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October 17th, 2012 RUTH BROWN | Food Reviews & Stories
 

Carrying the Tiki Torch

Yes, the guys in flowered shirts take cocktails seriously, too.

dish_tiki_3850TIKI CHIEFS: Craig Hermann (left) and Blair Reynolds sip their drinks at Hale Pele. - IMAGE: ronitphoto.com
A small tropical “storm” breaks out in the corner of the room, and Craig Hermann, dressed in a safari hat and vintage Hawaiian shirt, erupts with a delighted grin. We’re drinking cocktails in Hale Pele, a new tiki bar on Northeast Broadway, but in Hermann’s imagination, we’re just players in one big pseudo-Polynesian dream.

“A tiki bar is a happening—an artistic happening,” he explains, as fake rain pours from the ceiling. “When you come into a tiki bar, it’s like you are part of the experience. You’re surrounded by the experience—the music and the sound and the drinks and the sights.... I want to be lost. I want to be completely lost.”

Hermann tastes his Zombie, and leans back with a contented sigh. “The drinks here are perfect,” he says definitively, before noting he prefers the spice a little lighter, but the drink is, objectively, on point. “It’s so satisfying. Before Hale Pele opened, I couldn’t get a drink like this unless I made it myself in my basement.”

This week, bartenders from around the country will descend on Portland for cocktail week, a now annual celebration of craft cocktails with boozy events, parties and guest-bartender appearances in bars all over the city. Expect to see large numbers of earnest gents in waistcoats and Dapper Dan haircuts guzzling Fernet. But don’t be fooled: Some of the most dedicated mixologists may also be wearing garish hibiscus shirts and garnishing their masterpieces with tiny paper umbrellas.

Tiki, the tropical drinks and associated culture, had its heyday from the 1930s to the ’70s with bars like Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s. It then dropped out of fashion but never went away entirely. Hermann and other enthusiasts have been building tiki bars in their basements to re-create the classic drinks at home for years. For the last decade, they have been holding an annual local convention called Tiki Kon, which now attracts hundreds of devotees. But with Trader Vic’s reopening in the Pearl last year, and now Hale Pele on the east side, you can now get a Navy grog or a mai tai as good as any old-fashioned.

Still, Hale Pele is not most people’s idea of a “serious” cocktail bar. To enter, patrons must cross a small bridge over the bubbling pond built into the storefront window display. The dark, cavernous space is illuminated by glowing puffer fish hanging from the ceiling. The walls are thatch and bamboo, adorned with wooden idols and masks. It feels a bit like walking into the luau scene from Psycho Beach Party.

But there’s a long and storied history behind the seemingly kitschy facade. The huge tiki idols glaring from behind the bar, for instance, originally belonged to Steve Crane’s Kon-Tiki, which opened in the former Sheraton-Portland at Lloyd Center in 1959. And each of the 20 drinks on the menu, some of which contain up to 11 precisely measured ingredients, is from the 1930s to 1970s, and comes with a long backstory—which tiki enthusiasts will recite, unprompted, from memory.

“It’s a very rich, unique America history—[it was] the first post-Prohibition cocktail craze and it lasted for four decades,” says Hale Pele owner Blair Reynolds, a guy with a big smile and even bigger mutton chops. “Why is there such a thing called the Rain Killer? Well, it’s because the bartender who developed it knew about the Painkiller. Why is it so different? Well, because it was inspired by the Jet Pilot, which was inspired by the Test Pilot...”

Reynolds was a bartender at the bar’s previous incarnation, Thatch, which was a respectable Tiki bar. But with Hale Pele, he wants to create an experience up there with the country’s top names in tropical drinking, like San Francisco’s famed Smuggler’s Cove: fresh juices squeezed every day; his own line of small-batch syrups; and approximately 350 different spirits.

For Hermann—a longtime friend of Reynolds’ who also did some bartending at Thatch but has now returned to civilian life as an IT guy—it comes close to the immersive experience he has been chasing since visiting Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room as a kid. He’d like to see some sort of animatronic volcano, though.

The new Trader Vic’s, likewise, might sound like just another chain restaurant, but is in fact still a family-owned company, filled with historic pieces and employing a staff of serious cocktail bartenders and tiki aficionados dedicated to re-creating the business’s classic drinks.

“Our menu is all Trader Vic’s signature drinks,” says Justin Dupre, a server and bartender at Trader Vic’s who is also an exotica DJ and runs an online store selling vintage Hawaiian shirts. “It’s not like going to other places and them trying to make you a mai tai with high-fructose corn syrup...it really is about mixology.”

Sure, Reynolds says, tiki drinks can be fruity, and some are sweet. But if made properly, they’re as balanced as a good Manhattan—and seriously potent.

Tiki fans are the geeks of the cocktail world. For many, it is as much about history and science as it is about eating pupu platters and collecting swizzle sticks. Over drinks, Hermann talks about the influence of post-impressionist artist Gaugin; makes a impassioned, evidence-based case for why Trader Vic’s Victor Bergeron (rather than Don the Beachcomber) invented the mai tai; and gives a 10-minute explanation on the evolution of the grapefruit.

In Tiki’s heyday, Hermann explains, the contents of drinks were a closely guarded secret belonging of bartenders. Uncovering the original recipes has been an ongoing research project, and for many, the intrigue and mystery is part of the appeal.

But, Reynolds says, none of that is imperative to enjoying the drinks.

“You can nerd about it all you want, try to get really deep into it, try to solve the mysteries,” he says. “Or you can just enjoy a drink in a freakin’ pineapple, and there’s nothing wrong with either way.”

Cocktails drained, Hermann and I cross the tiny bridge out of Hale Pele, and the fantasy quickly fades as cars whir past and neon signs flash next door. He stares into the electric blue waters of the fake pond.

“This is just so correct. I’m so happy,” he says. “It could use some sound effects with the rain, though.” 


DRINK: Portland Cocktail Week runs Sunday-Thursday, Oct. 21-25. Info at portlandcocktailweek.com. Hale Pele is at 2733 NE Broadway, 662-8454, halepele.com.

 
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