A History of the Tiki Bar

September 27, 2006

Photo: The tiki bar at the legendary King Yum polynesian restaurant in Flushing, NY. (Jason Perlow)

How sex, rum, World War II, and the brand-new state of Hawaii ignited a fad that has never quite ended… He approached his drink menu the same way he approached his décor: with an eye toward frugality. Rum was the least expensive of the spirits, and Gantt had sampled a variety in his travels. He devised an exotic menu of rum-based drinks that complemented his theme and scratched the names on a board behind the bar … His restaurant became an instant landmark, more Hawaiian than most of Hawaii itself. Beach amplified the faux-tropical theme with palms and thatch and a sweeping shingled roof, part space age, part ceremonial Polynesian meetinghouse. The popular arranger and composer Martin Denny played at the restaurant’s Bora-Bora lounge for nine months straight. Beach was often at the bar, a genial host wearing a gardenia lei that, he was quick to reveal, was for sale in the restaurant’s gift alcove. A myna bird presided over the premises, trained to blurt out, “Give me a beer, stupid!” In the boozy intimacy of late evenings, a gentle rain would often begin to patter on the corrugated metal roof over the bar … he filled his newly christened restaurant with South Sea detritus, lined the walls with dried grass mats, used palm tree trunks as columns, and hung fisherman’s floats, masks, and spears—all things that brought to mind the mysterious South Sea Islands … A growing number of tiki bars and restaurants emerged as landmarks on the American cultural landscape, building and expanding on the foundation laid by Donn Beach and Trader Vic. Here one could briefly enter an exotic world and engage in curious rituals amid hula girls and seductively unfamiliar music. Temples of tiki cuisine cropped up throughout the country to meet the demands of what the tiki historian Sven Kirsten called the “modern primitives.” The tiki restaurant existed in a sort of perpetual twilight, lit by propane torches, the fiery eyes of tiki statues, and golden flames licking off the pineapple-and-brown-sugar dishes delivered by a hula girl. If there was a cult at the tiki palaces, it was that of the tiki drink. Few customers came to the restaurants solely because of the food. (Noting the flaming entrées, the Columbus Dispatch once wrote of the Kahiki that it “is one of the few restaurants in Columbus in which food can injure you.”) The lure was the drinks. Restaurants sought to outhustle one another in concocting the most outrageous cocktails, giving them names like Pele’s Bucket of Fire, Sidewinder’s Fang, Molucca Fireball, Tonga Surfrider, and the Aku-Aku Lapu.

Quite an interesting foray into the world of faux Polyneisian restaurants and bars and those rum drinks with tiny parasols in them … when I lived in Columbus, Ohio, we often visited the Kahiki, a restaurant shaped like an outrigger canoe, waterfalls inside, huge tiki torches in the parking lot, and a million rum drinks … Trader Vic’s here in Atlanta is somewhat similar …

American Heritage: Tiki (September 2006)

reported by Melissa Goodman


NJ Dining: Taverna Mykonos (UPDATED)

December 19, 2010

Per David Halbfinger’s rating of “Don’t Miss” (the paper’s highest restaurant rating) for Taverna Mykonos in the New York Times, I’m elevating this post back to the top due to general interest.

However, I am not in agreement that this restaurant, while producing very good Greek Taverna-style food, is to be considered in the same vein as the absolute finest dining establishments in the state or even Bergen County. More on this later.

This post was originally published on July 25, 2010, a few days after the restaurant’s opening.

Taverna Mykonos

238 Broadway, Elmwood Park NJ

(201)703-9200

It takes quite a bit to get me moving in the summer, especially when it’s nearly 100 degrees in the shade and my 20 year-old classic car’s air conditioning isn’t working.

The opening of brand new Greek restaurant in Elmwood Park serving traditional Taverna cuisine in a colorful atmosphere, featuring fresh Mediterranean food with all of the important attention to detail that’s necessary to do it well is one of the few things that will drag me out of my cool house on a Saturday afternoon in late July.

Taverna Mykonos in Elmwood Park, New Jersey.

