Restaurant Reviews

Dive Right In

Years ago, when I taught writing and composition to college students, I used a culinary term as an example of an oxymoron: jumbo shrimp. The kids seemed to grasp that example more quickly than any other.

If I were teaching these days, I'd cite a different illustration: clean dive. A clean dive is a hole-in-the-wall bar that's shadowy rather than seedy, a joint that serves lots of beer but smells like lots of soap.

In short, a clean dive is a bar and grill like the Octopus' Garden, a happy amalgam of contradictions. Located on Hollywood Boulevard in downtown Hollywood, the Octopus is only a couple of months old, but it fits into the area so well it might have always been there. You can order a Budweiser, but you can also sip a draft Yeungling's, a satiny Pennsylvania microbrew with a dry, hoppy finish. The kitchen boasts one burner and a hot pot, but fare like Uncle John's chili is hot, homemade, and zingy. The menu itself is a photocopied sheet of paper that offers, along with the expected chili and buckets of fries, ambitious items like "lightly blackened tilapia on field of greens garnished with tropical salsa." And even though double sets of white-and-maroon linens drape the four interior tables (a couple of patio sets provide outdoor seating), the tilapia is served on a paper plate.

Tablecloths notwithstanding, the Octopus emanates casualness. The servers won't hesitate to ask another party to move if yours is bigger and the other group is hogging a larger table. Nor do they bother with circumspection; ask if the bartender makes strawberry margaritas, and one of them will bellow at the bartender, "Hey Kelly, you got strawberries tonight?"

They don't have to shout too loudly if the CD jukebox isn't going, because the tile-floor space is so minuscule that the "band" -- two guitarists strumming selections from The Sound of Music -- had to wait until we had adjourned to the bar before it could set up. Not that we minded, since the bar (one of two in the place) is eminently cool: It opens out onto the sidewalk, allowing drinkers to perch on stools adjacent to foot and street traffic, lending the Octopus a Key West feel.

The Octopus is just biker-bar enough to discourage many would-be diners. Even my party walked in and out before reading the menu and deciding to give it a shot. In the end we were glad we had. Not every dish was a rousing success, but enough of them were, elevating the Octopus to the status of diva among dives.

The best items are the most expensive ones -- and by that I mean the roasted prime rib and the blackened fish dinner, which go for a mere $10.95 each. On our visit the fish was tilapia, dusted with a generous amount of blackening spices and pan-fried. Not spicy but certainly flavorful, the fish was enhanced by "tricked-out skins" (potato skins topped with chili, cheese, and sour cream) and "Octoslaw" (coleslaw). If tilapia is your fish and you demand it fresh, then a pair of fish tacos will also be to your liking. Anyone who has ever been to Baja, California, where roadside fish-taco stands abound, might object to the commercial shredded cheese sprinkled in these folded tortillas: authentic ones are cheese-free. If the Octopus insists on a Tex-Mex spin on the treat, it should at least offer some grated queso blanco.

Those same yellow shreds drifted like unwelcome kelp on top of a more South Florida­oriented starter, the smoked fish dip. Slightly chunky with succulent bits of whitefish, the dip was stuffed into a hollowed-out loaf of sourdough bread. Scrape off the cheese, scoop up the fish dip with bits of bread, wash it down with an ale, and call it a night -- a good night.

The aforementioned chili (on which shredded cheese makes sense) also comes in an edible bowl, as does soup of the day. The combination of stew and starch can be quite filling, a boon to small appetites and smaller billfolds. Keeping it simple is the only real way to ensure a pleasurable experience in the arms of the Octopus.

The kitchen can't handle multiple orders, which will result in an evening like ours: You might get the finger steak -- a rib eye cut in strips and placed atop "piano keys" of garlic bread -- in short order, and you'll appreciate the textural contrasts, not to mention the creative take on a steak sandwich. But your date's "Cajun Angels" -- marinated blackened shrimp wrapped with bacon --will show up just when he's decided to drink his dinner instead. Not that they would have satisfied him anyway, since these crustaceans, curled up like snail shells, were no oxymoron.

Mix-ups also occurred. We'd asked for our "Octopus wings" split into two different orders with two separate sauces, the teriyaki and the Grand Marnier. Instead we received one order with both sauces mixed together and missing the promised celery and blue cheese. Fortunately the wings were tasty, though it was difficult to identify any note in the sauce other than sweetness.

Additionally some fare was overdone. The burger with blue cheese and fried onions had been blackened (the Octopus is overly fond of this method of preparation) first with spices, then put on the grill. Cooked to medium-rare as requested, instead of done as a hockey puck, the hamburger would have been a find. As would have a side order of Cajun onion rings. Too bad these little guys had been left in the deep fryer for longer than it takes to make a strawberry margarita when you've run out of berries and have to go to the market for more.

The mixed bag that is a full meal at the Octopus' Garden should convince you to forgo the dessert and indulge in a drink instead. But then, if you expect a three-course meal, you should go elsewhere to begin with, because even getting fresh silverware here can be an issue. If you have a party of four or more, don't even bother. And if you have an objection to Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" followed by the Grateful Dead's "Uncle John's Band," again, you're in the wrong scene, man. But if you have a contrary mind keen to direct contradictions -- say you like to sit on a barstool drinking microbrews, head-banging to Metallica one minute and swaying to "My Favorite Things" the next -- the Octopus' Garden can be Eden.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick