Top Mai Tais of 2021: Number 2, Mai Tai Fighter by Smuggler’s Cove

Each year we celebrate the 10 best Mai Tais that we had the pleasure of tasting in the last 12 months.

Number 2: Mai Tai Fighter by Smuggler’s Cove at Sessions (San Francisco, CA)

Smuggler’s Cove partnered with Sessions restaurant for a Star Wars “May the Fourth” event, since Sessions is located in the Lucasfilm complex at the Presidio. The “Mai Tai Fighter” was a standard Smuggler’s Cove Mai Tai with an added float of Demerara 151 rum. This was the first freshly prepared SC Mai Tai that I’d tasted in over a year and it was so amazing.

I’m counting this as a different place the Cove because the added float was a different recipe and also neat addition for this special event away from the Cove itself.

Relaxation at Pagan Idol

Our trip viewing the four buildings that are part of “Let’s Glow SF” ended a block from Pagan Idol, and we decided that it was time for a break from all the walking around in the City.

We have previously enjoyed our visits to Pagan Idol early on Saturdays where the mood and clientele are much more mellow than the after work crowd or later weekend hours. Not that it didn’t stop not one but two other patrons from spilling their drinks! There was a private party taking up part of the back room space, but we enjoy Pagan Idol’s front room in the evening anyway and staked out a spot next to the aquarium. Music continues to be a strength with retro tropical and exotica music being the focus.

Cocktails were totally on point. Banana Life and Toucan Dance are longtime favorites and did the trick for us. Nice, relaxing time once again at Pagan Idol.

Luau Lounge: Hidden Tiki Bar in San Francisco

Had a sort of impromptu visit to Pier 39’s Luau Lounge on Saturday. Mrs. Mai Tai and I were in the city at the Walt Disney Family Museum and then went downtown to look at the “Let’s Glow SF” lights. In between we had dinner at Fog City and had a little shopping stroll at Pier 39.

Luau Lounge is a “hidden tiki bar” inside the Players Sports Grill and Arcade all the way at the end of the pier. You have to walk through the arcade to get the Lounge, which is a moderately themed tiki bar with Hawaiian leaning food. Some great views of the bay out back, along with tropical/reggae music and staff that’s usually pretty friendly.

Our past experiences with drinks have been hit or miss. Some of our cocktails have been truly terrible, while others were more reasonable. This is a place where you don’t expect “craft” but the sliding scale only goes so far. If I can’t taste the rum or if the only thing I taste is lime, well, then that’s not a good Mai Tai even here. Our hit rate is maybe 40-50%, and most cocktails are made via count-pours, so some variance is expected.

This time the 1944 Mai Tai was actually pretty good. Made with Cruzan and Mount Gay rums, I could taste the lighter style rums along with a balanced cocktail that leaned just slightly sweet. Just like I like it.

Luau Lounge remains an appealing option to get away from the Pier 39 crowds, or just to take a break from walking all around SF like we did.

Smuggler’s Cove Mai Tai

Mrs Mai Tai and I were in the city last week celebrating our anniversary including dinner at Absinthe. We arrived early enough and visited Smuggler’s Cove nearby for some before-dinner-drinks. Very nice to sit at the bar and watch the amazing bartending skills of Steven Liles who treated us so well.

With so many highest quality cocktails at the Cove, I really should try something new, but damn if I can’t not get the Mai Tai. Still one of the best I’ve ever tried, so I had to have one.

Notable for me in comparison to some Mai Tais I’ve had elsewhere recently was how much I appreciate the rich and funky flavor of the Denizen Merchant’s Reserve rum that’s used in the SC Mai Tai. While not overpowering, this rum does punch through a bit more than the rum blends I’ve had recently, and in my opinion provides a more flavorful cocktail that is so much better.

Though, given the type of bar that Smuggler’s Cove is they can and should do different things than a bar in the suburbs and being patronized by a broader crowd that are tiki newbies or more into wine than cocktails.

Every year we track the Top 10 Mai Tais we’ve had over the past 12 months. I don’t want to spoil the countdown, but it is now a foregone conclusion that the Cove is going to be represented well. Very, very well.

Worthy Park Special Barrel Series

Got to try this new special release of Worthy Park Jamaica Rum. Aged 14 years, the oldest in Worthy Park’s collection, and available as a special release with Smuggler’s Cove where you can taste the rum and purchase a bottle. You can also purchase at K&L Wines.

This aged rum is bottled at cask strength and you’re going to taste the flavor in ever sip. This rum has a higher ester count than I recall from other Worthy Park releases.

If you’re a nut for Jamaica Rum, you’ll want to give this a try if you can. It’ll be gone soon.

Pagan Idol Visit

Another bar it’s been too long since I visited. Very welcoming vibe inside Pagan Idol and service remains stellar, along with an exotic music program that plays well for newbies and tiki bar snobs (like me).

I didn’t love the Mai Tai. Like sister bar Zombie Village, this was too Agricole forward for me. But it was more tart than Zombie Village’s so really not in my wheelhouse. I only stayed for one drink, though, and didn’t lean into menu favorites such as the Day Walker which are always on par.

I see that Pagan Idol is starting up some live music performances coming up, featuring the Alcatraz Islanders who play some great swing era Hawaiian and jazz. I took BART for the first time in forever and it was a pretty good experience (everyone wore their masks) so more Pagan visits may be in my future.

Return to the Village

Made a return visit to Zombie Village after a long absence and was pleased to see the vibe and overall service levels are still quite strong. On an early Saturday evening the music was peppy but exotic and instrumental, so still in line with the tropical aesthetic.

My Mai Tai was fine – a little heavy on the Rhum Agricole for my personal taste, but quite reasonable. I only stayed for one cocktail but it was nice chatting with some of the staff.

Zombie Village is still one of the key tiki bar destinations for anyone visiting San Francisco. I always love my visits to the village.

Clinch Cocktail

Made this simple cocktail to watch the San Francisco Giants clinch a playoff spot. I had oranges but no other citrus, which I guess is poetic considering that orange is the Giants’ main color.

1 oz Valencia Orange Juice
¾ oz Passionfruit Syrup (Liber & Co)
1½ oz Myers’s Platinum White rum
Shake with ice and strain
Buster Posey figure optional

There is no doubt this one goes down easy. It leans sweet, that’s for sure. Balanced cocktails can come by later.