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NJ Dining: Axia Taverna (UPDATED)

May 13, 2007

Axia Taverna
18 Piermont Road, Tenafly NJ 07670
201-569-5999

Web Site: http://www.axiataverna.com

In an earlier post about Blockheads Burritos, I discussed a bit about the rather hostile and unforgiving restaurant situation in my NJ town of residence, Tenafly. While we occasionally get a serious restaurant to open here, they tend to go out of business within 5 years, or even less — like the ill-fated Jerry’s Osteria (now Segreto) and America (the latter which opened in the summer of 1999, but closed in 2004, only to be replaced by Sanzari’s Oyster Bar in January of 2006.)

The latest fine restaurant in Tenafly to throw its proverbial hat into the ring and to defy the Tenafly fine-dining curse is Axia, a high-end Greek taverna that seeks to differentiate itself from the mid-range Greek options in Bergen County, such as Greek Village Taverna and Vasili’s Taverna. Its closest fine dining competition is Varka, in Ramsey (which received very positive ratings from the NYT) that opened in 2005 and positions itself as more of a fish restaurant rather than a taverna.

Like Varka, Axia also has a good amount of seafood as well as whole fish in its main course section (Megala Plata) and its menu has a large selection of small plates (Mezedes) as well as charcoal grilled Meats (Plata Skaras) and features tradtional Greek items such as roasted leg of lamb, mousakka (albeit in a unique clay pot presentation) Pastichio (with a Phyllo pastry shell) quail and free-range roast chicken.

Axia, as seen from Piermont Road in Tenafly. The restaurant was a residential house that underwent a very costly renovation. The two large paneled windows that you see in the elevated area are actually garage-door style so that they can roll up during nice weather and permit outdoor dining and a spring or summer breeze to come in.

Click on the “Read the rest of this entry link” below for a look at Tenafly’s latest destination restaurant.

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NYC Dining: Golden Gate

December 25, 2006

Golden Gate Chinese Restaurant
3550 Johnson Ave, Bronx, NY
(718) 549-6206

What do Jews do on Christmas? We Eat Chinese Food.

Inspired by Paul Lukas’s recent article in the New York Sun, three of us embarked on Christmas Eve to Golden Gate, an old-school American-Chinese Restaurant in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, one of the last bastions of Jewish-American activity in that part of the city. Opened in 1958, it remains one of the few very traditional American-style Chinese restaurants serving “Polynesian-style” Cantonese food.

Unlike other restaurants of its type, like King Yum in Flushing, Chan’s Dragon Inn (Ridgefield, NJ), or Lee’s Hawaiian Islander (Lyndhurst, NJ) Golden Gate doesn’t flaunt its kitcsh with such artificial contrivances as Tiki gods, stuffed tropical birds or outrigger canoes — it looks like a normal Chinese restaurant. But what it lacks in decor it makes up for in the execution of its dishes, which are very high quality, and they definitely excel at that old-school American Chinese flavor we know and love. While I don’t think this is the best example of its type, especially when compared to King Yum (which still remains my benchmark for this type of cuisine) but its definitely worth going go, especially on Christmas or when you have a jonesing for this kind of food.

Storefont on Johnson Ave. There’s a Glatt Kosher grocery next door, and no fewer than 4 other Asian restaurants on this short block, along with the Hebrew Home for the Aged. A very good sign that you’re in score for old-school American Chinese food, done properly.

Oy. Where’s the Tiki Bar? Click the “Read the rest of this entry” link below for some serious Bronx retro-Chinese food.

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NJ Dining: The Magic Pot Fondue Bistro

November 24, 2006

Magic Pot
934 River Rd, Edgewater, NJ
(201) 969-8005

I have to admit that I’m not the biggest fan of fondue. To me, it reeks of the 1970’s and Suzy Homemaker entertaining her dinner guests, and in a bad, cheesy way. This may sound awfully hypocritical of someone who has a fondness for such retro dinosaurs as Polynesian-Chinese Tiki Bars, but I just don’t get the allure. Shabu-Shabu or Chinese hotpot is more of my style of communal dipping meal.

Nevertheless, Rachel likes fondue places, and we recently had such a mediocre and unsatisfying meal at a local Edgewater/Cliffside Park restaurant that I figured the night couldn’t get much worse, so we headed down River Road to Magic Pot. And I was pleasantly surprised.

