Kowloon (Saugus, MA)

In the post-war Era, literally thousands of “Polynesian” and “Tiki”-themed restaurants showed up around the US, peddling a mostly even mix of Polynesian, Maori, Asian, Pacific Island, and Escapism. Providing a spot where you could get away and sip any one of a number of Tiki or tropical drinks, nosh at a pu pu platter, and, for the larger establishments, maybe even catch a floor show. Sure, if one is looking for “authentic” food (Chinese, Polynesian, Japanese, or otherwise), this isn’t your place, but like I said in last year’s House of Wu, these sorts of places still have a valuable niche in American cuisine, with somewhat equal parts sentimentalism, nostalgia, preservation, adaptation, and, admittedly, bastardization. Once plentiful, changing American tastes, a wider variety of competing cuisines, changing local economies, and different challenges of running a huge restaurant have taken their toll, and many of these 1950s and 1960s places have faced the wrecking ball (including the recent 2018 closings of both Chicopee’s Hu Ke Lau and Lynnfield’s Bali Hai, both former Tiki icons). Despite the trend, Kowloon, in Saugus MA, still hangs on (and heck, it’s one of New England’s highest volume restaurants).

Opening in 1958 (expanded from a previous restaurant on site) on the pre-Interstate Route 1, it used to be part of an impressive “Restaurant Row” of kitschy places lining what used to be the main north-south route (the light-studded fake cactus of the former Hilltop Steakhouse just down the way being one of few other relics still remaining). You can’t miss the edifice of Kowloon, with it’s gigantic Tiki-themed A-frame construction. And the construction of the place is massive. While the original restaurant footprint is long-buried under a series of expansions, the current interior of Kowloon is huge. Like, theme park huge, with over a half dozen large dining rooms, with a total capacity of over 1200, with a variety of themes including Volcano Bay Room, the Tiki Lagoon, the Mandarin Room, the Thai Grille, or the Hong Kong Lounge. We ended up where a lot of large parties ended up, in the “Ship” room, since it is loosely decorated as a shipdeck (and it also serves as one of the smaller live entertainment venues, with a stage on one end). And, almost as importantly, in my multiple visits to Kowloon over the years, it remains busy, and in fact, was near-capacity as we left (with a stern warning that our reservation could only have the table for two hours).

One of the reasons that people still like to go to Kowloon is for group gatherings, and it’s still a place that embraces the “Polynesian Lounge” genre, including a several page list of classic tropical and Tiki cocktails. Honestly, the cocktails aren’t the greatest, probably a 6/10 on my scale. Most of the offerings are either watered-down versions of classics or distinctly vague combinations of orange and pineapple juice with various rum blends added, but a few like the Piyi shown here are pretty good, and the prices are reasonable.

If one is running any sort of Polynesian-themed lounge or Chinese-themed restaurant in New England, if there’s another mandatory item menu item besides a variety of fruity cocktails, it is the Pu Pu Platter, that large bounty of skewered meat, egg rolls, squid bits, chicken fingers, fried wontons, and other random fried items all piled aroudn a central charcoal brazier. Here’s where you can start to see the frayed edges of the Kowloon facade: the kitchen (which is an impressively-large operation that can occasionally be gazed through some of the doors; the place is frequently serving over a thousand people at once) is obviously running an economy-of-scale operation, and in the case of the Pu-Pu platter that becomes obvious: while the skewers were of decent quality and freshly made, everything else had obviously been sitting under a heat lamp for a while, while the flavors were basically good, the texture was lost along with most of the crispiness, leaving a platter of mostly limp appetizers. Not only were the egg rolls in particular an example of “heat lamp” food, but it’s also obvious that their heat lamp could use a little more cowbell.

For my main course, it was a nice change of pace. Always preferring the spicier end of most any menu, I ordered the Yu Hsiang Chicken: sliced chicken breast in hot garlic sauce. Unlike the appetizer disappointment, this was a pretty well executed dish: a decently seared and sliced breast, with a nicely (and importantly, freshly) stir-fried mix of onions, peppers, and bamboo shoots in a garlic pepper sauce. This was actually pretty good, although “Hot” and “Garlic” were applied with a particularly New England hand (in other words, really mild). But still, I’d actually be happy to get this again.

Carol’s Szechuan Special Beef was basic beef slices sauteed with peppers, onions, mushrooms, and water chestnuts. Again, not a bad dish, but kind of of the bland side as well. If you are going to mark something with two “spicy” stars in the menu, it should have some sort of notable spicy note, but it was freshly-prepared and decent aside from the heat level.

Kowloon is enough of an institution that most anyone that really eats out around here has been here, so I have gotten some advice from friends on how to miss some of the pitfalls here. My friend Gary of PigTrip.net fame insists that some of the more obscure items on the menu are pretty good, like the Saugus Wings served up in a black bean and oyster sauce are nice, and apparently usually quite fresh. And both the lo mein dishes and the “Fancy Chicken” served with cashews and mushrooms in a hollowed-out pineapple actually looked pretty good as well, so I’ve got plenty of things to try on another trip.

For those still reading, yeah, this isn’t a glowing review. I should be a bit fair to Kowloon; it is really hard to run any restaurant well in these modern times with high economic pressures like real estate costs, taxes, and difficulty in getting labor, and I’m actually impressed that Kowloon manages to still pack the house with one of New England’s largest restaurants on a Saturday mid-afternoon, and they’ve managed to keep a classic 60+ year “Polynesian” restaurant running through more than a few roller coaster rides in American tastes and dining preference. And the prices are still pretty reasonable, considering . Unfortunately, much of this at the expense of the actual food quality. Still, if you are around the North Shore and haven’t been to Kowloon, it’s worth going. If you are like me and have a bunch of Tiki-loving FOM friends, doubly so. It’s a surviving relic of another era.

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