Welcome To The Jungle

Rainforest Cafe

Mall of America, Bloomington


           TESTING PERSONALITIES WAS never so easy before the advent of the megamall. The Rainforest Cafe for instance, conveniently located next to Bloomingdales, is a great place to go and catch up on your soul searching. Are you easygoing, willing to accept the intended effect of this Disneyesque environment, or are you a grouch, sensitive to the fact that at the bottom of this family-friendly exercise in environmental awareness there is a more acute awareness of your wallet? Is this place your worst nightmare, or is it a pleasant way to while away a couple of hours? Yes.

           Here are the facts. The Rainforest Cafe ("A Wild Place to Shop and Eat: An Environmentally Conscious Family Adventure") is a restaurant and a retail store stuffed with plastic trees, live tropical birds, fishtanks, animated wildlife, and special effects that simulate a thunderstorm kicking in every 15 minutes or so. This booming, million-dollar business financed by Grand Casinos Inc. (plans to open five units are in the works for this year) uses aromas made from fresh floral extracts by Aveda and divides up the pennies thrown in the Rainforest Cafe's wishing pond to donate to The World Wildlife Fund, Rainforest Action Network, and the Rainforest Alliance. (No really, you guys go on and take the pennies that the children dropped on the floor.) They donate their food waste to pig farmers, refrain from serving beef that comes from deforested land, and use "environment friendly" cleaners. But any messages that these actions might impart get drowned out by another message: "BUY!" And there's so much to buy. T-shirts, rocks, shot glasses, refrigerator magnets, and more, all sold by aggressive young "pathfinders" (the Rainforest Cafe's special name for what are more commonly known as retail workers). One pathfinder approached me as I was looking at a puppet, getting between it and me to stick a different one in my face, saying, "As great as that is, can I show you the lion?" No, this is not a place for leisurely browsing; this is action shopping.

           Hopefully your name will soon be called by the host, or "tour guide" as they like to call them here. Waits for a table can be long, but that doesn't seem to deter a soul. Almost everyone wants their turn and is willing to wait up to two hours on a busy Saturday night to get it. A sojourn to the bar isn't a bad idea to acclimate yourself to the loud, flashy environs. Our "navigator" (bartender) was as nice as could be, wide-eyed and looking suspiciously cheerful for someone who'd been literally running back and forth at breakneck speed to tend bar. Drinks here are actually quite delicious (a vast array of coffee, fresh-squeezed juices, and smoothies are available alongside alcoholic drinks), and possibly our favorite thing about the place. The Mount Daiquiri ($4.95) made us delirious, and probably contained more sugar than any dessert I've ever had. Splitting it just made us crazy for more, and so we ordered up a spotted chocolate monkey ($4.95), a lovely, blended mess of fresh banana, chocolate syrup, vanilla yogurt, and Malibu rum. The only downside to our bar experience was when we chanced to look down to spot a rather rustic-looking bucket of red slop that bore a distinct resemblance to the strawberry daiquiri we'd been drinking; the power of imagination is vast.

           Now you're off and ready to meet your safari guide ("Hello, I'm George of the Jungle, and I'll be your safari guide this evening") at the plastic dolphin. The guides resemble camp counselors; they're young, cheerful, and possess a saintly patience when it comes to dealing with bratty children and obnoxious customers. The food here is your high school cafeteria food on a mad holiday, which is to say that it's meant to be thrilling, it sounds thrilling on the menu, but for some reason (probably to appeal to the lowest common denominator), it all tastes as if it had been soaked in water overnight. Dieters will certainly not earn any points supping here, with the menu ranging from nachos to waffle fries, pizza to pasta. Even the salads seem to be laden with things that the fastidiously health-conscious would never touch with a 10-foot pole. The canopy Cobb salad ($10.95) was ridiculously big, chopped lettuce crushed by grilled chicken breast, blue cheese, tasteless black olives, tomatoes, chopped egg, and bacon. And hey skinny, don't forget the dressing, gobs of whatever your delight may be, be it French or bleu cheese. We did rather enjoy the jungle chowder ($4.50), especially in comparison to everything else, a simple vegetable-based soup stuffed with eggplant, zucchini, roma tomatoes, spinach, and sausage, topped with bow tie pasta and shredded parmesan cheese. But what about that thin white French bread that comes on the side, baked with what tasted to be mayonnaise and parmesan cheese? Eat that in a crowded room with screaming children and see how you stomach it. The chicken Bombay ($10.95) was also a bit dismal: grilled chicken breast made soggy with coconut milk, with nary a taste of the promised curry and turmeric spices atop a pile of flaccid mixed greens. The "seasoned" rice that came on the side did nothing to improve the plate. The chicken monsoon (grilled Cajun-style chicken breast piled high on top of linguine) looked beautiful, with its colorful salsa studded with corn, red peppers, tiny (and I mean tiny) shrimp, and tomatoes; but it tasted as flat as a pancake, although the linguine was cooked nicely and there was plenty to be had. Desserts are the same story: huge portions, amply sweet, but none too delightful. Rainforest Rick's apple crisp ($4.95) was pretty enough, with little piles of whipped cream and ice cream topped with strawberry halves placed around a brick of apple crisp, but the taste was floury and bland. We didn't have the steam left to try any of the other offerings.

