Thursday, December 22, 2011

Have a Tiki, Tiki Christmas!

A bright, cold windy day and we're in the San Gabriel Valley. This is winter in Southern California. The Santa Anas are tossing the palmettos around high overhead.

Although we don't have snow, or mistletoe, you can tell it's almost Christmas.

The Bahooka Family Restaurant is a pile of dark brown wood - cedar shakes, timbers and pylons - sitting amid the tropical foliage of hibiscus and banana trees. The building is festooned with a variety of maritime-themed junk, from white-painted iron chains to empty rowboats to life preservers. And dark carved wood tiki figures glowering from every corner.

We stepped through the wooden door, and it was as if we'd stepped into a maze. A really cluttered, chaotic maze. The walls and ceiling were hung with more Polynesian-themed junk - Japanese glass fishing floats, plastic parrots, palm frond fans and taxidermied  marlins - overlaid with even more junk celebrating the season  - Christmas lights, plastic Santas, wirework reindeer and snowflakes.

We wandered past the wicker lounges and '80s vintage computer games, and searched for a hostess stand or maybe the bar. Narrow kitsch-cluttered corridors branched and led through the maze. Neon-lit tanks of tropical fish glowed at every turn.  There wasn't a human soul in sight.

It was a truly hallucinogenic scene. I almost felt as though I were lost. We came upon a tank with a giant fish goggling in the blue behind the glass.

Click to "embiggen"
It's Rufus, the giant Pacu Piranha. A sign expresses his feelings about living in his tank for 35 years - you won't be surprised to learn that he's okay with it. You can watch Rufus eat carrots on Youtube, the sign says.

Turning down another narrow passageway, we encounter a glass-topped glowing bar and some booths inhabited by real live people. A friendly bartender invites us to sit down. She explains that the tank under the glass holds a turtle named Nessie - and yes, there right beneath my cocktail napkin, a long-necked greyish dinnerplate-sized creature paddles and nudges the blue fake gravel with its nose.

We're here for drinks, since we've already eaten lunch somewhere else, and order from the specialty menu. The bartender is  a friendly older woman, wearing a Christmas-patterned sweatshirt. She asks if we like pina coladas, and explains that they make their own mix from scratch. I haven't had a pina colada in decades, but I took her suggestion and ordered it. Our Son had a Mai Tai, while [The Man I Love] ordered a Navy Grog, which is basically rum, citrus and not enough Coke to make it a rum-and-coke.

Bahooka Family Restaurant came to be in the 1970s, inspired by the famous tiki-bars of the 1940s and 1950s that sprung up to cater to the tastes of World War II veterans who fought in the South Pacific. The most famous of these were Hollywood's Don the Beachcomber (which actually pre-dated WWII) and Trader Vic's, at the Beverly Hills Hilton.

In suburban towns like Rosemead, the tiki-inspired bars were a little more homey and funky, catering more to neighborhood folks and families rather than movie stars.

Our drinks arrive - served in huge glass goblets garnished with fruit skewers. I'm a little disappointed that there are no paper umbrellas, but the bartender is so talkative I can't even formulate a question to ask.

The pina colada tastes like lotion, no trace of pineapple, with the underlying bitterness of an overgenerous pour. Although I'm grateful, I stir vigorously so that the crushed ice will dilute the alcohol.

We hear about the history of the place; the films that were shot on location here; the stories of the fishes behind the glass. We learn about the fabled pork ribs marinated in exotic secret sauce. We marvel aloud at the decor - the aggregate of flotsam and jetsam that covers every surface.

"It's a ship-wreck," says the bartender. "You sit in the booth and it's like you're all alone in a shack on a deserted island." (Note: this concept of the restaurant is confirmed at the website. Follow link to "history.")

We chat about the wind outside, remembering the wind storms of a couple weeks ago. We agree with her that weather in LA is unpredictable.

We drink our oversized drinks and look around - at the model galleons, the carved jaguar heads, the huge fish in the aquarium behind the bar. The bartender knocks on the glass to get Nessie - the turtle - to come over to have his picture taken through the murky portholes on the side of the bar.

Nessie seems a little shy. He doesn't show his face to the camera. I can't get a shot of him.

Nessie's friends
His friends are more outgoing, though.

We wonder if we should try another drink. Maybe a Head Shrinker, with rum, apricot nectar, pineapple and Coke? Maybe a Hurricane Lantern - gin and cherry creme?  On the other hand, we need to head back to the west side. We'lll come back, and maybe even try the famous spareribs.

We call for the check and settle up.

When we push out into the cold clear light of afternoon, it feels like we've left an alternate dimension.

Back out on Rosemead Boulevard, the San Gabriel Mountains rise high in the clear, cold winter air beyond the traffic. We're headed back to the coast, and home, and our own Christmas tree.


Gary's third pottery blog said...

Maybe a weeks worth of booze in drinks like that, yaay!

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

There was a Tiki bar in a nearby shopping mall that college friends and I used to go to (home of the Fuji Volcano, a large drink with long straws for a group).

We didn't have all those fish and a turtle to look at, though...

Jen on the Edge said...

I've never been to a tiki bar, nor has it occurred to me that I should go to one. But now I really want to see it with my own eyes.

Merry Christmas!

smalltownme said...

In the tiki, tiki, tiki, tiki tiki room...

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

I'm upset that they don't call their sample platter a Pu Pu Platter... it's just not right!