Joined: May 16, 2008
From: Dogtown, USA
|Posted: 2011-06-13 6:47 pm  Permalink|
So here's Part 1 of my Mai Kai (and Hukilau) review...
Having spoken with several Mai Kai veterans here in So Ca, I got this bit of Tiki advice: "Do you know when's the best time to get good drinks at the Mai Kai?"...
"When it's NOT Hukilau !!" ( )
That said, I elected to fly in two days early to experience things without the hordes of drunken, um I mean celebrating Tikiphiles.
The Mai Kai has long been a mythical place for me, my first awareness of it being its inclusion in the Book of Tiki. I never really thought that much about Tiki prior to BOT, my only adult "Tiki" experience being the infrequent visit to Tiki-Ti starting in the early 1990's. Also the (2nd) Bahooka opened when I was a student across the street at Rosemead High School, but I don't recall the word "Tiki" ever being associated with the place at the time. And oh yeah, my sister and I had a whole shoebox full of those Tiki Surfer Moai pendants in the late 60's, you know the ones with "diamond" eyes (where did we get them ??).
I initially purchased BOT in 2000 to learn about all the cool Tiki places that (like the Tiki-Ti) I could visit in LA and throughout the country. After quickly thumbing through the book my first reaction was "What a gyp, most of these places don't even exist anymore. ". Obviously since that time, I have come to appreciate Tiki-style for its rich history as well as the pop cultural anchor it provides for some of my other interests like Exotica, high-end mixology (the drinking part), and mid-century dive bars (and yup early 60's Surf music to a lesser degree).
Over the last decade, I've continuously enjoyed the BOT, marveling over images of the great Tiki temples that are no longer with us. Kahiki, gone. Kona Kai, gone. Etc, etc. None of those documented BOT places existed anymore, and if they did not with the same glory of their 1960's heydays.
All with the exception of... the Mai Kai.
(And I'm leaving the Tiki-Ti out of this comparison since that place might have fit into the storage rooms of the some of the larger Tiki palaces.)
Over the last several years, I've engaged in the following Tiki bar conversation:
Me: "I'm afraid to go to the Mai Kai, at this point there's no way it can meet my Tiki expectations. I'm only going to be disappointed. Better to have it exist only in my dreams."
Them: "You won't be disappointed JOHN-O, it's really that fantastic".
This only served to heighten my (admittedly unreasonable) expectations.
So with that, after a 5+ hour flight from Los Angeles, I headed straight to the Mai Kai. So based on my first impressions, did the Mai Kai live up to the high Tiki ideal that I had formed since that chapter in BOT ??
The honest answer... NO it didn't. Actually how could it? (At least not initially...)
OK let's get this part out of the way. What exactly was the Mai Kai of my imagination?
1. Expectation: It was a Tropical Oasis in the middle of nowhere, situated along a barren patch of Highway 1, lost in time. My most excellent visit to the Hale Kahiki last month only served to reinforce that ideal. Reality: The Mai Kai might have been in the middle of nowhere back in the late 1950's but now it was surrounded by generic shopping malls and a Gentleman's Club just down the street.
2. Expectation: I always imagined the Molokai bar as being really really dark, like the deepest hold of the HMS Bounty. Reality: When I first entered, there was significant natural light which to me is the bane of my ideal Tiki experience. Afterward I realized the trade-off was worth it since the windows with the cascading water were all super cool.
3. Expectation: The Molokai Maidens looked exactly like the girls in the vintage Mai Kai calendars. Reality: The Molokai Maidens were all very beautiful young women, affable and attentive servers, but they radiated more middle America wholesomeness than exotic foreign mystery (and some of them were Blondes !!)
4. Expectation (and the key one for me): The Mai Kai was dripping with the age of its 55 years, evident in crumbling Tikis, dusty forgotten corners, and an deteriorating interior in need of renovation. (Yes, this is the stuff I love). Reality: The Mai Kai is in fantastic shape !! (More on this later).
OK, so what else happened on that first visit...
Well I was there just in time for the dinner show, so I asked to be seated for that. The area around the stage looked to be only one-third full that Tue night but the maitre d' (appropriately dressed in old-school blue blazer and white slacks) seated me in the farthest reaches of Siberia. At first I took this personally but then I observed a single young woman come in also being seated far from the stage. "Can't I get something closer?" she asked pointing to all of the empty tables. The maitre d' asked "Have you been here before?". She replied yes and then was told "Then you know how it works". (!!) Ha, ha. The Mai Kai is certainly true to its mid-century dining roots when single dining was discouraged (and/or tipping your maitre d' was encouraged).
So how were the drinks? Well I started out with a Jet Pilot which true to its Mai Kai reputation was a stiff and complex drink. Very very good. My next drink was the Black Magic. Now this was the one I was looking forward to as it's the Mai Kai's signature drink and contains coffee (which I love). Now I know I will be in the minority here, but this cocktail just didn't do it for me. I think it was the bitterness. Later I had a 151 Swizzle which was great (Is this what it's supposed to taste like? I've only had Tiki-Ti's.) and then one of the non-Strong drinks which I forget the name.
Other noteworthy drinks that I enjoyed over the next several nights included the Yeoman's Grog (which had a cool upside down snow cone thingy), Grandfather's Barrel O' Rum (thanks for that advice Marty Lush but yikes a $22 cocktail?), K.O. Cooler, and many more Jet Pilot's. Since this is my Zombie thread let me focus on that cocktail. It was one of my favorite drinks at the Mai Kai but I did not initially identify it as a Zombie. Conferring with CalTiki, who's mixologist's palate I respect, he also acknowledged it was a great drink but wouldn't have thought it was a Zombie unless I told him. It's probably due to all of the Sunset Beach DTBC's Zombies we drink. It wasn't until the end of the weekend when I realized I was spending too much time on the "Strong" end of the drink menu. The "Medium" Shark Bite I had was really good and I sipped a "Mild" drink which was complex and flavorful (Mai Kai Special?). All those nights and I had only scratched the surface.
OK, so back to Tue's meal. For dinner I had the Chinese oven filet which was excellent and had a unique flavor. It's too bad you can't get the full dinner menu in the Molokai bar. I was spending most of my Mai Kai time there for the remainder of the trip and would have liked to sample some of the other entrees. (Here's the true secret to the Mai Kai, bring a date for a proper sit-down dinner .) And as for the show, I was expecting something along the lines of mid-century kitsch but enjoyed a performance that rang very authentic (more on that later).
Coming up next is Part 2 where I come to realize the true magic of the Mai Kai (and Hukilau).
[ This Message was edited by: JOHN-O 2011-06-13 21:32 ]