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Friday, August 22, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

On island time? Kick back and wait for Caribbean delights

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Bahama Breeze


15700 Southcenter Parkway, Tukwila, 206-241-4448 www.bahamabreeze.com

Caribbean

**½

$$

Reservations: Not available (expect a lengthy wait).

Hours: dinner served Sundays-Thursdays 4 p.m.-midnight, Fridays-Saturdays 4 p.m.-1 a.m.

Prices: starters $3.99-$8.99, entrees $6.50-$22.99 (children's menu $2.99-$3.99).

Wine list: Brief and fairly priced with a surprising number of Northwest entries, though who needs wine when Bahama Breeze offers a booze-bible with a lengthy list of rums, 'ritas and tropical vacations-in-a-glass?

Sound: loud on the enclosed deck (live music nightly), moderate-to-noisy indoors.

Parking: complimentary valet.

Full bar/all major credit cards/no obstacles to access/smoking at bar and deck only.

Bahama Breeze hit with hurricane force in May, and Tukwila hasn't been the same since. Take a trip to this casual chain and you'll find a faux-tropical extravaganza teeming with tourists: locals intent on taking an "island vacation," complete with a Southcenter view and every Caribbean cliché in the book.

Set in a sea of SUVs on the site of the former Southcenter Theater, Bahama Breeze is a no-reservations restaurant phenomenon, a sprawling venue whose drinking and dining areas resemble thatched-roof huts. The lengthy, something-for-everyone menu touts "the bold, unique flavors of the Caribbean," including such best sellers as coconut prawns, jerk chicken pasta and Bahamian grilled kabobs.

We-aim-to-please service staff, trained to within an inch of their lives, wear tropical fish-print shirts and Ultra Brite smiles as they tend to patrons nestled among the palm trees. Steel-drummers and Jimmy Buffet tune-crooners perform nightly in an enclosed, open-air patio where heat lamps hang ready to keep the gray away as sunny summer turns to rainy fall.

Seated at the busy bar (there's one inside, another out) or around a spacious fire pit in the gazebo, the young and the not-so imbibe frozen Bahamaritas and drafts of Aruba Red — culled from a beverage list of Yellow Pages proportion. Some are waiting for a table, others are flirting shamelessly, still others are mesmerized by busy bartenders whose slick tricks prove they've watched Tom Cruise in "Cocktail" one time too many.

Look on as these young pros toss (and catch!) full 20-ounce glasses of beer and juggle their cocktail shakers with aplomb. To their endless credit, they're quick, and they don't miss a beat, even when they're slammed. (How busy are they? One evening I watched a taxicab pull up to the delivery entrance with a trunk filled with bagged ice. Enough said.) The nonstop every-night's-a-party atmosphere is among the many ways Bahama Breeze bids "Welcome to the Islands" — a constant greeting that, after several visits, led me to wonder: Which island? Gilligan's?

Why the Gilligan's analogy? you ask. Well, (sing along now): Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip, that starts with valet parking and the valet's "hello" tip. That tip will tip you off, you see, to what lies straight ahead: a line of folks who've beat you here, for a wait you'll come to dread.

Do come prepared. Two-hour waits are not uncommon on weekends and a "three-hour tour" isn't unheard of. And no, those groovy illuminating pagers won't work in the mall.

So, what's everybody waiting for? Mainland versions of island-influenced cuisine; scrumptious easy-eating in a fun and festive setting.

Imagine nachos in Nassau and you'll envision tostones con pollo ($7.25) thick-sliced fried plantains (cooking bananas), topped with chicken, mushrooms and melted cheese. Panko-breaded coconut prawns, crisp and ready for dipping in a tangy citrus-mustard sauce, get the piña colada treatment when marinated in thick, creamy Coco Lopez ($7.99). Tired of the same old calamari rings and tentacles? Sample calamari sofrito, fried squid slices fancified with a smoky sauce laced with chorizo, tomatoes, sweet red pepper and onions ($7.99).

Servers aren't shy about making suggestions, and you should consider taking them up on their up-sell ("Would you like soup or salad with that?"). The Bahamian conch chowder ($4.99) is a light, vegetable-laden broth that scores with a slow-onset hit of heat and plenty of chopped conch. The Breeze salad (a sharable steal at $3.99) offers a mix of fresh greens, lengthy ribbons of cucumber and toasted pumpkin seeds tossed with a well-balanced, fruit-sweetened vinaigrette.

That house salad and a thin-crusted wood-fired pizza make a swell meal, particularly if the pizza wears portobello mushrooms, grilled onions and goat cheese ($9.99). Crispy chicken salad ($9.99), entree-sized, comes dressed to the nines with tortilla strips, corn kernels, black beans, and mega-bites of moist fried chicken anointed with blue cheese "drizzle." One night I showed up with a pal fresh off the plane from Florida. One bite of the Cuban Classic — a pressed sandwich stuffed with roasted pork, ham, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles pressed in a crusty roll ($7.99) — and the Miami native shouted "Muy autentico!"

West Indies ribs ($17.99), a full rack of guava-glazed baby backs, are roasted long enough to give your teeth a chance to pull the meat from the bones and let your palate register the tenderness-quotient. Served with shoestring fries, these are just the ticket for diners looking for basic eats. For those looking to kick things up a notch, there's oak-fired chicken breast with roasted pepper sauce poised over a thick disk of "crisp yucca" ($12.99/$9.99), offered, as are several entrees, in lighter, less-expensive portions.

Grilled king salmon with carrot-ginger sauce ($13.99) arrived with a sweet root-vegetable mash and sautéed spinach. It sounded more exciting than it was. I preferred the simple elegance of "Fish in a Bag" — delicate tilapia filet seasoned with fresh thyme, scattered with vegetables and baked in parchment ($13.99). Better still were jumbo sea scallops, pan-seared, succulent, brushed with lemon-cilantro pesto and arranged around angel hair pasta ($17.99), an option light enough to allow room for pitch-perfect Key lime pie ($4.99).

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or nleson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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