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Photograph by George Sakkestad

Family Style: Under the management of kinfolk Paul Furiosi Jr. (pictured), Paul Furiosi Sr. and Jim Furiosi, By-Th-Bucket still serves up such old favorites as steamed clams.

Bucket Eats

All walks of humanity rub shoulders at By-Th-Bucket, enjoying just about everything that can be baked, fried, broiled or steamed

By Joseph Izzo Jr.

ODDLY ENOUGH, it was the tropical fish swimming placidly in the aquarium over the bar that triggered the memories. The fish weren't there in the old days when By-Th-Bucket was made of cinder block and you collected your food from a glowing window that was, in essence, the only light in the place.

All walks of humanity clamored through the doors then, rubbing shoulders over pitchers of beer, pizza, steamed clams, ravioli, catfish, fried chicken, ribs and just about everything else that can be baked, fried, broiled or steamed. It was a fun, scrappy joint back then, where a mouthful of knuckles was as common as a mouthful of spaghetti.

But the fish I watch now have come to symbolize--for me anyway--the changes that have transformed the old joint into the civilized eating establishment it is today. The new building has been around for quite some time now; few people remember the old place and maybe that's good. By-Th-Bucket is clean and bright--unlike before--with modern furnishings, booth seating and servers wearing uniforms instead of tattered blue jeans. There's organization to the place and things get done according to some semblance of a game plan, not a wink of the eye or a shout over the shoulder.

Like nature, change is ongoing, and this place is no exception. This time the restaurant has changed hands. The original owner--the hearty Mike Garcia, known for his big-game charity feeds--has surrendered the pans. He hung on for a little while to help the new management get adjusted to the place, then left them to their own devices.

In his absence the menu has been streamlined and modernized to reflect the trends of the day. Taboo back in the old days, the individual-sized pizza (called a pizzette now) has replaced the traditional sizes that once fed softball teams and league bowlers. They're still good, the crust made of proper bread dough and the cheese a fresh mozzarella. Other favorites, too, have been eliminated--chicken in the basket and fried artichoke hearts to name a couple. Still others continue to remain available, but only on request, like the De la Rosa sauce, a snappy diversion from the basic tomato.

After dinner there a while ago, I realized that no matter what has transpired since its beginnings, By-Th-Bucket has not lost its soul. It's still warm and friendly--a populist place then and now--welcoming all walks to take a seat and have a bite. Atmospheric as ever, you can hear the people talking loud and laughing it up at the bar, or watch them do napkin tricks, or stare headlong at the tropical fish (as I do on most visits). Best of all, the food's still quite good and the portions are generous.

I've eaten just about everything on the old and new menu, and have rarely gone home disappointed. Prices are competitive, but not bargain basement--fair, but not cheap. Specialties of the house still include the bucket of steamed clams ($13.95) served in a Bordelaise-style broth full of garlic, lemon and butter, plus an excellent rendition of cioppino ($17.95), brimming with seven types of shellfish, including calamari, octopus, and rock shrimp. My companion and I sampled both the night we went and found them to be exactly what we remembered. When you try them, make sure to have plenty of bread on hand.

We mixed the old with the new that evening and reaped benefits in both categories. Tomato Bruschetta ($5.95) began our meal--toast piled high with minced tomato marinated in olive oil, garlic and basil. Salads followed, both assembled with crispy greens and a tangy oil-and-vinegar dressing.

If you like catfish, By-Th-Bucket is still one of the only restaurants (in this area) to purvey this whiskered channel dweller in a variety of styles, including the following: fried in the Southern method in beignets (an appetizer), or sauteed with lemon, butter and garlic.

We veered from the perennial signatures for the nightly special of blackened catfish, and what a treat it turned out to be! Moist filets wore a pan-blackened crust full of Cajun spices that went straight to the nose. The multiple filets draped a mound of tender seasoned rice.

As mentioned previously, the De la Rosa sauce is no longer on the menu, but, by all means, ask for it, and ask for it on the ravioli ($11.95) filled with ricotta cheese, a personal favorite. This remarkable tomato-based sauce awakens the palate with red pepper and garlic and achieves poetic sensations with the creaminess of the ricotta.

Also on this visit we had to have some ribs, another house specialty that's been on the menu since the beginning, only now they're Barbecued Baby Backs ($11.95 half rack; $17.95 full) loaded with smoky sweet pork on shorter, more compliant bones.

The service here can sometimes be as wacky as the patrons who visit this establishment. Everything gets done, don't get me wrong, but how it gets done is the question. Typically it is quite organized and efficient, as noted earlier, with servers who are alert and genuinely happy with what they are doing. On occasion, though, you get the starry-eyed person who is not quite sure about the nature of his business. I get a kick out of it, but clearly understand that some people find it annoying.

No matter what happens with your server (and a lot can), By-Th-Bucket retains its original identity--it has most definitely not been co-opted by a new corporate mentality. It's still a down-home place where families can come together in peace and have a decent meal without putting on airs--and where a longtime patron can order a favorite dish no longer listed on the menu.

Address: 4565 Stevens Creek Blvd., Santa Clara
Phone: 408.248.6244.
Cuisine: Mixed bag
Hours: Sun.-Tue. 11am-10pm, Wed.-Thu. 11am-11pm, and Fri.-Sat. 11am-midnight
Prices: $8.95-$28.95 (for 26-ounce rib-eye steak)

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From the March 16-22, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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