Tiki Memories

Posted on February 20, 2012. Filed under: booze, hodgepodge, travel | Tags: , , , , , , |

As Tiki Month draws to a close, it seems appropriate to pay homage to the great Tiki cocktail culture. I’m not a mixologist, so no recipes today; instead I’ll share a bit about my two happiest Tiki memories. It beats working on my thesis, right? (Note: I actually really love working on my thesis.)

My experience with Tiki bars goes back nearly as far as I’ve been (legally) visiting bars. Shortly after graduating UCSD, I moved home to San Francisco to attend a summer-long acting (ah…drinking) intensive. My classmates and I quickly discovered the Tonga Room in the basement of the Fairmont Hotel. We learned that timeless Tiki classic had an amazing deal: a super cheap (I think it was $5) all-you-can-eat happy hour buffet. For super cheap young actors, this was a beacon of frugality in the sea of an expensive city. Plus, we were told the menu featured potent, easy to gulp tropical cocktails. And there were intermittent indoor rainstorms. If that’s not a way to draw a party-happy dude of 21 into Tiki drinking culture, I don’t know what is. For the next two years, I spent many happy happy hours at the Tonga Room. And many stupefied Muni rides home.

Years later, I moved to the heart of Tiki culture: Los Angeles. Don the Beachcomber, the first Tiki bar in the continental United States, opened there in 1933. Although there is a chain of knock-off Tiki bars with the same name, the original Don’s is long gone. Luckily for me, I lived an easy stumble from the greatest Tiki bar left in the city, Tiki Ti. The 12 seat bar is located in the nether-region between Los Feliz and Silverlake, right near the PBS studio. It’s tricked out in Tiki paraphernalia, and it’s smoke-filled; Tiki Ti is exempt from the longstanding CA indoor smoke ban because the only people who work there are the owners. Michael Buhen (and his sons) carry on the legacy of Ray Buhen, who opened the bar in 1961 after working for years as one of the original mixologists at Don the Beachcomber. (Read a bio of Ray Buhen.) The drink menu is as large as the bar is small–over 92 (mostly rum-based) tropical drinks. If you’re overwhelmed, ask someone behind the bar; if you’re especially adventurous, ask a regular. Just remember, these drinks are terrifically potent. Pace yourself. Or don’t. Arrive early and be prepared to wait in line. Unlike the silly boom-boom-pow clubs a mile down the road in Hollywood, this place is worth the wait. Really.

So there you go. My little homage to Tiki. Want to hear more thoughts on drinking? Read my column in Pittsburgh City Paper and follow me on Twitter @ThisMansKitchen.

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