Tiki Night in the Bay Area

Can’t get into the specific reasons why but I made visits to three of the Bay Area tiki bars last night. And of course even if went there for other reasons you can’t leave without getting a cocktail.

Smuggler’s Cove: Hibiscus Rum Punch. Fruity and light, quite flavorful.

The Kon-Tiki: their very good Mai Tai and (not pictured) their best-in-the-world Cheeseburger.

Forbidden Island: Ohana night special cocktail called Black Hole Sun, by Sara Rivas. Citrus, Pineapple, Honey, Bourbon, Demerara 151, Dash of absinthe, Dash of bitters. Leaning spicy, this was pretty good!

Apple Maps in the car really came in handy yesterday. Just 30 mins from the Cove to Kon-Tiki at rush hour!

Nice to see familiar faces along the way. Such a blessing to have so many great destination experiences in the Bay Area.

Tonga Room

Mrs Mai Tai and I made a special trek to the City to have dinner at the Tonga Room. We were last here in 2019, and we’ve missed the incredible atmosphere and dining at the historical tiki bar at the Fairmont Hotel. There’s always a line when the place opens (was told they don’t offer reservations anymore, even to hotel guests), and even more so this week after a nice writeup in the local SFGate news site.

Unlike our last attempt before a Go-Go’s show a couple months ago, traffic was light and so we arrived super early and were first in line. Definitely a big difference between the “Tonga line” 30 mins before opening and 15 mins before. We were seated poolside, which is always our favorite place.

The food menu is a little more limited than in our previous visits, and noteworthy doesn’t offer much for kids or picky eaters. I ordered the spam appetizer which I expected would be like sliders – but it most certainly wasn’t. This was very tasty, but difficult to eat and would be hard to share. Even better was my Grilled Miso Salmon over fried rice that was really delicious. Julie loved her Coconut Curry Seafood, though I had to convince her to try the Calamari.

There’s something off in the tart Mai Tai (I’m guessing cheap orgeat), though we loved our other cocktails including the coffee-coconut Tonga Kong and the lemon-coconut Adult Swim (normally served with vodka, I asked for rum to be subbed). The cocktails here are very pricey and the quality is okay – but balanced with the friendly service and amazingly immersive decor inside.

The Tonga Room is very expensive and hard to get in, but for special occasions or just as an occasional treat we think it is worth it. There’s no doubt that the business is booming, though an upcoming three-week closure for refurbishments will be a bummer for some. The rain and thunderstorms that happen every 15-30 minutes are a big hit with customers, and the decor and artwork is a sight to be behold.

Smuggler’s Cove Mai Tai with Rum Subs

I was in the city yesterday near the Cove so popped in to see if they could top the amazing Mai Tai I had at Trader Sam’s made with Appleton Reserve and Hamilton Pot Still Blonde.

As you can see from the photo, what was pulled was the Pot Still Gold, not the Blonde. In this respect, I can’t blame the barback who retrieved the bottle because I’ve done the same thing before at home and in stores since all the Hamilton rums have the same label and in this case the Gold doesn’t look “gold” at all. It’s exactly the same color as the Blonde (if anything, the Blonde is shade darker).

Of course the Smuggler’s Cove Mai Tai was excellent, but I would say there’s something about that Hamilton Pot Still Blonde that really amplifies the Mai Tai. I hadn’t really considered that rum for a Mai Tai blend but it has a little extra oomph in the cocktail. The Gold is no slouch but seems to be missing something. The Blonde has some additional aging and no coloring.

Sunday night at the Smuggler’s Cove was quite relaxing and was easy to strike up a conversation with bartender Steven Liles who entertained us with some stories.

Tiki Haven’s Island Mai Tai

My route back home from Trad’r Sam went right past Tiki Haven so I thought I’d pop in to check this place out again, too. The bar is located in the Sunset District and is a neighborhood sports bar with a tourist-tiki theme. No confusing this with the craft places downtown, but on the other hand it is still quite a friendly bar where your wife won’t be frightened to enter. The parklet outside features some very nicely themed tables and stools that are in great condition. There are plenty of restaurants nearby.

Service was friendly, similar to my previous visit, and the Mai Tai was prepared quickly. This very good Island Mai Tai was shaken prior to serving, and had a well-balanced ratio of juices to spirits.

Trad’r Sam Mai Tai

My company gave me a “wellness” day so I took a trip to San Francisco to visit Trad’r Sam, the longest continually operating tiki bar in the world. Like many bars outside the city’s financial and tourist core, this is a dive bar not a craft cocktail place. Inside things are … very divey. There are some longtime bamboo framing elements around the tables, and a few tiki mugs hanging above the bar, and a lot of tired bones. Inside, the place is cash only, and they have a long menu of cocktails along with a modest collection of spirits and beer.

The owner of Trad’r Sam took offense to my review a couple years ago when I said that all the drinks were pretty much the same. Part of my revisit was to test the theory.

My $9 island Mai Tai was prepared thusly:
Splash of bottled Lime and Sweet & Sour mix
Splash of Triple Sec and Amaretto
Splash of Grenadine 
Steady pours of Myers’s white rum and a dark rum (might have been Cruzan)
Big splash of Pineapple Juice
Healthy float of Myers’s dark rum

If the grenadine was removed I would give this a passing grade, as my first few sips came off the bottom where the grenadine had settled and it was not good. Once I stirred it up a bit more the cocktail improved. Service was efficient and friendly enough for a dive bar.

I was thinking about a second cocktail when another patron ordered a Zombie. The Zombie had even more pineapple juice and more rum, but otherwise seemed like the same ingredients. Served blended.

So, it was one and done for me. I’m glad I took the drive out on a sunny Friday. The parklet outside was spartanly appointed but definitely was being well used by regulars who were starting the weekend early. 

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.