May 24th, 2006 Kevin Allman | Special Section Stories
 

Tiki Wiki

Mai tai-ing one on with a tiki expert at a few favorite Portland spots.

     
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Jasmine tree: Where the tiki gods smile every night.
Ask locals to name their poison, and you'll get an earful about Brewtopia and Willamette wines. But if your cup of cheer happens to be classic midcentury cocktails with an accent on tiki, you could do a lot worse than Portland—or so says Beachbum Berry (né Jeff Berry), whose first book, Beachbum Berry's Grog Log (SLG Publishing, 96 pages, $9.95), earned raves in The New York Times and US News & World Report (which called it "the tiki bar bible") and was followed by two other volumes, Intoxica! and Taboo Table (96 pages, $10.95 each). Recently, the Bum came to town to spend two bleary days touring the town's tiki emporia—a sort of Sideways tour of PDX, except with mai tais instead of pinots. Our tour winds through...

Jake's Grill (611 SW 10th Ave., 220-1850). The Bum is impressed. Behind the bar is a Barbancourt 15-Year Réserve du Domaine, the Porsche of fine rums. Encouraged, he goes for a challenging cocktail, the sidecar. It's the World War II generation's version of a cosmopolitan: brandy, lemon juice and triple sec, served in a martini glass with a sugared rim.

The white-coated mixologist begins with fresh lemon and orange juice ("Fresh-squeezed! And orange juice!" marvels the Bum), muddles it with a sugar cube using a wooden pestle, adds the liquors and plenty of ice, and gives it a long shake before straining it into a sugared glass with the Jake's logo etched on its side.

The Bum takes a long sip. "Really good," he pronounces. A second sip. "Perhaps the best I've ever had. Better than any I've had in L.A., New York or New Orleans."

(It was so good we went back the next day, only to be informed by the barkeep that we'd forgotten to pay our tab. He is genial. We are mortified.)

We don't get past the maitre d' station at the Grill's sister restaurant, Jake's Famous Crawfish (401 SW 12th Ave., 226-1419), once the Bum gets a gander at the plush crawfish and other theme-park souvenirania for sale. Instead, we head for Huber's (411 SW 3rd Ave., 228-5686). The Spanish coffee costs more than our turkey lunches. But the Bum is impressed by the cocktailship of the young barkeep, who does a fandango with the 151 rum before setting it afire and dousing it with strong java. Most coffee drinks taste like a Starbucks whipped-Creamsicle, but this is a serious (and seriously delicious) concoction of booze and beans, a Castilian stallion that could knock you on your ass if you're not careful. Two Bum thumbs up.

The Algonquin Room of North Interstate Avenue, a.k.a. the Alibi (4024 N Interstate Ave., 287-5335), has long been a mecca for kitsch fetishists (and karaoke fans), but the drinks, says the Bum, don't share the same sterling reputation among the tiki cognoscenti. To test this theory, he orders a mai tai, the classic invented by Trader Vic himself in 1944.

The Bum is impressed with the Alibi's coconut-shell entrance, the vintage wahinis on the wall, and the seashell-studded lamps, even if he isn't enthralled with the Pat Benatar soundtrack. But then the mai tai and the Alibi's signature drink, the "Kamonawannalaiea," arrive.

The Bum tastes the Kamonawannalaiea and flinches like James Beard at the Olive Garden. "It tastes like a watermelon Jolly Rancher," he says. "No. The wrapper from a Jolly Rancher." The mai tai gets slightly higher marks. "It's not as sweet. A proper tropical drink is not all about the sweet." But he never gets past a few sips, and soon we're back on the MAX. Decor: 10. Drinks: 3.

The Space Room (4800 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 235-6957), a Jetsons-style oasis among the piercing parlors of Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, doesn't have tropical drinks, but the vintage Saturn lamps over the bar, says the Bum, make up for the terrestrial, not celestial, drinks menu. We settle for two Irish coffees (good, but no Huber's) and some spins on the free jukebox. The Bum approves of the bar's Sputnik-y charms, but Mars ain't Maui, and the Space Room ain't tiki.

Things perk up considerably at our last stop, the Jasmine Tree (401 SW Harrison St., 223-7956), the ancient Chinese secret of Portland State University fratboys and "honored citizens." Word on the street is that JT is scheduled to go under the wrecking ball to make room for a high-rise development, but according to Jasmine Tree manager Jim Chan, that is sometime off in the distant future. "At least 2007," he says. In the meantime, the older crowd whiles away a sunny day in a miasma of cigarette smoke and bamboo paneling.

The Jasmine Tree's mai tai arrives topped with a canned pineapple ring and maraschino cherry speared, amusingly, with a tongue depressor. (Our mixologist from Jake's would have cringed.) But the Bum is unexpectedly effusive. "It's not sweet!" he says. "It's almost watery." And indeed, under the rum is a refreshing, sorta spring-watery taste that cuts the sweetness.

What really excites the Bum, though, is a triptych of cannibal tiki statues that he recognizes as having come from the Kon-Tiki, the long-shuttered bar at the Portland Sheraton. The genial Chan, also the bartender, confirms their provenance, adding, "At one point, we were ready to remodel the whole bar, but then tiki became popular again." He shrugs. "Now we've had tiki conventions in here—130 people, all wanting me to make a Singapore sling at once!"

The Bum expends a whole roll of Fujifilm at the Jasmine Tree. He's found his Portland Shangri-La. "This is what midcentury tiki was really all about," he explains, "a place where a blue-collar guy could take his family and dream about Hawaii for a couple of hours." By that yardstick, the Jasmine Tree is a perfect tiki 10.


CONTENTS

DRINKIPEDIA - Willamette Week's annual Drink Guide 2006

Clock Blockin' - Every hour is happy hour!

Tiki Wiki - In search of the Perfect Mai Tai.

Listings A-D

Listings D-L

Listings L-Z

Want to offer the Bum a bum cheer, or did he give you a bum steer? Contact him at www.beachbumberry.com.

 
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