Bahooka, one of California’s last great Tiki-style themed restaurants, closed its doors forever on Saturday, March 9, 2013. Iconic, absolutely absurd, and adored by countless fans for countless reasons, Bahooka leaves a legacy that will forever be recounted fondly by generations – those who grew up with the restaurant, and those like myself, who came to know and love the place late in the game. Its loss however, is profound in the Tiki community and on a larger scale, is another somber milestone in the passing of great old themed eateries that were just simply wacky fun.
The first Bahooka location opened its doors in West Covina in 1967 under the ownership of brother and sister Betty Twigg and Jack Fliegel, where it remained open until 1980. Due to the success of the family business, a second Bahooka location was founded and opened its doors in 1976 at 4501 Rosemead Boulevard in the city of Rosemead. The second, much larger Bahooka would continue on for decades, becoming a Tiki oasis, shrine, and general SoCal oddity.
Perhaps the most notable feature of Bahooka was the sheer number of fish tanks – large and small – embedded into every possible nook and cranny throughout the establishment. No matter where you sat in the restaurant (with the exception of the toilets in the bathroom), you were surrounded by bubbling tanks filled with fish of all shapes, sizes and colors. I’ve never seen anything like it, and likely never will again. The upkeep and cost of maintaining those tanks must have been huge; however, Bahooka’s tanks and their inhabitants brought smiles to the faces of its guests for generations. And that is awesome. Anyone who’s ever had one fish tank can attest to what a pain in the butt they are to keep up with; I can’t even imagine dealing with over 100 of them! It’s beyond nuts, and was absolutely cool. Bahooka’s dim interior lighting in most of the dining area really let the glow from the fish tanks fill in the darkness; this made for a very unique and bizarre eating/drinking environment.
Out of the hundreds of fish that called Bahooka “home”, there was none more famous than Rufus, a carrot-eating Pacu that is allegedly 36 years old. He’s appeared in movies, on Tiki mugs and postcards. The million dollar question is, what will happen to Rufus now that Bahooka closed its doors? According to the gentleman I spoke to during my final visit, the family has agreed to sell Rufus – along with the other fish and tanks – to the new owner. Sadly, he noted that the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach has reached out to Bahooka and has offered Rufus and perhaps some of his friends a life of luxury in its state-of-the-art facility, free of charge. Unfortunately, that likely won’t happen according to the Bahooka staff, and that’s a real shame. After almost four decades in a cramped aquarium, it would be wonderful to see this special fish live out the rest of his days in a large, modern tank.
Speaking of new ownership, this is where the story gets a bit rough around the edges. Much to the dismay of the public, Bahooka’s owners (second generation of family members to own the business) announced a short while ago that they are selling the business to an Asian client that most likely will open a Chinese food location in the months to come. The name “Bahooka” is being retained by the family for future use to sell their branded salad dressing via Costco and other grocery stores, and the new owner has stated they only want the fish and tanks to remain as part of the deal; why anyone would want that immediate responsibility and expenditure is beyond me. However, we don’t know what the new owner’s plans are for the tanks or the restaurant’s interior, really. Speculation ranges from a bright, generic Chinese eatery, to the entire property being leveled and updated as a large parking lot. Only time will tell; and frankly, with Bahooka gone, who really cares?
The public outcry to save Bahooka from becoming just another Chinese restaurant has been strong and overwhelming. Newspaper stories, online blog entries, calls to the management and almost hostile social media bombardment regarding the family’s decision to sell the business or save it have fallen on deaf ears. Posts on Bahooka’s Facebook page that were critical of the management were removed this past week, leaving only a positive spin on a totally unfortunate situation. As far as anyone can tell, it’s a done deal, and the family does’t want to discuss it with anyone or explain themselves further. It’s a twist that’s left a bad taste in many peoples’ mouths, mine included. I get that the restaurant is theirs to do whatever they want with. I don’t agree with their decision, but I get it. It’s going to be instant payday for the family, who obviously are not at all interested in keeping the tradition of Bahooka alive. However, you have to scratch your head and think about it; over the long haul, you’d think that Bahooka – if run properly and updated to be the mother of all Tiki restaurants – would be a perpetual cash cow, bringing the family far more money over the coming years than a one-time sale to someone else. It just is very sad and disappointing that no other avenue appears to have been explored by the family than the quickest route to the bank.