Magic Pot Fondue Bistro is a modern, new-style fondue restaurant, bearing little resemblence to the old and tired fondue chains. Here you can expect to hear techno music being played in the background, and among the traditional cheese and broth-based fondues, you also get some interesting Pan-Asian and Latino versions of fondue pots as well, including dessert fondues featuring chocolate, peanut butter, caramel and melted marshmallow.

Rachel and I opted for the traditional fondue appetizer with Swiss Cheese. The server makes the fondue for you at table, carefully and slowly melting the grated cheese and incorporating it with white wine and cherry brandy and cracked black pepper.

You’re given metal skewers to dip pieces of French bread in the melted cheese sauce.

We also had a dessert fondue, dark chocolate with creme de coco and sweet dessicated coconut.

The dessert fondue was accompanied by strawberries, bananas, brownies and mashmallows.

Bombs away!


NJ Dining: Greek Taverna (UPDATED 2009)

November 20, 2006

Greek Taverna

Locations:

Edgewater, NJ
55 Promenade (City Place Shopping Center) 07020
(201) 945-8998

Montclair,NJ
292 Bloomfield Ave, 07043
(973) 746-2280

Web Site: http://www.greektavernausa.com

Greek Village, Edgewater NJ by you.

Greek food is becoming increasingly popular in Bergen County as appetites and dietary preferences are leaning towards Mediterranan foods. One of the best Greek restaurants in Bergen County is Greek Taverna, which opened in the City Place shopping center in Edgewater in 2006. I recently had a chance to re-visit the restaurant after about a 3-year hiatus and the food is better than ever. I’ve updated the post with a number of new pictures I think you’ll enjoy.

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NYC Dining: King Yum

July 17, 2006

King Yum Chinese Restaurant
181-08 Union Tpke, Flushing, NY
718 380-1918

I was at Belmont Park this weekend hanging out at the Grill Kings BBQ competition so I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to visit nearby King Yum restaurant in the Flushing village of Hillcrest, the “Old Neighborhood” that my mother and father grew up in during the 1950’s thru the 1960’s and where my aunt and uncle still live today.

King Yum has a great deal of sentimental importance to me because it is the restaurant where I was first exposed to Chinese food as a young child by both sets of my grandparents, Sid and Frieda Esikoff and Jack and Sylvia Perlow.

King Yum is by all measurements a historical landmark and an important community watering hole and eatery in the borough of Queens. It’s the oldest continuously running Chinese restaurant in the borough (since 1953, that would be during the Korean War when Harry Truman was president and Eisenhower wasn’t sworn into office yet!) which was operated by its original owner, Jimmy Eng up until he passed away in 2007.

Eng was a very young and dapper octogenarian who still visited every table to check on the happiness and wellness of its patrons, and who still got up to sing golden oldies during the restaurant’s Karaoke night. It is also one of the last remaining Polynesian Chinese restaurants in the entire country with original Tiki-period decorations and artifacts dating back to the 1960’s.

The food at King Yum is Chinese American, which a cuisine has been pooh-poohed by a lot of Chinese food buffs in recent years as being inauthentic, dated, gloppy and lacking of flavor. This is a sentiment that for the most part I tend to agree with. However, King Yum is the exception rather than the rule — every dish here is made with care and there are no shortcuts taken, which I’ll elaborate a bit more on.

Suffice to say that King Yum is one of the restaurants that established and invented the cuisine, and in my opinion, pretty much every Chinese American restaurant in this country that makes a version of King Yum’s dishes is a crappy and unfaithful copy.

King Yum is THE benchmark by which all Chinese American cuisine should be measured up to — they do everything the old fashioned way, using recipes that haven’t changed in 54 years. You can also get very authentic modern Chinese dishes as well at King Yum, but the traditional Chinese American dishes at this restaurant is what keeps bringing me back.

Storefront on Union Turnpike, at night.

The architecture of King Yum has remained largely unchanged for the past 40 years. While the neighborhood itself has changed a lot and more modern Chinese restaurants have moved into the area, King Yum remains as a bastion of well prepared Chinese American cuisine.

100 yards to the left of the restaurant lies Hillcrest Jewish Center which was also established about the same time King Yum was opened. If you ever heard the expression about the relative success of opening Chinese restaurants in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods, this was likely the restaurant and neighborhood that defined it.

