Los Angeles has many restaurants offering eccentric combinations of cuisines – Ethiopian/Italian is actually natural thanks to the colonial era occupation of the country, but Korean/Italian and Portuguese/Greek are rather more unusual. A new Scandinavian/Turkish concept is scheduled to open soon in Culver City, which probably takes the prize.
The South Bay’s current champion for odd combinations, Banzai Beach, has something for almost anybody. They serve Italian cuisine and pizzas, tacos, and Japanese Teppanyaki, all in the atmosphere of a tiki bar.
The story behind the restaurant is convoluted, but the brief version is that Chef Manny, formerly of Il Bocaccio, used to cook downstairs at an Italian restaurant called La Campana. A Japanese restaurant called Banzai Beach moved in upstairs, then the space became Italian again. Competition between both traditional Italian and Japanese restaurants is fierce in the area, so the owner decided to change the concept to something more novel. He noticed that no place in this beachy area serves tropical tiki drinks and Caribbean/Polynesian-inflected food. The menu was changed; the Banzai Beach name was brought back; and voila, the new Banzai Beach.
The new restaurant doesn’t go overboard with the Polynesian décor, which has led serious tiki aficionados to call it “tiki lite.” That’s actually a pretty good description – there are elements of Hawaiiana and ‘50s kitsch here, and the music on the sound system is often reggae and other island music.
Your first decision when dining here is whether you prefer the dining room (called the tiki lounge) or the teppanyaki room, where chefs prepare stir-fries in the acrobatic style of Benihana of Tokyo. Teppanyaki is not an ancient cuisine; it was invented in 1964 in New York by a Japanese entrepreneur who taught his chefs knife juggling and flamboyant cooking techniques. It was advertised as “Dinner and a show,” which is accurate – the chefs chat with customers and tell jokes while cooking up a storm.
I have had dinner in Banzai Beach’s teppanyaki room and enjoyed it very much – the steak, seafood, or combination stir-fries are expertly cooked, seasoned with a tangy sauce and sprinkle of sesame. The only problem is that your entire party needs to decide on either teppanyaki or the lounge, as the menus are separate. Banzai Beach is essentially two restaurants in one, though both are served by the same waitstaff.
After trying the teppanyaki room on my first visit, I gathered friends and family to sample the lounge. We got a roomy corner table underneath a screen showing surf videos and scanned the menu, starting of course with drinks. I started with a classic, the mai tai, which was tasty and strong as it should be, and my companions tried scorpions and Honolulu Lulus. I was a bit apprehensive because when the place was first open the complex drinks were a little shaky, but this time they were all in balance.
We decided to start with orders of Maui onion rings, a baked goat cheese salad, hot wings, and two calamari dishes – the standard fried with sauce on the side and a special of calamari with polenta. The onion rings were very good, crisp batter over sweet maui onion, and we liked the goat cheese salad very much. The wings were a slight disappointment because the sauce wasn’t as spicy as we liked – we had asked for medium spicy, but they came out mildly tangy with no chili heat. (This may have been a miscommunication with our server or the kitchen, since she seemed surprised when we mentioned that it wasn’t hot enough.)
The clear winner among the starters was the calamari braised with polenta in a richly herbed marinara sauce. That sauce had a delicate pepper tang that made it as spicy and more interesting than the wing sauce, and even someone who isn’t a calamari fan agreed that it was a hit.
For main courses we selected seafood pasta, lemon-garlic shrimp pizza, an ahi burger, albacore tacos, and an order of the “Kalua” pork ribs. The pizza had a medium crust with just a little chewiness and was first-rate – I remember liking Manny’s pizzas from his first restaurant here, and if anything they have gotten better. The pasta hit the spot too, the same sauce that was on the calamari working perfectly with al dente pasta and shrimp with a touch of chives. To prove that the Italian items weren’t the only stars here, the ahi sandwich was also spot-on, a generous portion of fish seared after being peppered and dusted with herbs.
Alas, the ribs and tacos weren’t up to the same standard. The tacos were made with what seemed to be good-quality albacore, but topped with so much tartar sauce that it was impossible to taste the fish. This problem is fixable – if that sauce had been served on the side, it would have been a hit. The ribs, though, had multiple flaws. What had been described as “pork short ribs” were actually rib tips, a meaty, nearly boneless cut that is not very flavorful and sometimes fatty. The rib tips had been baked in a sweet sauce and had obviously never touched the grill, so there was no searing that might have caramelized the sauce and added a little smoke flavor and complexity. I had been looking forward to these because there is no place in a wide radius that serves the classic Cantonese ribs in slightly sweet and sour sauce – I’m still looking. The ribs were served with rice and some mixed vegetables that were a bit heavy on the bell pepper, and I ate a few bites and then sampled from my companions’ plates.
After another round of tropical beverages (with a zombie permitted only to someone who was not driving), it was time for dessert. We were happy to find that Manny was still serving some of his specialties, so we ordered freshly made cannoli and an order of panna cotta with three fruit sauces.
On balance, Banzai Beach is doing well but still evolving – the teppan room is an attraction with solid cooking, and while there were some rough spots to be ironed out in the lounge menu the problems are fixable. The service was enthusiastic and professional despite the fact that our server was handling a large room by herself and also training someone else, and the cheerful atmosphere of the restaurant is a plus. Banzai Beach is in a tough location – the second story on a crowded street is in plain sight for pedestrians but tough for drivers who are watching where they’re going. It deserves to succeed – the place has quirky soul, and where else can you get teriyaki chicken and follow it up with a sinful Italian dessert, with a Bahama Mama or Blue Hawaiian to wash it down?
Banzai Beach is at 934 Hermosa Avenue, Suite 7, on the upper floor. Parking below building, with elevator. Open daily except Tuesday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., full bar. Menu at banzaihb.com. (310) 374-3747.