness of this enterprise, is an exclusive interview with Ronald Reagan.
So, on a windy afternoon in January, I find myself sharing burgers and conversation with an extremely bright group of aspiring young writers. This day, the concern of this coterie is critical writing, and the discussion is as elevated as any I've ever had on this matter. My young colleagues show a remarkable ability for comprehending the requirements of objective content filtered through the uniquely personal perspective of the critic, and they manifest a gratifying concern for the ethics of the endeavor.
Ultimately, though, their "big" questions are the same as most adults'.
"Do you really get to eat out all the time?"
"Who picks the restaurant?"
"How big is your expense account?"
After hearing the answers, even a fairly bright fifth-grader appreciates that reviewing restaurants for a living may be one of the star jobs of all time. Why would anyone with such a position give it up of his own free will?
Frankly, one gives up restaurant reviewing for just about the same reason one gives up other jobs. Family responsibilities cause schedule conflicts; financial priorities need to be addressed; it's just existentially time to move on. Perhaps the one reason that is peculiar to restaurant reviewing is the strange angst derived from a sense that your life is channeling in a variation of the Hansel and Gretel story, and the witch is suddenly feeling your plump fingers with too much satisfaction as the oven warms.
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In all sincerity, I do expect to look back at my sixteen-month tenure as New Times restaurant critic with great fondness. It's been a delicious pleasure to find and share so many good places around the Valley, and it's been equally rewarding to rat on a few culinary culprits operating kitchens without a clue. In all, I'm tempted to term the experience "enlightening," but that would just make the witch cackle.
I'd like to pass on best wishes to my successor, Penelope Corcoran, who will take over this column as of March 14. She'll really have to mind her peas and barbecues. You see, Penelope, the word is out about this job and there's already a pack of skilled (and hungry) pre-teens waiting to get their hands on your expense account.
Kowabunga!, 6202 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 998-3505. Hours: 11 a.m. to 1 am., seven days a week.
Next week! Cap'n Dave introduces exciting guest columnist.