Like many a post-war baby (that war would be World War II, The Big One, WW2, or as it’s commonly known, Tom Brokaw’s retirement fund), I was introduced to Tiki culture at… a Chinese restaurant.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Yue’s Cantonese Restaurant in Gardena, CA was one of those special occasion places for our nuclear and extended family. The Yue Family would promptly serve up delicious MSG-laden Chinese food to the table in the somewhat dark and mysterious ambiance of the restaurant; or at least it was somewhat dark and mysterious to this adolescent. My shadowy memory recalls the bar area called the Lei Lounge and a big Buddha statue(?) that required tummy rubbing by all of my cousins, which probably broke with all cultural norms and today might cause a riot or a violently spicy order of Kung Pao Chicken. And, of course, there were the cocktails served in all manner of strangely shaped vessels (including Buddha his bad self, I mean, good self) with the cutest little paper umbrellas which became weaponized in the hands of us kids at the table. Maybe you’ve seen them. My cousin, who was skin cancer aware long before it was fashionable, saved them to use with her Barbie’s.
There were other places in the area that, much like Yue’s Cantonese, fell into that exotic category: Latitude 20 in Torrance and The Reef in Long Beach come to mind; all with the same goal: faking you out into thinking you were somewhere else.
There was another place at the time that also brought Polynesia to Southern California and its visitors. Down the 405, a guy named Walt and his sidekick rodent built this monstrous estate to transport people to…well… just about everywhere. Disneyland took folks to our nation’s past, to other countries, to our childhood, to the stars, and to the future. And in the land of adventure in a little hut, you were taken to a tropical world of singing birds (with foreign accents), bright flowers, and bamboo. The Enchanted Tiki Room was your little spot on an island. An added bonus was the Pineapple Dole Whip ice cream deliciousness.
The land of Tiki was never really far away, even though its goal was to take you really, really far away. A local bar or restaurant or amusement park transported you to tropical paradise with ease and fun, and no passport required.
Mrs. Satellite Engineer and I took one of these trips recently, and we only had to drive to one of our local watering holes. On a warm early Saturday afternoon, we enrolled ourselves into Tiki 101 at Hudson House in Redondo Beach. Tuition was nominal, which is a good thing since we have two offspring in college. The only school supply needed for this bit of drinking education was our thirst, which we found at Staples in the Back-to-School section, which is right next to the toner and printer supplies in Aisle 7.
Tiki 101 wasn’t Econ 101 or Chem 102. Nope, it was pure FUN! And in this intimate setting, it was a way of learning more about the Tiki culture and the cocktails that most associate with it. There were about a dozen of us South Bay folk in attendance that afternoon, all excited to discover the course details.
Hudson House sits on the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH to us locals), a few blocks east of the King Harbor Marina. Cars whiz by this busy and narrow lane stretch of PCH, so be careful if you park on the street and exit on the driver’s side. Safety first, Mi Amigos! Next door is a studio where Teenage Daughter #2 has been learning the skills of aerial arts. Think Cirque du Soleil minus the artsy-fartsy French aesthetic and all that French attitude…
So while the fifteen year old ties herself in knots 20 feet in the air, Hudson House becomes a home away from home for yours truly. Top Chef winner Brooke Williamson and her husband Nick Roberts own the comfy place that features plenty o’ craft beer, a blossoming whisky list, and an array of house concocted cocktails. And then there’s the food which isn’t your standard issue pub chow. Let’s just say that there are plenty of options for the starved and the not so hungry.
Handling the festivities behind the bar during this “class” were Hudson House bartender Jessica Souza and Taylor Hall (aka ChiefTikiTay on Instagram), who is the head bartender at Playa Provisions, another property owned by Williamson and Roberts near the beach in Playa del Rey, which is just a few clicks up the coast. Jessica and Taylor, as we would soon learn, are self-described TikiHeads who have immersed their lives in Tiki culture.
Our schooling began with a huge welcome punch bowl which was filled to the brim with the famous Scorpion cocktail, a Smuggler’s Cove Tiki Bar concoction of rum, gin, orange juice, orgeat and lime. It was “serve yourself” as we all got ready for… well, we didn’t know what exactly. Tasty as hell, the Scorpion was a line drive to getting plastered fast. We’d only been there 10 minutes, so pumping the brakes on this Luau was required ASAP, as we weren’t even in the first inning yet.
We all saddled up on our barstools and were briefed of the day ahead. First up was a discussion and tasting of rums from the local Mount Gay rep. We were starting in high gear! The big takeaway was just how rum is such a unique spirit to the Tiki cocktail universe. It’s basically in everything. We liked where this was going. Rum tutorial over, it was time for the really good stuff.
Bartender Jessica kicked things off by explaining how Tiki is more than just cocktails. It’s a lifestyle that encompasses art, music, clothing, architecture, as well as glassware and food. It’s more than Hawaiian shirts, Aloha, and Maholo. And it’s bigger than Hawaii. But a really good starting point is a Tiki bar and the people who frequent them. Her own entrance into Tiki started a few years back at a Chinese restaurant – Mandarin House in Pacific Beach near San Diego. Out with friends, she was challenged by an item on the cocktail list: Navy Grog, “A burly man’s drink often dared by women” per the menu. Whatever that means. She beat that challenge and was immediately sucked into Tiki.
