There is no going back. I know that adage, but I had to learn it once again last week when I visited an iconic culinary institution of my youth, the Hu-Ke-Lau Restaurant in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. (Yes folks, it’s true. While fellow writer and Write On the Water blogger Christine Kling gives us dramatic posts from the South Pacific, I am offering-up an entry about a stateside Polynesian restaurant. Stick with me, though.)
I’ve been talking about going back to the Hu-Ke-Lau for decades, and with each year of absence, the place grew in importance, gaining a Mount Rushmore-like standing. Last week, I finally made the trek and it was all there – the same plush carpet (now warn thin after a decades of use), the same menu (more on that later), and the same exotic ambiance (exotic for a sheltered baby-boomer from Western Massachusetts).
When I was young, my aunt and uncle would visit us once a year. Each time, we’d go out to dinner, and without fail my uncle would involve me in his sure-fire method for picking up the tab. When the check came, my uncle would point to me and tell the waiter that I’d be paying for dinner. The waiter would laugh along and then I would confirm my uncle’s statement by pulling out a fresh fifty, one that my uncle had covertly handed me before dinner.
Back then, my family rarely went out to dinner and meals at home were conventional. The exception was the Hu-Ke-Lau, and it was fun – the strange pronunciation of Polynesian dishes, the fiery arrival of sterno-lit centerpieces, and, of course, me picking up the tab.
So there I was last week, walking in with my wife, regaling the old spot. My first observation was that the place was empty. Then I noticed the carpet. It seemed so plush back then, and it must have been given that it has lasted all these years. The lights were brighter than I remembered – a little dimming would have helped now. And then came dinner. I ordered Hawaii Three-O (the Hawaii Five-O dish included shrimp and white fish).
“Wow, look how much food there is,” I said as my plate arrived. Yet, it was downhill from there. A vivid imagination can assist a writer, but it’s a curse when you’re convinced that these huge portions must have sat on a previous patron’s plate. And the spare ribs? They were just as I remembered them. In fact, they may have been hanging around since the late sixties.
Soon, my thoughts shifted more to a sense of resignation, than one of disappointment. For a moment, I thought about Trader Vic’s in New York City and the fact that it’s long gone from the basement of the Plaza. Like some old professional athletes, the Hu-Ke-Lau stayed around too long.
I can’t imagine ever going back again. But I assure you, there are mighty fine memories of my family sitting at one of their big round tables with a consumed Pu-Pu-Platter. In that image a young boy sits with his family, and he’s about to close out the night by surprising the waiter with a crisp legal tender marked with the face of President Ulysses S. Grant. Funny what we recall, isn’t it.
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