The way that Bahooka’s final weekend was handled was nothing short of embarrassing and amateur. Communicating with fans and guests via their Facebook page, the management posted on Friday that it would be “cash only” at that point, and that they weren’t sure how much longer it would be before the food ran out and there was only booze left to serve. I took offense to that, and posted on their fan page that it was an indignant and lame way to treat the restaurant and its loyal patrons on the final weekend. There is no reason the credit card service would need to be shut off early other than greed and not wanting to pay for it for three more days. Nor should a restaurant “run out” of food to leave fans posting frantically on their page inquiries of whether or not they should eat elsewhere before coming to say goodbye; that’s insane! If you want to narrow down your stock and prepare a limited menu that you can and will sustain for the final weekend, I can see that and accept that. But to tell people who are willing to wait hours to get in that they have to pay cash and may not find anything left to eat once inside – that is sloppy and indicative of what people have been talking about – the family’s true nature and detachment from the restaurant and its fans. My posting was removed from Bahooka’s site in less than 10 minutes.
In a final, insulting blow to its fans, Bahooka didn’t even bother opening on its scheduled final day, which was supposed to be Sunday, March 10th. People were already lining up outside and traveling to Rosemead from near and far when the family posted that due to the exhausting weekend (a.k.a. they actually had to work a successful, busy business), one of their family members had to go to an emergency room and thus, they simply couldn’t take anymore. And that was it. Goodbye, thanks, now go home.
People waiting in line for hours on Sunday didn’t even know this had been posted. Only after word of mouth spread (the family didn’t even have the decency to come out and personally engage the crowd), did greatly disappointed customers leave; some waited longer, hoping at least for someone to let them in to see and say goodbye one last time. People planned their weekends around this, and in the end, were left empty-handed and let down. Whether or not someone actually was ill isn’t the point (and for the record, I call B.S. on the excuse); a professional business doesn’t do that to people – especially when a closing date has been announced and people have come to say goodbye and show their love. It’s just wrong, wrong, wrong. You plan accordingly, and have a fully-stocked restaurant and bar for all of your customers. Family members show up and walk around to the tables, work the line and thank guests personally. And as you enter your last hour of operation, you give just a little more to your final loyal patrons – you don’t charge for the last round, you bring shots to each table, and you go out with a bang! Not a whimper and sob story about how exhausting it is to have an extremely busy restaurant and quit before your posted date because you simply can’t do it anymore!
But I digress; what’s done is done. In the end, the family members got their way and everyone went home.
Other decorum that Bahooka was famous for included a World War II era anti-aircraft gun at the entrance to the parking lot, scores of plastic parrots stuffed in all corners and nooks of the restaurant, grinning Tikis at every turn, anchor chain-suspended tables, garland and lazily strewn christmas lights throughout the place, and even a jail cell complete with iron bars (ate in there once with a group of friends)! This place definitely always will be remembered for its strangeness and haphazard style. That said, when everything was combined, it all worked!
While some will disagree, the truth is, the food served by Bahooka was not very good. Patrons swore by their ribs – a house specialty. However, the menu was expensive for the quality of food received; that’s the truth, and I’m totally okay with that. The reason we all went to Bahooka was to take in the ridiculous atmosphere while soaking up the potent Tiki cocktails that were served. More than 65 house cocktails with names such as Fire-Fly, Cobra’s Strike, and Singapore Sling filled the menu, as well as large bowls filled with flaming alcohol for the most ambitious drinkers or couples to share, including Scarlet Sails and namesake Bahooka Bowl. It was very easy to drink way too much while hanging at Bahooka; I’d imagine one or two people in the past few years can attest to that!
The bigger picture here, is that Southern California has lost yet another iconic restaurant to the tides of time. It’s really special when people can say, I went there as a child with my dad and grandparents, and now I take my own kids and they love it! Unfortunately, that’s not very easy to find anymore. Restaurants – destinations – such as Bahooka are fast vanishing, and with them, a strong sense of social tradition. We gather, dine and drink with friends and family each day. One of the coolest things is to have a favorite restaurant or watering hole to go to that has been part of your own culture and life for a substantial amount of time; it becomes a home away from home. Once these old places are gone, they’re gone. You don’t sit as a family at El Pollo Loco, Denny’s or Chinese Buffet #26 and reminisce about all the great times you’ve had there throughout your life (if you do, that’s pretty sad). Long-standing, unique restaurants are something special, and they mean a lot to us. When one shuts its doors, it is personal. When one closes under such circumstances as Bahooka, it’s both personal and to some, maddening.
Was Bahooka closed before its time truly came? Could the family members have sought out individuals that wanted to properly operate the business for them? Did the current owners simply sell out for a quick payday? It doesn’t matter now, nor will anyone likely know. The end result here is that a Tiki treasure has been shuttered, its fire snuffed out without due fanfare. However, whether you went once, twice or all the time for years, you can rest assured that you at least had a part in the great and crazy story of Bahooka as it now becomes a legend.
Aloha, Bahooka! Aloha pumehana!
- Rick West