Texas Coast is natural habitat for those tall drinks with little umbrellas
A lot of people consider them a tad tacky, way too gaudy, sometimes a bit sugary and almost always hard to ignore, if only because of the piled-on headgear — be it all-natural or garishly synthetic.
But Texans aren’t alone in being accused of all that; so have tiki drinks.
Oh, who doesn’t have fond memories or hasn’t at least heard about these tall drinks with the little umbrellas, often served in obscene Polynesia-esque mugs sprouting not just the paper umbrella, but a chunk or two of fruit, a couple of pineapple leaves and maybe some fresh herbs? There’s also the obligatory plastic monkey hanging by its tail like an earring on the side of the glass. Does begin to sound like big Dallas hair, doesn’t it?
Well, like a lot of other things from the kitschy 1960s and 1970s, tiki drinks are for some reason staging a comeback this year, their revival substantiated by a rash of tiki bar openings not only in trendsetting California, but in Chicago and even in Gulf Coast neighbor New Orleans, where Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 opened late last year.
Latitude 29 is owned by cocktail writer Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, who holds a rather select honor of being considered the world’s leading tiki expert. That’s a degree you can’t get at Harvard. His drink menu brags 20 tiki cocktails, of which just less than half are considered ultimate classics, such as the Zombie, Suffering Bastard and Mai Tai. The others are original drinks in the tiki tradition.
One only has to combine a tropical climate atmosphere, a beach and some rum for a tiki cocktail to suddenly appear from the primordial booze — truly Darwinism repeating itself on a bar. Galveston and surrounding communities certainly are natural tiki habitats, with dozens of bars either declaring their tiki connections right up front or at least offering a few of the classics on the menu.
“Oh, we do it all,” said Chris Gatlin, owner of Tiki Beach Bar & Grill, 1369 state Highway 87 in Crystal Beach. “We have the frozen, the fruity and all the stuff that goes in them. Yeah, we do the paper umbrellas, too. You have to have the umbrellas.”
Gatlin doesn’t think the popularity of tiki drinks has ever gone away, and he’s been in the business for 13 years.
“Sales have been growing every year,” he said.
Tiki tacky has its roots in Lone Star lunacy; the great father of all things tiki was a native Texan.
He would be Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, born to a well-to-do oil family in 1907 near Mexia in Central Texas. Said to have shown an early and profitable interest in mixology — he was a bootlegger during Prohibition — Gantt left home when he was 19 and began traveling throughout the Caribbean and the South Pacific. He moved to Hollywood in the early 1930s, and in 1933, he opened a tropically decorated bar and restaurant called Don the Beachcomber. It was a hit in Hollywood, and things such as the “pu-pu platter” and potent drinks such as the Zombie, Tahitian Rum Punch and Navy Grog were introduced to the world.
Hollywood stars, producers, agents and other movie elite flocked to it, including one very wealthy businessman who struck and killed a pedestrian with his car shortly after allegedly leaving the bar. He was, coincidentally, another native Texan named Howard Hughes.
It was several years later, in 1936, that Victor J. Bergeron opened his own tiki bar copy and became an amicable rival. That place was originally called Hinky Dink’s, but in a moment of marketing clarity, Bergeron changed the name to Trader Vic’s.
During World War II, while Gantt was in the service, Don the Beachcomber flourished under the direction of his wife, Sunny. It eventually had 16 locations across the country. A divorce settlement forced Gantt out of the business, but by that time, Trader Vic’s had even more locations and was pretty much conceded the tiki trophy.
Berry has written that the era of the tiki lounge began at the end of Prohibition and ended at the beginning of disco, but it can definitely be argued the tiki lounge never did really die out, nor did many of its most famous drink creations. After all, tiki is not just a bar style. It’s a whole culture preserved with primitive carved statues, coconut shells, garish neckwear, fabrics, rattan furniture, music, its own specific style of serving pieces, especially glassware, and even architecture. And, of course, it is 100 percent American made. This is the most authentic faux culture ever created. No one speaks Tiki. No one has been to Tiki. No one is a native Tikian.
In fact, it was not even a name given to the bar genre at first. The word is native to the New Zealand and Cook Islands area, where mythology says Tiki was the first man. He later created a woman to be his wife, but history is unclear whether she or the bar came first.
Actually, the word also is used as the name of the large wooden head carvings native to those areas and with imitations of those, along with corresponding masks so prevalent in decorating the American bar concept, the name transcended to describe the bar itself. Considering how well the bars have flourished for so many years, it must be assumed Tiki is pleased.
He’d be particularly happy at 2314 Strand in Galveston’s downtown, where Yaga’s Café has a menu of specialty cocktails that looks like a Wikipedia page of tiki concoctions.
From its Bahama Mama and Cockatoo Chill, to the Dirty Monkey and Goombay Smash, the array of drinks are rolled out like magnificent offerings to the tiki gods they honor.
It is impossible to be called a native-born tiki without rum. At Yaga’s, one rum in a drink is not enough. The Bahama Mama, for example, has three: Appleton Special Rum, Cruzan Dark Rum and Dark Jamaican Rum.
Setting up the home tiki bar is easy, sans plans that might include a full bamboo bar, torches and palm frond roof, which the Galveston area has an impressive number of sources for, by the way.
“I think people like the names as much as they like the drinks,” Destiny Trevino, a bartender at Yage Café,” said. “They all have lots of fruit, and most all of them have different kinds of rum. There are a couple with tequila, and the Voodoo Vodka is made with Absolut Mandarin, but most people like the rum. The Dirty Monkey is our best seller. People really love that name.”
Yaga Café’s Dirty Monkey
1 ounce Kahlua
1 ounce Don Q coconut Rum
1 ounce Dark Rum
1⁄3 frozen banana
4 ounces of piña colada mix
Place all ingredients in a blender with about two cups of ice cubes. Blend and pour.