Satisfying Salmon Bowl and Cocktails at Trader Vic’s San Jose Airport

I’m traveling to Seattle for business next week and it’s always nice to fly out of San Jose to have lunch before the flight at Trader Vic’s Outpost at San Jose Airport. The Teriyaki Salmon Bowl here is really great, including mango, edamame, carrots, and avocado.

The signature cocktail for this Vic’s location is the Pilo Pilo, which is served in the mug they made just for this location. The recipe isn’t out there for this cocktail but I tried to watch them make it and it seems like it has lime juice, pineapple juice, passionfruit syrup, Vic’s grog concentrate, dark rum, gold rum, and 151 rum. It is a pretty good cocktail, though I was the only one at the bar drinking Vic’s cocktails as others were defaulting to common drinks like Margaritas or just choosing beer and wine.

Salmon Bowl and Pilo Pilo

There’s a scant amount of premium rum at this location, including things like Zaya and Brugal which are sweetened and not really my thing. But there’s a very nice Mount Gay Master Select 1703 from Barbados. This is a blend of rums aged from 10-30 years and issued at 43% ABV, so it is very easy to drink but still has a fine blend of Barbados rum flavors. The price isn’t bad, $22. Wish they had a few more premiums to go along with the bottles of bourbon and Scotch on the back bar.

A Great Mai Tai and Two Terrible Ones

Had dinner and some drinks last night in San Jose before The Surfrajettes show at Dr. Funk in Downtown San Jose. Our last visit gave us hope they’d maybe fixed the quality control issues we’d seen in the visits prior and had confirmed by so many others.

I started out with a Mai Tai, made once again with Appleton 12 and Smith & Cross rums plus Dr. Funk’s house-made orgeat that’s delicious. I saw that the orgeat and demerara syrup were squeezed directly into the shaker but the lime and rum measured with a jigger. And it turned out great, I really loved it.

A buddy showed up and ordered a Mai Tai but the flavors weren’t anywhere the same based on his tasting and mine via a “straw sample” of the cocktail. It tasted flat like maybe they used fewer ingredients or not enough of some.

Then he ordered a second Mai Tai that was even worse and legit terrible. Nothing was measured in a jigger and the shake was half-hearted. A truly awful Mai Tai.

It really bums me out that Dr. Funk cannot figure this out, since the space remains immersive and their excellent rum selection means that I can try some new-to-me rums. I tried the Black Tot Master Blender’s Reserve 2023 and it was absolutely delicious and very similar to the old British Royal Navy rum from the 1950s and 1960s that I’ve been able to try.

If Dr. Funk wants to be considered a craft cocktail bar, they need to measure the ingredients with jiggers.

If they want to be considered a world-class tiki bar the bartenders need to know where the overproof 151 Demerara rum is without having to spend a long time looking for it (no, I’m not kidding).

If Dr. Funk just wants to be a party bar just tell us that so that we can reset our expectations. San Jose doesn’t need another party tiki bar like Tiki Pete. They need a tiki bar where a great Mai Tai is expected – and not the exception.

Expanded Seating at Trader Vic’s San Jose Airport

The seating areas at Trader Vic’s San Jose Airport have been expanded in the last couple weeks, providing airport passengers with an easier to see option to enjoy Mai Tais and all of Trader Vic’s offerings.

We hear Trader Vic’s is doing very well at the airport, and you don’t expand seating if business is struggling. There’s also a Trader Vic’s coming in 2024 to the Oakland Airport, according to recent news reports.

My 7:24 am Mai Tai was pretty great and paired well with coffee that also tasted just fine.

Remember that you can also get drinks to-go at the airport, and remember to finish any drinks with alcohol before leaving the airport or boarding a plane.

Tiki Tuesday at Dr. Funk Was Pretty Great

Dr. Funk, Downtown San Jose’s excellent tiki bar, has been trying to make Tiki Tuesday a thing for the past year with DJs offering a variety of vintage styles on Tuesdays from 7 – 10 pm. I am not sure how much this has been actually pulling in the tiki people (more on that later) or even locals, but they’re continuing this program in 2024. We ventured down to see DJ Ship Rex who is assigned the rare “5th Tuesday of the month” slot.

The first bit of good news is that Dr. Funk is now doing Happy Hour all day on Tuesday. This is a big improvement since under the old set-up, the Happy Hour would end at 7:00 when the DJs started playing. So, having the better priced $12 Dr. Funk Mai Tai and some other drink specials is a nice update. I think tiki people would prefer drink specials like a nightly special cocktail more than a DJ (no offense to the DJs) but at least Happy Hour pricing is a plus.

