Restaurant Reviews

Jungle Fever

I ate my last slice of Chuck E. Cheese's pizza in 1990, when my five-year-old daughter attended a friend's birthday party. I remembered thinking at the time, if I never have to suffer through another impromptu jam session from mechanical bears "plucking" their banjos and "beating" their drums, it will be too soon.

Fast-forward to 2000, when I entered the adult version of Chuck E. Cheese, the Rainforest Café, one of nearly 40 such tropically themed restaurants choking the nation like so much East Texas vine. I use the phrase "adult version" pointedly, not only because it makes sense that a generation of grown-ups raised on Chuck E. Cheese should graduate to the Rainforest, but also because it takes a breadwinner's wallet to pay for a meal here. On both of the occasions we visited, our party of four managed to eat up a $100 bill -- and that was without alcohol.

Our safari began with a 30-or-so-mile trek west to the latest addition to the urban sprawl surrounding Katy, the Katy Mills mall. On fields where rice and cotton once grew, there now stands a concrete jungle, fertilized by money. The mall entrance we happened upon was sponsored by Memorial Healthcare Systems. (What do they hope to achieve by this?) Miss the entrance closest to the restaurant, and you'll go on another mini-safari, hacking your way around the mall. Mercifully, our first visit was late on a Sunday night, and there was no wait at the restaurant (although I did have a reservation, just in case). Patrons who ate lunch there the same day, we were told, endured a two-hour wait, which no doubt provided them plenty of time to browse the not-so-quaint Retail Village, through which every Explorer (as patrons are known) must pass to enter the restaurant. Here, we were told by Tracy the Talking Tree, "shopping is as much fun as eating." Even before we entered the place, so-called Trainers attempted to educate us on the two resident parrots (about the only live things in the place). Strolling past the life-size, mechanical crocodile, constantly opening and shutting its jaw, we passed underneath a large saltwater aquarium where real fish swim.

As theme restaurants go, the Rainforest Café does a good job of creating and maintaining its atmosphere. A hostess is a Tour Guide; the waiters, all dressed in olive green and khaki, are Safari Guides; then there are Pathfinders, Navigators and Trailblazers -- I'm not sure what they do, other than make good names for sport utility vehicles. The barstools are in the shape of the ass end of an animal -- zebra, lion and so on. It's a pity a horse was nowhere to be seen. Even the menu is full of cutesy tropically named dishes.

If for nothing else, the Rainforest Café is worth a visit just to experience the wonders of an indoor thunderstorm, complete with thunder, lightning and mist. The first time this happens, it gets your attention, but since it happens every 20 minutes or so, it gets tiresome quickly. The place, with seating for 350 Explorers, is very dark from all the fake foliage hanging everywhere, including the large-as-life banyan trees that form the pillars holding up the Rainforest's ceiling. It's uncomfortably loud, too; don't even attempt to carry on a conversation -- you'll go hoarse trying. The background music is frequently interrupted by the "sounds" of the rainforest: gorillas grunting, elephants trumpeting, water falling, other animals (mechanical) and kids (real) shrieking. This has to be the zenith of eatertainment.

Our meal was turning into an Adventure, just not a gastronomic one.

In an effort to please every palate, the extensive menu is a strange mix of cuisines from the Caribbean, Italy, Asia, Mexico and America. Not that most people pay close attention to the menu, since it plays a subservient role in a restaurant where ambience is king of the jungle.

Everything at the Rainforest Café is done to excess, including the portions. Most patrons were carrying ample doggie bags at the conclusion of their safari. This excess is best exemplified by the Giant Chocolate Volcano ($10.99), which is easily the largest and most expensive dessert I have ever encountered. Massive enough to feed a small tribe, it weighs in at a whopping pound and a half. A mammoth hunk of dense, dark and delectable chocolate brownie is shaped in the form of a volcano. The snow-capped top is formed with whipped cream and three scoops of vanilla ice cream. An eruption occurs after your Guide pours piping hot caramel and chocolate sauces over the top, setting off a stream of ice cream lava cascading down the cake until it comes to rest in a smoldering pool. Sopping up the sauces with the cake is definitely the thing to do.

While nowhere near as theatrical, the Forest Flatbread ($7.99) is an interesting twist on a standard pizza. It is wafer-thin, and consequently, exceedingly crisp. The four-cheese topping includes some wonderfully sharp Parmesan notes along with fresh tomatoes and basil. It is served with a chunky tomato sauce that has a hint of sweetness.

The rest of the menu is a bit like the jungle itself: You have to be careful where you tread. The filling for the Rainforest Pita Quesadillas ($7.99) -- grilled chicken, roasted peppers, caramelized onions and melted cheese -- works well, but the grilled pita bread is dry and pasty and in desperate need of some kind of sauce. The Awesome Appetizer Adventure ($11.99) is a sample platter of mostly fried items. Chicken Rain Stix and Veggie Rain Stix look like tightly rolled taquitos. They are, in fact, fried-to-a-crisp rice paper, whose filling is an utter mystery. The dipping sauces, on the other hand, are uncommonly good. Both have a sweet base; one is a mango sauce with a hint of curry, while the other is made from tamarind, cilantro and ginger. The platter also includes Island Pot Stickers (seared pork dumplings), these too rubbery from overcooking.

The Plant Sandwich ($10.99) has all the makings of a deliciously different dish: a portobello mushroom with grilled zucchini, roasted red pepper slices, fresh spinach, lettuce and a Caesar dressing, all served on herbed focaccia. Unfortunately the dressing never penetrates the bread, which is too thick and therefore very dry. There is also no depth to the flavor. The sandwich is served with some crisp homemade potato chips, but can also be ordered with waffle fries. Order the latter -- they're the best. The Rasta Pasta ($12.99), widely touted as one of the Rainforest's most popular dishes, has a creamy garlic Alfredo sauce that's so thick it begins to coagulate before the plate hits the table, while the Jungle Chop ($14.99) suffers from an all too familiar problem: It tastes similar to many of the other dishes we tried. The accompanying garlic mashed potatoes, with skins still on, are almost good enough to save the chop, though.

The rest of the dessert menu boasts another extravagance: The Captain's Choice Key Lime Pie ($4.99). By itself, the filling is passably tart and exceedingly smooth (although I did detect an unidentifiable artificial flavor). That this tart little concoction rests on a bed of raspberry sauce is an unnecessary overindulgence. Better is the Monkey Business Coconut Bread Pudding ($4.99), a solid slab of pudding filled with bits of apricot and raisins, topped with toasted coconut and whipped cream.

The Katy Mills mall is not the kind of mall you just pop in and out of. You could easily spend the better part of a day there. Since you're a captive audience and the eating choices are limited, you may very well end up at the Rainforest Café. If you have a band of screaming kids, take them there -- they'll add to the din. Personally I prefer the peace and solitude of the real thing.

Rainforest Café, 5000 Katy Mills Circle, (281)644-6200.

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Paul Galvani