In the fabulous 1948 movie Road House, Ida Lupino plays a tough-talking singer with a cigarette perpetually dangling from her ruby lips. She gets a job in one of those off-the-highway joints that’s part restaurant, part smoky saloon. Cornel Wilde, playing the roadhouse manager, sizes her up right away as “the new equipment.”
And she was the only new equipment in the place; even by the 1940s, roadhouses were old news. They had begun dotting the two-lane landscape during the 1920s, a boom time for highway building (when, for example, Route 40 extended the National Road — the country’s oldest highway — through Missouri, Kansas and Colorado). By the 1930s, the stretch of Route 40 between St. Louis’ Poplar Street Bridge and Kansas City’s Intercity Viaduct had plenty of little motels, diners, restaurants and roadhouses to lure weary travelers as well as residents of nearby towns eager for a little excitement. If it wasn’t the local version of Ida Lupino, it was at least a good fried chicken dinner and a stiff drink.
Those are still the calling cards at The Bamboo Hut, where the menu and the music have changed little since the place opened along Route 40 in 1932. That was a year before the end of Prohibition, and The Bamboo Hut served only beer and chicken-in-a-basket. The place still feels like it’s way out in the country, as it was before Independence annexed the neighborhood in the 1960s, and on the outside, it looks like it did during the Roosevelt administration. During the past seven decades the Hut has had four owners. One of them paneled the dining room like a basement rec room, and at some point modern posters depicting various sports, such as hunting and golf, joined the decorative beer mirrors. The dance floor and the fake palm trees vanished after a fire in 1980, but the long, dark bar, the poker machine and the peel-tab lottery ticket dispenser remain. Whirling ceiling fans and cute little pagoda-style light fixtures hang over a couple dozen tables, which are tidily set with plastic place mats and white linen napkins — and glass ashtrays as big as tires.
There’s a reason for that. As regular diners start wandering in after 5:30 p.m., they greet the waitresses like old friends, plop down at their favorite tables and start lighting up their Parliaments, Kents and Kools. At The Bamboo Hut, smoking and cholesterol have never gone out of style.
And that’s what I love about the place. As the smoke swirls and the jukebox plays Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Barbra Streisand and Bobby Darin, waitresses sprint out from the kitchen with juicy steaks sizzling on hot metal platters.
“It’s so Joplin,” said my friend Bob (a Joplin native). He practically squealed with delight at discovering Lambrusco on the wine list and Texas toast on the menu.
“It’s the very essence of a small-town joint,” added Lou Jane, who proceeded to order a Coca-Cola from the waitress and then called her back to the table to say, “I forgot to tell you, dear, throw some rum in that.”
I had bragged to Lou Jane about The Bamboo Hut’s fried chicken livers, which I’d discovered on a previous visit. She commanded the waitress to bring us some, and they arrived crackly and hot on the outside, soft and silky on the inside, with a little paper cup of cocktail sauce. Except for the shrimp cocktail, The Bamboo Hut deep fries all of its appetizers, from the cheese sticks and pepper poppers to breaded turkey testicles (“turkey fries”) and something called French-fried Shrimp Pieces, which look like nibble-sized shards of shrimp that have gone directly from the Cuisinart to the batter bowl. But they’re so tasty that one night I polished off an entire plate of them, along with a salad of thick-sliced tomatoes doused in “eye-talian” oil-and-vinegar dressing.
Despite the Asian flavor of the restaurant’s name (many passing motorists assume it’s a Chinese restaurant, one waitress confided), The Bamboo Hut’s menu is as all-American as a club sandwich, which the Hut makes with ham and cheese instead of the traditional turkey and bacon. In fact, someone should declare a new national holiday to celebrate The Bamboo Hut’s Southern-fried chicken, which is also deep-fried but moist and savory under a crunchy armor of peppery crust. It comes with a steaming baked potato — a cloud of starchy fluff encased in a foil wrapper — and a two-fisted slab of hot, garlicky grilled toast.
The Bamboo Hut ain’t no place for dieters. I finally said to hell with calorie counting after my second visit, when I’d guilt-tripped myself into ordering a neat little dish of cottage cheese and a demure grilled chicken salad, then watched in misery as Bob lustily devoured an iceberg salad drenched in homemade buttermilk dressing and a gorgeous eight-ounce steak broiled in garlic and butter. I reached over and took one bite of the tender steak, then shoved aside the low-cal salad and yelled for grilled pork chops. You don’t go to a place like The Bamboo Hut to punish yourself by watching the rest of the crowd live it up.
Two lovely little chops came out so perfectly grilled that the meat’s surface was slightly caramelized and a touch smoky, next to a heaping mound of generously cut, golden American fries. Along with a cold salad scattered with tomato wedges, rings of white onion and croutons, the pork chop dinner felt like Sunday afternoon at Grandma’s.
Dinner at The Bamboo Hut is a culinary trip down a lost highway not just because of the prices, the music and the snappy service. How many new restaurants still offer a livers/gizzards combo dinner? On one visit I immediately reverted to my teen years as soon as I stole a plump shrimp, encased in a hot shell of fried batter, off of Bob’s platter of shrimp and steak. I don’t think I’d eaten French-fried shrimp since I wore braces, and these were the really good kind: so big they were nearly impossible to dip into the tiny cup of cocktail sauce, and it took a few bites to finish them off. That dinner came with a tiny filet — hardly bigger than a marshmallow but exquisitely succulent nonetheless.
Lou Jane’s ten-ounce filet mignon was even better, a gorgeous hunk of grilled beef wrapped in bacon and brought out on a hot metal platter that sizzled for minutes. I snagged a taste before Lou Jane claimed the rest of the steak for herself, and we agreed that it was a first-class filet, not the kind you’d expect to find in a roadhouse. But The Bamboo Hut’s neon sign has been trumpeting the joint’s great steaks since the days when Route 40 was a super-highway.
The Bamboo Hut serves no desserts (unless a rum and Coke does the job for you), but you’ll be so full by the time you push your plate aside, you won’t give a damn if you ever see a pastry again. The following day, however, you’ll step on the scale, let out a scream and know it’s time to get down to the gym and check out the new equipment.