Unfortunately there was a technical snafu and DJ Ship Rex got “ship wrecked” and couldn’t play tonight. Nonetheless, it was fun to hang out with Rex and a number of other tiki folks who came out. Be sure to check out Rex on his next gig.

The place was actually nicely full through most of our visit, perhaps due to the Sharks Night specials where there are some special cocktails such as the Shark’s Tooth that Mrs. Mai Tai tried in lieu of some of her favorites. The Blue Hawaii riff includes high-quality Probitas rum and was a great deal on the Sharks menu. She also tried the Shipwreck cocktail, a fruity cocktail that’s very nice.

I’m pleased to report both of my cocktails were made well, including the Mai Tai. I also tried the “Myers Storm” which is a Dark ‘n Stormy riff made with Myers’s Single Barrel – I asked them to go easy on the ginger beer and it was made correctly even if it wasn’t spelled correctly.

How do you spell Myers’s Rum?

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

Sippin’ Santa at 55 South / Miracle on 1st in Downtown San Jose

The holiday season continues in downtown San Jose where two holiday cocktail pop-ups are still pulling in revelers. Both Sippin’ Santa and Miracle offer a variety of festive cocktails along with interesting and fun glassware that’s available for sale.

Sippin’ Santa at 55 South

We started at 55 South for Sippin’ Santa, the tiki-themed holiday pop-up produced with Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. The new cocktail and mug this year is Sharkey’s First Christmas, featuring vodka, aquavit, melon and walnut liqueur, lime and pineapple juices. Mrs. Mai Tai thought this was pretty good and I have to agree it was a nice twist and the mug is pretty good too. I had Sippin’ Santa cocktail that has Demerara rum, amaro, lemon, orange, and gingerbread mix – an all time favorite mug and the cocktail is always great too.

The team at 55 South did a good job with the drinks and decor again this year, though the music for our experience was a Sade playlist followed by mid-1950s rock ‘n roll hits. So, not really the holiday vibe. We arrived early and the crowd was sparse, but grew later in the evening.

55 South

Miracle on 1st is at Paper Plane across the street and continues to impress. The decor is elaborate here, and we found the service at the bar to be quite efficient and super friendly. I was driving and asked for something non-alcoholic and received a very nice juicy highball that was fantastic. Mrs. Mai Tai had the excellent Marshmallows & Unicorns, the complex cocktail with gin, several liqueurs, lemon, egg white, bitters, and cardamon. Our friends really liked their Carol Barrel and Hot Buttered Rum, two Miracle standouts. Crowds grew during our visit and there was a line when we left, so go early if you can.

Miracle on 1st at Paper Plane

Miracle has a larger cocktail menu than Sippin’ Santa and the more varied options seem offer something for everyone. Sippin’ Santa added a holiday spritz this year but we think the smaller menu is a deterrent for many potential patrons. Adding a couple more cocktails would help for 2024.

Regression at Dr. Funk

We ventured to downtown San Jose to check out DJ Otto von Stroheim‘s holiday tunes for “Traditional Tiki” Tuesday at Dr. Funk. The place is decked out quite nicely for the holidays and Otto’s tunes were upbeat and festive. A great set from Otto, like always.

DJ Otto

It does seem that there’s been some regression in the quality of the cocktails here, thanks in part to a great deal of turnover of the bar staff during 2023. We saw bartenders free-pouring ingredients, which might explain why the balance of my Mai Tai was just a bit off. Not terrible but more limey than in my past visits. When Dr. Funk opened in 2021 their Mai Tai rum blend was Appleton 12 and Smith & Cross, but last year Appleton 12 had supply issues and they replaced it with Denizen Merchant’s Reserve rum that is less expensive but doesn’t work as well (the Dr. Funk website still lists Appleton 12, even after a certain lifestyle blogger informed them of the error months ago). We’re hoping for better results on our next visit.

Mai Tai

The Tropical Itch we ordered was really off track. It supposedly contains Wild Turkey 101 along with Coruba and Lemon Hart 151 rums, plus Dry Curacao and “caramelized pineapple.” I couldn’t taste the bourbon at all, and there was a flavor that neither Mrs. Mai Tai or I found pleasant. Probably the caramelized pineapple, but in either case the cocktail was not good.

Tropical Itch

Thankfully, Mrs. Mai Tai found her Thai-Chi to be made well. This rich and creamy cocktail has a host of ingredients including Allspice dram, milk syrup, and falernum. Perhaps this is one of Dr. Funk’s batched cocktails.

Dr. Funk is still pretty good in downtown San Jose, but the corporate ownership isn’t doing any favors to elevate the experience for fans of the genre and the constant shuffling of crew members also does not bode well. I hope they can right the ship.