Mister Tiki Mai Tai Lounge
By Robin Kleven Dishon
IT WAS JUNE 1963. Disneyland unveiled the Enchanted Tiki Room, a place “where the birds sing words, and the flowers croon.” But the closest thing to a mai tai was an alcohol-free Dole pineapple flip.
This past June—41 years to the month later—San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter welcomed its own Tiki Room. Surfing the revival of pop Polynesiana, the Cohn Restaurant Group created Mister Tiki Mai Tai Lounge as a hip homage to island style. Using the venerable Trader Vic’s as a model (and with input from Trader Vic’s CEO Hans Richter), the Cohns have converted the former Fio’s into a veritable Tiki Central.
From pupu platters to umbrella-garnished cocktails with naughty names, the new bar and dining room offer the full neo- Tiki experience. Even if you’ve never heard of tiki artists Shag and Bosko, or viewed the world through a rum-tinted glass, the décor and ambience are cheeky fun.
Open nightly from 5:30 (and strictly a 21-and-up venue after 9 p.m.), Mister Tiki does particularly well with what might be dubbed “cocktail cuisine”—appetizers and small dishes designed to be shared. Executive chef Jonathan Hale (also of Blue Point Coastal Cuisine) created the Asian-influenced menu, which reflects his years spent cooking in Hawaii with noted chef Jean- Marie Josselin.
Seafood dominates the starters lineup, which ranges from deep-fried specialties to sashimi. Lightly battered, tempura-style calamari strips ($8) are not only tender, they’re plenty flavorful even before a dunk in their sweet ’n’ sour dip. The grass-skirt shrimp are another triumph from the fryer: big, juicy beauties paired with ginger sauce and cucumber salsa ($10).
Order Mister Tiki’s canoe ($21) and you’ll get a platter of both the aforementioned shrimp and calamari plus a couple of plump crab cakes. It makes a nice quick dinner for two, a starter for three or four.
In addition to the sushi and sashimi prepared at the far end of the lengthy bar, other first courses include Korean-style short ribs ($12). A classic finger food, they’re unapologetically greasy, wonderfully smoky and well worth the mess. We’re not as thrilled with the chicken curry wraps ($9), which are served as a do-it-yourself assembly of iceberg lettuce leaves, sweet tamarindraisin chutney and bland chicken curry filling. They’re sorely in need of some spice.
According to the owners, there’s still a bit of fine-tuning going on with the menu. That would explain the timid curry, as well as the syrupy-sweet pear dressing that detracts from an otherwise acceptable duck salad ($10).
The kitchen gets its mojo working again with a rotisserie grilled chicken entrée that deserves to be called a bird of paradise. Moist and served up with garlicky fried rice and fresh mango salsa, this half-bird is a good buy at $17. So is the nigiri-style salmon ($17), three grilled portions served on sushi rice and decorated with nori wrapping and a fantastic cilantro purée.
The swordfish ($20) is also presented trio-style. Three flavorful, if a bit well-done, fillets come topped with sauces ranging from savory sesame oil to rather sugary roasted pineapple.
Desserts are a Mister Tiki must. Presented sundae style in glass cups on a wrought-iron “tree,” they’re priced at just $3.95 apiece and range from crème brûlée to cheesecake. Key lime pie layered with graham crackers and whipped cream is one standout; another is the apple walnut cheesecake infused with cinnamon.
AND OF COURSE, BEVERAGES are an attraction all their own. Among the better concoctions are the haole mai tai, blended with pineapple and orange juices along with three kinds of rum ($8), and the coconut kiss, a creamy martini laced with Malibu coconut rum ($8). The so-called classic mai tai ($7) is mostly booze and ice and comes off as bitter; we prefer the fruitier variations. Finally, there's a 46-ounce mondo martiki served with 2-foot straws and recommended for parties of four or more ($35).
Through the magic of designer JLorene Gage (whose credits include the stunning Indigo Grill) and Escondido tiki artist Bosko Hrnjak, the former Italianate space has become a shrine to all things tiki. Two dozen stern-faced idols carved by Hrnjak decorate the dining room and lounge, which are separated by enormous LED-illuminated arches. Mesmerizing glass blowfish lamps dangle from the ceiling, along with languidly twirling rattan fans. On tables beautifully inlaid with crosscut bamboo, the occasional lava lamp bubbles and glows.
The sunny thump of reggae dominates the sound system, growing louder as the night continues. The best seating, both decor-wise and for people watching through the sidewalk windows, is in the lounge.
The dining room, while spacious, feels a bit claustrophobic and also attracts its share of families before the 9 p.m. curfew. More than once, we've seen kids running wild among the tables while their parents simply ordered up another batch of cocktails. Where's a voodoo doll when you need one? With dinner served until 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, however, we grownups have a late-night eatery to call our own. Thanks, Mister Tiki, for a tropical good time.
Mister Tiki Mai Tai Lounge serves dinner nightly at 801 Fifth Avenue, downtown. Call 619-233-1183 or visit www.cohnrestaurants.com.
Mister Tiki Mai Tai Lounge
location: 801 Fifth Avenue, downtown
chef: Jonathan Hale