Escape is futile. Take my recent attempt to flee the rigors of Southern California life (especially the unnerving traffic): a trip to the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park, where my only worry was grizzly-bear attacks. Then, on my way home, somewhere on the I-15 between Salt Lake City and Provo, a vehicle came at me from the left, and my reaction put the car into a spin. Suddenly, my rig was sledding down the freeway on its side.
My life did not flash before my eyes. Instead, as the car rolled and the windshield broke around me like a wave, I realized how similar the sensation was to bodysurfing and knew that I would come out the other side of that screaming tube without a scratch. The seat belt made sure that's exactly what happened, but my car was demolished. So much for escape. I finished the journey by plane.
Though the event replaced my usual cynicism with a sense that I'm extremely lucky, a sort of white-knuckle funk set in. After a couple of sleepless nights and a few bouts of irrational anxiety, I was again in need of escape, this time of a more trivial sort. That's where Sam's Seafood Restaurant came in.
Sam's is a surreal Hawaiian paradise, a throwback to the tiki-hut décor of Trader Vic's and other luau-themed dining establishments. The main room boasts strange, somewhat primitive tropical murals, one fronted by actual trickling waterfalls, artificial orchids and a carved, stern-looking talisman. The cane-and-thatched-roof look adds to the atmosphere, and there's a large banquet room as well as a "hidden village," where Polynesian dancers perform on Friday nights. The outrigger lounge, where they prepare such classic, umbrella-sporting tropical drinks as mai tais, banana daiquiris and the blue Hawaii (listed as "Elvis' favorite"), is Sam's most attractive room, its Hawaiian décor complemented by fascinating historical photos of Seal Beach and other nearby areas.
The menu, while not especially Hawaiian (the word "pupus" doesn't appear once) is heavy on seafood (natch) and is filled with such throwback items as seafood Louie, oysters Rockefeller and a seafood combination platter dubbed "Deep Sea Net." Want steak and lobster? They've got 'em, as well as pairings of prime rib and Alaskan king crab. Dinners come with salad, a surprisingly good combination of head lettuce, red cabbage, kidney beans, garbanzos and croutons, or a choice of chowders.
My spirits were lifted as soon as we entered, helped by the place's fun look and the antics of a dozen or more birthday celebrants seated near the waterfalls. My favorite companion—a safe driver and my guide on this escapist adventure—forked into mahi-mahi Hawaiian, a nicely grilled piece of fish served on two thick slices of pineapple and sprinkled lightly with coconut. The scoop of au gratin potatoes —remember them?—balanced cheese and spuds in just the right combination.
Trying to erase the recent memory of a tough steak that gave me a struggle in Bozeman, Montana, I hooked into the top sirloin, perfectly warm and pink at its center (a.k.a. medium rare), tasting of the grill and easily chewed, along with a heap of seasoned "special" rice. Mudpie, a simple three-way heap of (from bottom to top) Oreo cookie crumbs, chocolate-coffee ice cream and whipped cream, crowned with a paper parasol, was more soothing than therapy. It was all so good that, for the moment, I forgot about replacing my car.
Sam's Seafood Restaurant, located at 16278 S. Pacific Coast Hwy., Huntington Beach, is open Sun.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. (562) 592-1321. Dinner for two, $20-$55, food only. Full bar. All major credit cards accepted.