Top 10 Mai Tais of 2023

Each year we celebrate the 10 best Mai Tais that we had the pleasure of tasting in the last 12 months. The list includes commercial restaurants and bars, plus Mai Tais we had at home tiki bars and events. For this list the rating is solely about what’s in the glass and does not factor in other elements such as ambiance, food, service, or decor.

Some of the Mai Tais involve rum substitutions from what the bar would normally serve. This presents the reader with more to consider when visiting these places, but highlights that making spirit substitutions is often what changes a good Mai Tai into a great one.

Summary of the Top 10 of 2023

The best by a mile was the amazing Appleton 17 Legend Mai Tai at Smuggler’s Cove. That Appleton 17 sure makes a great Mai Tai (and it should, considering the price). Also notable was Saint Benevolence Rum Clairin in two of these – I love the heavy rum with olive and brine notes. Boo Loo uses the same Super Jugoso Orgeat that Kon-Tiki Oakland uses., and Kon-Tiki would have had others but we limit each location to a single entry. 

And, yes, whatever they were doing that evening in January at the San Jose Airport Trader Vic’s was nearly perfect. Trailer Happiness in London lived up to the reputation, as did the Buz-Tai. We salute Tiki Tom’s for making our Ultimate Mai Tai the right way, and wish Dr. Funk would make their Mai Tai as good as this one was all the time. The Banyan Mai Tai was served at a treehouse, which shows you can get a great Mai Tai nearly anywhere.

View the complete list and additional details

1. Smuggler’s Cove with Appleton 17
2. Mai Tai with Appleton 17, Appleton Rum Event
3. Trader Vic’s San Jose Airport
4. Kon-Tiki Oakland with Saint Benevolence Aged Rum Clairin 
5. Banyan Mai Tai at Tiki in Waikiki by Skull & Crown Trading Co.
6. Dr Funk
7. Buz-Tai at Hula Hoops
8. Ultimate Mai Tai at Tiki Tom’s
9. Trailer Happiness
10. Boo Loo Lounge with Saint Benevolence Rum Clairin

Instagram Top Nine for 2023

I do still continue to love Instagram, where even the ads help me with my holiday shopping. Plus all the connecting and commenting on the things we love to share. Check out the fun at @UltimateMaiTai. So, here are the Top Nine Posts for 2023.

  • Appleton 17 Mai Tai with Martin Cate (497)
  • Appleton 17 at London event (370)
  • Napa Museum for Tiki Exhibition (358)
  • Cocktail Archaeologist Costume meme (348)
  • Trad’r Sam’s iconic sign (309)
  • Ultimate Mai Tai at Royal Tot (294)
  • World’s Worst Mai Tai at Make & Drink studio (268)
  • Tonga Room (266)
  • Legendary Mai Tai on Make & Drink channel (262)

So, what I’m hearing is that y’all were pretty interested in Appleton 17 Legend rum this year. Seems like you’ve chosen the correct feed for all your Mai Tai minutia.

Top Nine says I had 29,600 likes on 244 posts, an average of 121 per post, so thank you all for the likes. I’m in the “top 1% of accounts with up to 5000 followers,” so the goal next year is to be a smaller fish in a bigger pond.

Fresh Fun at San Francisco’s Trad’r Sam Tiki Bar

Heads turned when San Francisco’s Trad’r Sam bar closed mysteriously in late summer. The legendary bamboo bar has been in operation in the Richmond district since 1937, the oldest continuously operating tiki bar in the world. The closure was due in part to a complicated and multifaceted ownership dispute among a brother and sister/niece, along with lease issues. The dust settled with John Munguia taking over operational duties for the first time in many years and the venue reopening in early November.

