Trader Vic's swaps ol' irony for a roomful of real tiki
Bread and Brew
I've been to the Tonga Room in San Francisco, the Kon Tiki in Tucson, Frankie's Tiki Room in Las Vegas, and of course, Portland's amazing Alibi. But my first tiki bar, back around 1990, was Portland's old Trader Vic's, inside the Benson Hotel.
We used to go there on special occasions because it was expensive - I remember that a drink in a hollowed-out pineapple cost $7! - and because we thought it was funny. It was hard to believe that this cluttered palace of Polynesian kitsch could ever have been considered swanky by our parents and grandparents.
Now Trader Vic's is back in Portland, this time in the Pearl District. After falling on hard times in the 1990s, the company is on the rebound, with new locations all over the world.
So how do you update a place whose chief appeal had been nostalgia?
The new Trader Vic's has found a way, creating something that I didn't believe could exist: a tiki bar that isn't campy.
Well, OK, the hot buttered rum is served in a giant mug shaped like a skull. But the surroundings are refined: giant glass floats are suspended from the rattan ceiling, the walls are paneled in batik patterns, and there is no plastic anywhere. Even the tikis look more like legitimate native artwork than jokey 'Brady Bunch' voodoo.
I hate to admit it, but after many, many nights of votive candles, cement floors and exposed ducts, it's relaxing to be in a place where a lot of money was spent on design.
The in-the-round layout of the bar works to bring people together. At happy hour one day I watched two young men peacefully sharing a giant bowl of booze - one had spiked black hair and a leather jacket, and the other was wearing a button-down shirt and tie. An older man was insisting that a young woman sitting next to him, who was new in town, call him if she ever needed anything.
From 3 to 6:30 p.m., mai tais are $5, and they're good (they had better be, since Vic takes credit for inventing them). In general, drinks are fruity, sweet but not cloying, with tart flavors of curacao, almond and cherry. As with all proper tiki bars, there's a vast list of cocktails that are pretty much all the same. The real question is, do you want a toy parrot to take home, or a menehune on a stick?
Appetizers are served in cunning little boats, with a flame burning beneath them, so you're as likely to burn your tongue on the first Cheese Bing as the last. A Cheese Bing, if you didn't know, is a nugget of deep fried ham and cheese. According to the menu, these are made with Carlton Farms pork - the kitchen occasionally gestures toward the local and seasonal, and more often toward the traditional.
Crab Rangoon, for instance, is a dish so dated that it has outlasted its namesake, which now goes by Yangon, Myanmar. Cream cheese and crab in a won ton wrapper is no longer the height of exoticism, but it's not bad drinking food, although the spare ribs are better. Sweet and chewy, with smokiness imparted by Trader Vic's signature wood oven, they were born to go with a mai tai.
At twilight, the lounge fills up, while the surrounding dining room sits shadowy and empty. But around dinner time, a new crowd arrives - or rather, the old crowd. The generation that loved Trader Vic's un-ironically is back. They're fairly well-heeled, and the entrees are fairly pricey. Some are more worth it than others.
Sweetness dominates. For crispy prawns, it's appropriate: they're luscious, buttery, and most impressively, not overcooked. It works, too, in a boozy plum sauce that revved up a nicely cooked half duck. For mahi mahi, though, a faint sweetness from macadamia nuts just seemed to make the bland fish blander. It was inexplicably tasteless, despite the efforts of a few nice fat spears of asparagus, a limp puree of potatoes and wasabi and a pretty orchid.
If I sound a little conflicted, I am. Looking around, I tried to see Trader Vic's through the eyes of someone who had never been to a tiki bar before, and I couldn't do it. My judgment was too clouded by the past - and a flaming drink called a Stinker - to say what I would think of this place if it were just a restaurant. But it isn't just a restaurant: it's Trader Vic's.
Sunday 10 a.m.-2 p.m. and 3-11 p.m., Monday-Thursday 3-11 p.m., Friday 3 p.m.-midnight, Saturday 10 a.m.-2 p.m. and 3 p.m.-midnight, 1203 N.W. Glisan St., 503-467-2277, www.tradervicspdx.com, entrees $15-$40