Jack Perlow, my paternal grandfather had his orthodontics practice across the street and was one of the founding members of the HJC. The residential neighborhood adjoining Hillcrest Jewish Center is practically surrounded by Chinese restaurants  Kosher eateries and Bagel Stores — everything a Jewish New Yorker needs for basic survival. Peking House, another long established Chinese restaurant is very close to the Hillcrest center as well.

Click on the “Read the rest of this entry” link for more food photos and commentary.

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NJ Dining: Lee's Hawaiian Islander

July 10, 2006

Lees Hawaiian Islander

768 Stuyvesant Ave, Lyndhurst, NJ

So, for lack of a better description, I didn’t get enough umbrella drinks and expertly prepared bad American Chinese food this week, so Sunday night we went to North Jersey’s other Polynesian throwback, Lee’s Hawaiian Islander in Lyndhurst. Lee’s also had a Clifton location, but it closed due to a fire in 2003.

Lee’s is a huge orange painted building with no windows that dates back 30 years.

The Tiki Bar.

The cavernous main dining area.

The ceilings at Lee’s are at least 18 feet tall, probably closer to 20. A Polynesian outrigger boat filled with fake Hawaiian orchids and stuffed exotic birds is suspended from the ceiling.

The drink menu. Unlike other Polynesian restaurants I have visited previously, these drinks defy description. I guess they are so classic that everyone should know what they are and what’s mixed in them, but you could always ask.

A Mai Tai (left) and a Zombie (right). The Zombie appears to differ from the Mai Tai in that it has probably 4x the amount of alcohol in it.

Zombie closeup.

Zombie after-effects.

Pu-Pu Platter, the classic.

Young Chow Fried Rice

Sweet and Sour Pork. Yeah, I know, so sue me.

Along with Shrimp with Lobster Sauce, Egg Foo Young is also a benchmark Chinese-Am dish for me, so I order it at pretty much every place I visit that specializes in that type of food. Lee’s is excellent — the gravy doesn’t taste like uncooked flour or overly grease laden and the egg patties are perfectly cooked.


NJ Dining: Chan's Dragon Inn

July 5, 2006

Chan’s Dragon Inn
630 Broad Ave, Ridgefield, NJ
(201) 943-1276

I’d like to think that since getting married 11 years ago, and then later on forming eGullet, my tastes in Asian cuisine and particularly Chinese food have matured. I love great regional Chinese food, particularly real Sichuan, Hunan and Shanghainese food when I can get it, and I’m a frequent customer of several the local Hong Kong-Style Dim Sum haunts in the area as well. Still, at the end of the day you sometimes want the Chinese food of your youth, that your parents and grandparents introduced you to. For me, its the sort of Chinese food that was (and still is) served at places like King Yum in Fresh Meadows, Queens (and long-gone venues like Trader Vic’s and Don The Beachcomber) a totally American style of Chinese food that never, ever existed in Asia and is served in such kitschy atmospheres, you’d think you’d died gone to to Tiki hell.

Chan’s Dragon Inn is such a place. True to my own memories of King Yum while growing up in Queens, Chan’s is totally bad-ass old-school Polynesian Chinese, and they’ve been proudly serving knock-you-flat-on-your-ass umbrella drinks and Egg Foo Young since 1965. Walking into this restaurant throws you right into a time warp, where life was simpler back then, as were tastes in food. People wanted to escape a bit in their dining experience, even if it was in a totally faux atmosphere, and the food really wasn’t truly Polynesian. It doesn’t matter — I’m a complete sucker for this type of place.

To fully appreciate it, you really need to be immersed in the atmosphere itself (click for video, uploaded to Google).

The storefront on Broad Ave.

If you’re not old enough to remember what Master Charge, Carte Blanche and BankAmericard is, you’re likely going to be somewhat traumatized by what lies inside.

Abandon all hope, ye who orders from this drink menu. You might not be able to find your way back home afterwards.

That drink is most definitely on fire.

Wonton soup, in a classic American-Chinese preparation with peices of bright red roast pork in it..

Shrimp with Lobster Sauce and Roast Pork Fried Rice. This and Egg Foo Young (below) are the benchmark dishes of any Amercian-Chinese restaurant. Chan’s versions are excellent and retro-tastic.

Egg Roll — with both pork and shrimp in it, fried to golden brown perfection.