The history of Tiki is well known, but bears repeating, at least in short synopsis…
“Saint” Don the Beachcomber started all this in 1933. Born in Texas, Ernest Gantt (his real name) traveled around the world and devoured the island life of the South Pacific. All of the flavors of Polynesia and the art were intoxicating to him. Finally planting roots in Hollywood in the 1930s, he opened a bar that was the beginning of the Don the Beachcomber restaurant legacy. Mixing cocktails with interior design to bring Polynesia to Los Angeles patrons, Gannt saw this as a ticket to a person’s night of escapism. A night of trade winds and island flavors, laughter and music. Hollywood was becoming the capital of escapism in America at the time, so this was perfect for a city that was exporting fantasy and adventure. America’s thirst for escapism led to growth for Gannt as he added more restaurants. Don the Beachcomber made it cool to go casual island style to a restaurant, instead of a hoity-toity suit and tie or gown with white gloves, which was common at the time for the well-to-do. It was some parts cultural appropriation, yes, but more parts cultural appreciation for Gantt.
Competition from Trader Vic’s came shortly after. Vic Bergeron was a regular customer at the Beachcomber, and a pain in the pineapple. He was such a pain in the pineapple that he was eventually banned, so in 1934, he opened his own bar in Oakland which incorporated all that he learned from saddling up to the bar at the Beachcomber.
Tiki culture was born, or at least, the American version of it, right here in Southern California and expanded northward with Trader Vic’s to the Bay Area. Before long, Asian restaurants and more bars jumped on the bamboo bandwagon, incorporating similar themes into their restaurants. Tiki was becoming popular for the post-war population on the West Coast and beyond.
Of course, there is no greater culture builder than food and drink, especially when the latter is made with booze. Tiki culture doesn’t disappoint in this area.
First on our list of Tiki 101 Cocktails at the bar to watch being made was a classic: the Mai Tai, a legendary cocktail with a mysterious beginning as Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s both lay claim to its creation. A funky Jamaican-style rum (our hosts used Smith & Cross), a white rum(Rhum J. M.), orgeat, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, lime juice, and crushed ice. I’m sure there was actual measuring going on per the recipe, but watching Jessica and Taylor go to work was too mesmerizing to care about details. The finished product was a complex mix of sweet and tart, smooth and funky, all combining into a refreshing cocktail with depth and pure fun. I don’t recall this as the Mai Tai that my parents ordered at Yue’s which they let me sip out of a tiny red straw.
And, of course, there were the garnishments. Our hosts had a colorful array of options displayed for us: pineapple slices, limes, flowers, fresh mint, bamboo skewers and straws, plastic monkeys, cinnamon sticks, orange wedges, and… little umbrellas. Jessica, using her uber scary paring knife skills, taught us newbies how to make a sail boat out of half a lime, an orange peel, and a bamboo skewer. Probably not seaworthy, but great for floating on our Sea of Mai Tai.
The discussion bounced around from cocktail making, to Tiki paraphernalia and where to buy it, to Caribbean and South Pacific travel, to rum choices. We could almost smell the ocean and hibiscus! Might have been my aftershave but I’ll never tell.
While our little lime boats were super nifty, our next craft for the Mai Tai was even better. Half a banana, a couple of cloves, a couple of marinated cherries, and our own paring knife yielded a cute dolphin to pose next to the little boat. Picture the shark in Jaws (Hello, Bruce!), ready to take out Roy Scheider, except skinny, yellow, and swimming in rum.
Next up on the cocktail list: The Painkiller, a drink the Missus and I know well from our days in the British Virgin Islands, which proudly calls it the birthplace of the The Painkiller at the Soggy Dollar Bar at White Bay on the island of Jost Van Dyke. Dos Maderas Rum, pineapple and orange juices, cream of coconut, and crushed ice. A classic from the islands, except this one was served up in a hollowed out pineapple which was where the fresh pineapple juice came from. A tray holding a dozen of these empty pineapples sat behind the bar looking a bit sad as they patiently awaited their turn to be Tiki-fied. But when our bartenders ushered them into the spotlight, the spikey fruit shells perked right up. Filled just below the brim with all the aforementioned ingredients, our happy pineapples only needed a final garnish of dried pineapple slice, cinnamon slice with mint leaves growing atop, and an orchid. Oh, and there was a half of a lime on fire too.
FIRE?! Heh heh, Fire, heh heh. How could I forget the FIRE?!
That half lime sitting on the crushed ice was filled with a lucky crouton soaked in lemon oil extract and chartreuse. Then the fun really started. With a torch! Light ’em up, Boys! Our little crouton became a Tiki torch of sorts and Jessica and Taylor added to the pyrotechnics by sprinkling fresh nutmeg into the flame creating sparks. The nearby inverted paper umbrella planted into the ice caught fire creating more of a show for the would-be drinkers (us). Nothing says Tiki fun like flaming drinks, and thanks to the magic of Boozedancing TV, we’re now able to share all of this pyrotechnic fun with you, our loyal readers AND viewers…
Taylor’s “Do not drink a drink while it’s on fire; you’ll literally burn your entire head” was a good safety tip, but I would have been fine with just “don’t play with matches”. As you witnessed in our live footage, Taylor said this as he grated cinnamon onto the crouton fire making for a warm, fresh smell of sparkling heat. Our Painkillers were a fiery tropical delight with aromas of fresh fruit and flowers, rum and burnt spices. This was a $20 Cocktail for good reason. Labor intensive, plenty of ingredients, and an art to making the final product take the adventurer far away to a tropical paradise.
Sadly, our trip to TikiLand was short lived, but oh so educational and memorable. School may be out at Hudson House, but we learned ourselves plenty at Tiki 101. We learned about pretty cocktails, faraway worlds of bamboo and palm trees stuffed inside a strip mall, and fire. This was Drinking Education at it’s finest!
Mahalo to Jessica, Taylor, and the rest of the Hudson House staff!