Hut and Heavy
It’s not unusual when restaurants — even beloved places such as Café Allegro, La Mediterranee or Mrs. Peters Fried Chicken — close their doors. Things happen, you know. Tastes change. Owners get bored (or get divorced, go bankrupt or die). Neighborhoods lose their vitality. Or the restaurant just runs out of joie de vivre. What’s amazing is when a venue can stay open for more than two or three decades and still maintain its flavor, individuality and dignity.
On my short list of places that fall into this category are Stephenson’s Old Apple Farm, Stroud’s, the Savoy Grill, EBT, Plaza III — and a much less famous joint. The Bamboo Hut has been around longer than any restaurant in the city, save the Savoy Grill. This 72-year-old roadhouse on Highway 40, which I’ve reviewed before (“Roadside Attraction,” May 31, 2001), may not immediately come to mind when you think of legendary dining spots in Kansas City, but it’s been serving its own kind of deep-fried chicken since 1932, the year before Prohibition officially ended.
Amazingly, over the past seven decades this combination saloon and dining room has had only five owners. The newest proprietor, Lori Cheek, took over from the fourth owner, Jeannie Craig, last October. Cheek has run her namesake bar, Lori’s Place, for 17 years. It’s barely a beer bottle’s toss from the Bamboo Hut’s front door, and Cheek decided to snap up the Hut last year.
“I’m going to tear Lori’s Place down and build a new building,” Cheek says. “But while I’m waiting for all that to happen, I had some time on my hands, so when I heard Jeannie was interested in selling, I made an offer.”
Cheek hasn’t tampered with the menu, other than to add some dinner specials, including a plate of fried frog legs for $13.95 on Friday nights. Her biggest change has been the addition of two big-screen TVs, one in the bar, the other in the dining room. It’s the most brilliant decorating decision in the place’s recent history.
You see, when the Bamboo Hut opened as a watering hole that served stiff drinks and baskets of chicken, its original owners made a vague attempt to give the back room a sense of South Sea style to go along with the establishment’s tropical name. But the fake palm trees and the dance floor were victims of a 1980 fire, and for the last 25 years the dining room has looked remarkably like a 1960s rec room. The walls are paneled in dark wood, the tables are draped in burgundy vinyl, and wall sconces are outfitted with little orange flickering light bulbs. Because the cuisine is home-style and the service is casual (but attentive), adding the big ol’ TV has made it possible for patrons to feel as if they’re eating dinner in their parents’ basements.
My parents didn’t have anything like a rec room, so I was doubly thrilled to be living out the fantasy: eating Texas toast and fried foods with three of my closest pals while watching sitcoms on a giant screen! The sound was turned down, of course, so Bob and Carol and Gia and I could comment on the action around us.
“It’s like stepping into a time warp,” Carol said, admiring the other diners’ clothes and hairstyles. One square-jawed young man sported a Kennedy-era flattop; another wore a lavish Porter Waggoner pompadour. Behind our table sat an attractive seventysomething couple, he in a coat and tie, she in a cashmere sweater. They started their meal with a potent cocktail each, then moved on to salad and steaks. The rest of the clientele, though, was distinctly less sophisticated.
Our table was sharing a heaping plate of crunchy chicken livers and a basket of french-fried mushrooms, dipping them into a little plastic cup of ranch dressing — which was, Gia noted, “thick and creamy, just as God intended.”
Carol eyed the wine list with fascination. “There’s only five kinds, including Lambrusco, which I haven’t seen on a menu in years. And they’re $2.50 a glass! Oh, except the Chardonnay — it’s $3.50. Can you believe these prices?”
Obviously, the Bamboo Hut’s prices are in a time warp, too. An 8-ounce Kansas City strip, served with a salad, “garlic” toast (it’s really Texas toast with barely a hint of garlic powder) and a potato, costs less than 8 gallons of gas. A 5-ounce filet mignon won’t even set you back 10 bucks.
Carol ordered one of the more expensive items, the seafood platter, which had just as many freshwater offerings, including fried catfish and frog legs, as heavily breaded shrimp. I snagged a couple of those golden fried shrimp and agreed with Carol: You just can’t go wrong with a crusty crustacean. “It’s good fried food,” she said, arguing that her high-cholesterol platter was probably just as healthy as the iceberg-lettuce salad that had come before it, which was doused in more of that thick ranch dressing.
Gia ordered a dinner special that I coveted, a patty-melt platter, so I decided to be adventurous and order the fried frog legs. “Where do you get the legs?” I asked our cherubic young server, Adam. He blushed and stammered, “I’m not sure, but I don’t think it’s in Missouri.”
Bob announced that when he had worked in a local seafood house, the frog legs had been imported from Bangladesh, but our server didn’t seem convinced that the Bamboo Hut’s had come from that far away. The big, meaty hind legs (the only edible part of a frog) were surprisingly good, flash-fried in a light, airy batter. I guess they tasted like chicken, but not as fabulous as the juicy, succulent bird fried in the Bamboo Hut’s kitchen each night by cooks Don and Rick. Bob loved the crispy, crackly crust and the hefty size of the breasts.
One Bamboo Hut tradition that Lori Cheek hasn’t changed is the no-dessert policy. That doesn’t mean customers have stopped asking for it, Adam said. “Yeah, it would be nice if we had, like, a tiramisu or something.”
I was thinking more along the lines of apple pie. But who the hell can even think of dessert after packing away a big meal at this place?
A few nights later, Bob and I returned, this time with the saucy Joy. She had never heard of the Bamboo Hut, though she did point out a Highway 40 celebrity landmark on our journey to the joint. “You see that place that looks like an old gas station? That’s where Skip Sleyster lives.”
Our waitress that night was a no-nonsense Bamboo Hut veteran who clucked over us as if we were her grandchildren. “She’s so friendly and nurturing,” said Joy, who then nearly jumped out of her seat when a buzzer went off in the kitchen, alerting the servers that an order was up.
We sat closer to the TV that night so Bob could watch the Mizzou basketball game — along with everyone else in the dining room, which was packed at 7 p.m. An hour later, the place had nearly emptied out, though we had barely noticed because we’d been so focused on our dinners. Joy raved about her tender, perfectly grilled 5-ounce filet. Bob was equally passionate about his Kansas City strip, cooked in butter and garlic and sided with a foil-wrapped baked potato that he piled with butter and sour cream.
For some reason, I’d been craving a grilled Reuben. Because it’s been on the Bamboo Hut menu for years, I decided to try one. It turned out to be one of the best in town — the corned beef was tender, the sauerkraut was tart, and the whole damn thing was hot and heavenly.
How old did you say this place is?” Joy asked as we walked through the gravel parking lot.
Timeless, I’d say.