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Dining Out

Decor provides the most spark

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June 1, 2008

Kowloon
948 Broadway (Route 1 north), Saugus
781-233-0077; kowloonrestaurant.com
Open daily, 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m.
All major credit cards accepted.
Accessible to the handicapped

Some North Shore restaurants boast of their harbor and ocean views. Kowloon has no views at all. It's just as well: If the Route 1 landmark had windows, they'd mostly overlook fast-moving cars and acres of asphalt.

The spectacle at Kowloon is all on the inside. The 1,200-seat restaurant, which calls itself "America's premier Asian dining complex," promises diners an escape into a pseudo-Polynesian fantasy world. The dining rooms include the Tiki Lagoon, with fake palm trees and tableside fountains; the Volcano Bay Room, outfitted with nautical paraphernalia, including several boats hanging overhead; and the Luau Room, good for private parties of up to 500.

The food at Kowloon isn't anything special, but the kitsch factor is off the charts. To judge from the celebrity photos on the walls, professional wrestlers seem to find the restaurant especially appealing.

Unfortunately, our hostess quickly led our party of four to a featureless dining room near the front before we had a chance to get our bearings. No carved tikis, no thatched roofs. But we cheered up when we noticed that just about every other table in the room seemed to have a dish on fire. Much larger flames flared up periodically from the grill of an open kitchen in one corner, where chefs in red jackets and white hats scurried about.

Wanting a fire of our own, we ordered the flaming ambrosia ($15), a staple here for more than 40 years. (The restaurant's website includes a gallery of menus and illustrated matchbook covers dating to the 1950s. Flaming Ambrosia turned out to be a hollowed-out half-pineapple filled with chunks of fried, battered chicken immersed in a pool of liquid. Our efficient but uncommunicative waiter plunked the dish down on our table and ignited it with a flick of his lighter as he turned to leave. After watching the blue flames for several minutes, we finally had to blow them out so we could start eating.

Maybe we should have been patient: The flammable liquid, we were told, was 150-proof rum, and enough alcohol remained to give the soggy chicken a harsh, almost medicinal flavor.

An appetizer of boneless spare ribs ($8) was more to our taste. The meat was chewy and abundant and not coated in sweet sauce. We got our quota of sweet with a plate of sesame tofu ($10), in a sugary orange sauce surrounded by a wreath of crunchy broccoli. The tofu cubes were chewy on the outside, custardy on the inside, and we gobbled them up.

Other dishes were perfectly satisfying, if unexciting. The char shue ding ($9) - diced barbecued pork and vegetables crowned with almonds - was solid but bland. A plate of spicy shredded pork in garlic sauce ($9.75), Yu Hsiang style, was tastier.

In honor of the Boston sports-radio legend, we ordered the Eddie Andelman lo mein ($17), which was chicken, onions, pea pods, and a few shrimp here and there on a large pile of al-dente, pan-fried noodles. It was good, but not $17 good, and it arrived warm rather than hot.

When we asked our 19-year-old son his opinion of the meal, he said, "Exactly what I expected: regular old Chinese food."

Next time, we'll insist on sitting in the Volcano Bay Room or maybe the Tiki Lagoon. Even if the food is "regular," our surroundings will be anything but.

COCO McCABE AND DOUG STEWART

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