           Yet here's the surprise: For some reason we went home satisfied. With all the distractions in the decor, you hardly have time to think about your meal. There's plenty to talk about, be it critical or positive. It's a spectacle, and certainly worth seeing. Who faults the corn dogs at a fair? Sally forth, ye confused and befuddled, and test your mettle here. Discover whether or not you find Tracy the Talking Tree to be the harbinger of environmental and educational information or if you find a demonic likeness in her constantly shifting eyes. Find out whether you are good to go for more Rainforest fun or ready for a long reflective weekend up north, far away from your fellow man.


           NEW THAIS: In case you've been crushed by the temporary closing of the always amazing Ruam Mit Thai Cafe (relocation is pending), take heart: Lamphay Phetphrachanh, former head chef at Ruam Mit, has opened a new restaurant, Taste of Thailand (1651 Selby Ave., St. Paul; 644-3997). Frequenters of Ruam Mit (and there are plenty of us) can look forward to many of Lamphay's specialties, such as fresh spring rolls, tom yum (lemon soup with galanga, kaffir lime leaves and Thai chili peppers), gaeng ped pla (fish curry), and laab nua (lean ground beef, lime juice, and hot chili peppers). But there's no need to get stuck in a rut; plenty of new dishes (pork steamed buns, pla tod man (deep-fried fish cakes with red curry paste), dried spicy trout, and rad na (rice noodles with black bean sauce and Chinese broccoli) will grace the menu. And for dessert? You might just fall in love with buttercup squash with custard. With a beer license pending approval from the City of St. Paul and modest prices to boot (most entrées fall in the $6-$8 range), Taste of Thailand promises to be a local favorite. Also, a special note for belly stuffers: Taste of Thailand hosts an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet Monday through Friday, 11:00 a.m.-2:30 p.m.

           HELP WELCOME: What a sad thing it is to be looking for work and be prone to jump at those words. No, it's not really your help that's wanted, it's your welcome. Tulips Restaurant (452 Selby Ave., St. Paul; 221-1061) begs you to help welcome blues and jazz great Cornbread Harris at his St. Paul CD release party on Sunday, July 14. Of course, being Bastille Day and all, Cornbread Harris is not the only firecracker up Tulips' sleeve. The day begins with brunch (served 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.) followed by a parade and show of French poodles (3-4 p.m.). Take the day to learn how to play Boule (French Bocce Ball) and enjoy French picnic foods served at the sidewalk cafe and under the tent. The celebration runs until July 21 for a total of eight rousing days of special lunch and dinner presentations. Order from the menu, à la carte, or try two festival prix fixe dishes: Frog legs or choucroute. Special events throughout the week include an Edith Piaf look-alike contest on Thursday, July 18, 8 p.m. (to enter, call 221-1061), a wine-tasting party on Tuesday, July 18, 6-8 p.m., featuring Twin Cities premier wine expert Jack Farrell of Haskell's and St. Paul writer Carol Connolly, and a day of French conversation on July 17 when the main dining room is reserved for it, featuring Martine Madeleine Graupner, Tulips Sommeliere Extraordinaire. Reservations are welcome.

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