There is something endearing and a little scary about The Bamboo Shak, as if you went to dinner at your neighbor's house and found he had built a fully operational 767 out of matchsticks and discarded washing machine parts.
But you really have no idea until you step inside the cavernous space in yet another anonymous South Dixie Highway shopping mall. It's a Caribbean Disneyland, the kind of thing Mr. Mouse Ears would have done if he were an itinerant beach bum funding his life's dream with the proceeds from selling recycled cans and bottles.
An astonishing amount of work must have gone into the transformation. Thatching, bamboo, chicken wire, murals, posters, faux palm trees, and brilliant-color fabrics fill up a room the size of a small airplane hangar, dividing it into a series of individually themed dining areas. This is not the stuff of high-priced restaurant design lords spending investors' money; this is intricate, painstaking amateur craftsmanship done with a modicum of expertise, a maximum of imagination, and a minimum of the folding green.
Two examples: Tables are recessed, topped with glass; inside are more of the split bamboo staves that seemingly cover every other available surface. The tables' thick edges are lined with tropical decoupage, the table itself held together with long strips of packing tape. All the way in the back is the private dining room a fully fledged tiki hut, like something you might see at an old-timey Keys resort. The passion and effort that owners Shazard and Connie Mohammed put into the place is awe-inspiring, enough to make your average hard-wired, type A workaholic seem like a banana slug.
The food is similarly rustic but, sadly, much less impressive.
Appetizers were terrible. Pholouries, little golf balls of ground-up yellow split peas ostensibly flavored with saffron, garlic, and bhandania (a.k.a. blessed thistle) leaves did not taste like much of anything and had the bouncy texture of partially masticated rubber. A variety of complementary sauces and chutneys are offered; let's hope the others are better than the insipid mango "chutney" and tamarind sauce we sampled, which were closer to sweetened water than any real-life sauce or chutney.
"Hot bird's nest" is a beguiling description of what is actually quite unbeguiling chunks of overcooked, underseasoned chicken doused with what tasted like straight-from-the-bottle ketchup plunked down on a bed of cabbage. It's for the birds, though frankly I doubt even they would have it.
Entrées at least were something of an improvement. Jerk chicken was not the typical marinated and grilled breast but legs stewed long and low in pungent, aromatic jerk spices. Five bucks and change gets you four tender, meaty gams and a pile of white rice cheaper than a bucket at Colonel Redneck's House of Grease-Fried Chicken Parts. Tilapia in a porridgelike, sinus-hosing Caribbean-style curry sauce was decent enough, though any flavor of the fish was lost in the conflagratory sauce.
(Note to chili-heads: The Bamboo Shak will inflame your dishes to order on a scale of one to five, one being mildly spicy and five being napalm. My fish curry was a four, which was the number of halved habaneros I found swimming in the viscous sauce. Don't say I didn't warn you.)
Dessert was a nothing-special banana split albeit one fetchingly presented in a long bamboo "bowl" a big piece sliced down the middle and glued back to back, with one side the base and the other a receptacle for a variety of standard-issue ice creams and overripe bananas. It's just one more example of how The Bamboo Shak is like your neighbor's homemade 767. You've got to admire the work that went into it, but I'm not sure you'd really want to fly in the thing.
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