The Bamboo HutCafe Express,

Roadside Attraction 

A visit to The Bamboo Hut is a roadside reverie.

In the fabulous 1948 movie Road House, Ida Lupino plays a tough-talking singer with a cigarette perpetually dangling from her ruby lips. She gets a job in one of those off-the-highway joints that's part restaurant, part smoky saloon. Cornel Wilde, playing the roadhouse manager, sizes her up right away as "the new equipment."

And she was the only new equipment in the place; even by the 1940s, roadhouses were old news. They had begun dotting the two-lane landscape during the 1920s, a boom time for highway building (when, for example, Route 40 extended the National Road -- the country's oldest highway -- through Missouri, Kansas and Colorado). By the 1930s, the stretch of Route 40 between St. Louis' Poplar Street Bridge and Kansas City's Intercity Viaduct had plenty of little motels, diners, restaurants and roadhouses to lure weary travelers as well as residents of nearby towns eager for a little excitement. If it wasn't the local version of Ida Lupino, it was at least a good fried chicken dinner and a stiff drink.

Those are still the calling cards at The Bamboo Hut, where the menu and the music have changed little since the place opened along Route 40 in 1932. That was a year before the end of Prohibition, and The Bamboo Hut served only beer and chicken-in-a-basket. The place still feels like it's way out in the country, as it was before Independence annexed the neighborhood in the 1960s, and on the outside, it looks like it did during the Roosevelt administration. During the past seven decades the Hut has had four owners. One of them paneled the dining room like a basement rec room, and at some point modern posters depicting various sports, such as hunting and golf, joined the decorative beer mirrors. The dance floor and the fake palm trees vanished after a fire in 1980, but the long, dark bar, the poker machine and the peel-tab lottery ticket dispenser remain. Whirling ceiling fans and cute little pagoda-style light fixtures hang over a couple dozen tables, which are tidily set with plastic place mats and white linen napkins -- and glass ashtrays as big as tires.

There's a reason for that. As regular diners start wandering in after 5:30 p.m., they greet the waitresses like old friends, plop down at their favorite tables and start lighting up their Parliaments, Kents and Kools. At The Bamboo Hut, smoking and cholesterol have never gone out of style.

And that's what I love about the place. As the smoke swirls and the jukebox plays Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Barbra Streisand and Bobby Darin, waitresses sprint out from the kitchen with juicy steaks sizzling on hot metal platters.

"It's so Joplin," said my friend Bob (a Joplin native). He practically squealed with delight at discovering Lambrusco on the wine list and Texas toast on the menu.

"It's the very essence of a small-town joint," added Lou Jane, who proceeded to order a Coca-Cola from the waitress and then called her back to the table to say, "I forgot to tell you, dear, throw some rum in that."

I had bragged to Lou Jane about The Bamboo Hut's fried chicken livers, which I'd discovered on a previous visit. She commanded the waitress to bring us some, and they arrived crackly and hot on the outside, soft and silky on the inside, with a little paper cup of cocktail sauce. Except for the shrimp cocktail, The Bamboo Hut deep fries all of its appetizers, from the cheese sticks and pepper poppers to breaded turkey testicles ("turkey fries") and something called French-fried Shrimp Pieces, which look like nibble-sized shards of shrimp that have gone directly from the Cuisinart to the batter bowl. But they're so tasty that one night I polished off an entire plate of them, along with a salad of thick-sliced tomatoes doused in "eye-talian" oil-and-vinegar dressing.

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