Aside from settling the lease and operational disputes, the downtime resulted in noticeable updates to the seating and decor inside the neighborhood hangout that in true dive bar fashion still only accepts cash. The bamboo booths named for tropical islands were long in disrepair and have been removed, replaced by new tables and chairs. The blenders and barstools are all new with the bar surface and floor refurbished as well. We noticed there was a greater emphasis on some cheap but well-placed tikis, which I think accented the many historic bamboo elements still in place inside. The previously graffiti-filled men’s restroom has been completely repainted, perhaps the first time in history where white walls were welcome in a tiki bar.

In the previous regime the hours were notoriously inconsistent, but after last week’s SF Standard article that said that bar opens early on Mondays I took advantage of a “wellness day” at work and decided to see how things are before noon in the Richmond. We saw Munguia tending bar with a few regulars who were drinking shots and beer and not the Polynesian Drinks referenced on the iconic sign outside. These regulars were already in party mode when we walked in and soon were treated to a whiskey shot bought by a customer for everyone in the bar. Another regular knew the inside of the venue better than Munguia, running behind the bar to find the remotes for the jukebox and TVs.

Which left it up to this writer to keep up the tradition of Polynesian Drinks at the Polynesian Drinks bar, ordering a Mai Tai. Trad’r Sam features a vast cocktail menu, though on a previous visit it wasn’t clear there was a substantial difference between a Mai Tai and Zombie aside from the garnish. But most the cocktails are just $9, indicating this is a place for inexpensive imbibing and not for refined reflection of craft cocktails. Indeed my island Mai Tai was prepared exactly like the one on my last trip in early 2022 and was so similar it evoked the “they’re the same picture” meme from NBC’s The Office.

But I come to praise Trad’r Sam, not to bury it. The Mai Tai wasn’t too bad, and I had even better luck when I ordered a Singapore Sling from bartender JJ who had recently arrived and really began the bar setup. The Sling contained a mix of rum, sloe gin, a couple cherry liqueurs, and a bit of juice and honestly was the best Singapore Sling I’ve had in a while. Meanwhile, a group of young men came in for some socializing and a couple rounds of tequila shots. I wandered over to the jukebox and immediately found some Gerry Rafferty and Gary Wright songs that tickled JJ and the group of young men. I kept looking and eventually found some Ventures and even a few Martin Denny tunes.

Sitting in the world’s oldest tiki bar listening to “Quiet Village” while sipping a tropical cocktail at 2:00 in the afternoon wasn’t a bad way to spend my “wellness day” after all.

Hardcore tikiphiles certainly have better options in The City, home to at least half a dozen top-tier destination tiki bars. But I think Trad’r Sam is worth visiting as well. True, one minute you might be relaxing with a drink and the next an inebriated regular will be hugging you while sliding over a whiskey shot. It’s that kind of place. It isn’t unsafe, though, and I’d have trusted those regulars to have my back in the event of any trouble. We can only hope that continued upgrades to the interior and maybe the cocktail program will follow with a resurgence of business and the ability to focus on hospitality rather than the judiciary.

The World’s Best Chinese Mai Tai at Li Po Lounge

Among the world’s most notable Mai Tais is the one at Li Po Lounge in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Though notorious is a more apt description, driven by an appearance on Anthony Bourdain’s TV show and the late celebrity chef’s declaration that the cocktail was “lethal.” The dive bar’s iconic neon sign is also a draw for the venue. The Chinese Mai Tai is a cult favorite or rite of passage, or maybe a combination of both.

 

Calling this the world’s best Chinese Mai Tai is a backhanded compliment, since Chinese Mai Tais aren’t really a subgenre and being the best in a dead end of an evolutionary tree still doesn’t mean the cocktail is necessarily good. The cocktail’s ingredients have shifted due to the supply of spirits, hence the red marker covering up original brands on the sign behind the bar. But it’s a mix of dark, light, and 151 rums, pineapple, and Chinese Liqueur. We did see these being built using some sort of batched liquor along with Mr & Mrs T. Mai Tai Mix and Pineapple Juice – very freely poured into a blender with ice and flash blended for 5-10 seconds.

