You Never Know What You're Going to Get

Forrest Gump sucked, but damn it if the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Restaurant aint good

The only movie I ever walked out on was 1994's Forrest Gump. Everything about it pissed me off, from the film's irritating opening line ("Life is like a box of chocolates") to Tom Hanks' moronic marble-mouth delivery. It reminded me of The Jerk, but blindly patriotic and not funny. It probably didn't help things that I had just finished college and considered myself a revolutionary socialist, and that one of the film's bad guys was a left-wing student radical who Gump punches out for disrespecting Jenny, the love of his life. It also probably didn't help that my friend and I were stoned out of our minds and getting angry looks from people because we laughed and cheered every time something tragic happened, like when Lieutenant Dan got his legs blown off by the Viet Cong.

Flash forward 12 years. I no longer smoke pot or profess belief in the historical inevitability of the dictatorship of the proletariat—there could be a connection there—and am married to a woman who loves Forrest Gump and makes me watch it whenever it's on TV. She even got me to watch the ending, when Jenny dies of AIDS. I cried like a baby.

Speaking of babies, we have one, so a few weekends ago, my wife dragged me to the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, and afterwards to the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Restaurant & Market. The eatery is named after Bubba, Gump's "best good friend" from the bayou, a genial black fellow of equally low IQ who dies in Vietnam, but not before telling Forrest that he always wanted to buy a shrimp boat. Forrest lives Bubba's dream and gets rich when a hurricane wipes out the rest of the fleet, leaving him to reap the rewards and give all the money to Bubba's dirt-poor family.

This cinematic subplot spun off a restaurant chain that, amazingly, still exists a decade later with 15 locations across the country and outposts in Japan, Mexico, Indonesia and the Philippines. What's more shocking, however, is that Bubba Gump happens to serve fantastic, reasonably priced food, something the long-defunct Planet Hollywood chain could never boast.

The secret to Bubba Gump's success, unsurprisingly, is the seafood. Start with a bucket of New Orleans-style peel-and-eat shrimp, slathered in a spicy Cajun sauce and great with beer. Guaranteed to please are the Shrimpin' Dippin' Broth, a half-pound of spicy steamed shrimp served with dippin' bread for dippin' and coleslaw, and Forrest's Shrimp Net Catch, a massive basket of beer-steamed shrimp served with garlic and Cajun sauces. These meals are meant to be shared, so if you prefer to dine solo, try the slightly less stomach-stretching Shrimp Po' Boy sandwich or the Ping Pong Shrimp

Bubba Gump is almost self-parodic in its approach to naming dishes. Kids can feast on Mac 'N Cheese Pleez, Hubba Bubba Fried Shrimp—"Bubba would be so proud"—and Mama Gump's Straight From Da Yard Chicken Strips. Even seafood haters can eat here, with the Director's Cut Rib-Eye, a 14-ounce steak served on the bone, spicy Dixie-style baby back ribs or the BBQ Pork Sandwich, a mountain of slow-roasted pork slopped with grilled onions and what the menu advertises as "Bubba's own very special BBQ sauce." Assuming you still have an appetite after wolfing down several dozen shrimp, top your meal off with Mama's Cinnamon Bread Pudding—"No one made it like mama."

Unless you're a fan of the film, you'll likely find the ambiance annoying. The place is crammed with Forrest Gump paraphernalia—Gump's musty white suit sits in a showcase near the restaurant's entrance and a bench out front has concrete Nikes you can slip your feet into and pose for a picture celebrating the opening scene in which Gump eats chocolate candy and tells his life story to a hapless old lady. Forrest Gump's Southern rock and hippie-era soundtrack plays on an endless loop.

And while you eat, waiters quiz you about the movie. (What was the first thing Forrest said when he met President Johnson? Answer: I gotta pee.) My wife got every question right and won me a free beer glass—I'll drink to that, Bubba.

BUBBA GUMP SHRIMP CO. RESTAURANT & MARKET, 87 AQUARIUM WAY, LONG BEACH, (562) 437-2434; WWW.BUBBAGUMP.COM. OPEN SUN.-THURS., 11 A.M.-10 P.M.; FRI.-SAT., 11 A.M.-MIDNIGHT. DINNER FOR TWO, $20-$35, EXCLUDING DRINKS. BEER, WINE.

 
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