The Chinese liqueur used is called Ng Ka Py, a Sorghum-based spirit that is bottled at 48% ABV complete with strong fruit peel and plum notes. It’s the cornerstone ingredient in the cocktail and can be quite divisive. Its a strong flavor with a really long finish, but it may not be pleasant for many including this writer.

Is it a Mai Tai? Well, the Mai Tai Mix kind of says yes. But the flavor profile isn’t like any Mai Tai you’ve ever had before.

When we visited Li Po on a Saturday mid-afternoon the place was packed, and they were selling plenty of the Chinese Mai Tais along with Li Po’s set of potent cocktails and beer. We found a couch and ordered the round of drinks at the bar where the bartender prepared cocktails, took money, and cleared stations. She even provided crowd control, allowing a couple who had been waiting to sit at recently vacated bar stools in lieu of guests who had recently entered the venue. If your Chinese grandmother was running a bar, this was the vibe.

Li Po remains a San Francisco institution that tourists and locals should seek out, and their Chinese Mai Tai is a must try… at least once.

Luau Lounge, the Hidden Waterfront Tiki Bar in San Francisco

Luau Lounge is the “hidden tiki bar” with waterfront views that’s attached to the Players Sports Grill all the way at the end of Pier 39 in San Francisco. Food is the same as Players but there are an assortment of tiki cocktails to go with the thatch bar and Hawaiian leaning tiki theme. There’s also a small bar outside that seems like a great place if you love the cold wind off the bay. Great views of the bay and Alcatraz though.

Our experience in the past was that cocktails can be hit or miss, which was our experience on Saturday. The Mai Tai leaned a little tart and needed bolder rums but wasn’t terrible. Mrs Mai Tai thought the Kahuki Kai was too sweet, surprisingly since she usually liked these sweet coconut cocktails. There’s a reasonable rum and spirits selection so something neat or on the rocks is a safer choice. Glen made a wise choice to order a Gin & Tonic.

The sound of air hockey blending with Reggae is your audio soundscape here but we still think this can be a nice place to visit as part of your touristy Pier 39 visit. Service has always been friendly and the views are great.

The Grand Spectacle of Dinner at the Tonga Room

The Tonga Room at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco remains a seminal destination for fans of Polynesian restaurants, featuring a cohesive theme and the centerpiece of a pool in the middle of the large room. Rain showers with lighting and sound effects come every 20-30 minutes and is still a source of wonder for young and old. The decor is a blend of midcentury modern with traditional Polynesian art, sandwiched between a dock on one side and ship’s rigging on the other. The lava rock and red paint in the Hurricane Bar set it off well from the rest of the restaurant.

The space at the Tonga Room is sill so impressive to us and once again we were fortunate being seated poolside. In the pool is a boat that serves as the place where the house band Island Groove plays each night starting around 7 pm. The band opened with a nice mellow rendition of “The Girl from Ipanema” and the rest of the set was a mix of popular favorites from the 1970s-1980s. We thought “Margaritaville” and “All Night Long” played okay in this room, with “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” less so. More mellow arrangements and less “wedding band” banter would be our preference. There’s a $15 per person cover when the band is playing.

We’re fans of the Asian fusion cuisine here. Pricey, yes, but we feel the quality is there. We started with the poke tostadas that were absolutely fabulous. The Asian salad is quite large and includes pears and a light honey sesame dressing. Mrs. Mai Tai and I both had the grilled salmon over fried rice that was just right for us once again. The portions were pretty good for the price. We’ve always had good luck with service. Our waiter Haobo couldn’t have been nicer, even offering to take a photo across the pool.

The Tonga Room is probably too pricey to be anyone’s regular watering hole, but remains a San Francisco institution. The Tonga Room is open at 5 pm Wednesday – Saturdays, first come (no reservations). If you’re in town doing the tiki thing, make sure you add it to your itinerary.