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O.C.'s tiki bar scene is still active

THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Could the tiki bar be making a comeback?

Maybe, maybe not. When news dinosaurs like the New York Times and CBS giddily announced the fad over the last year or so, that only proved to some bar mavens that the tiki trend had probably come and gone.

It doesn't help that the grandaddy of all tiki bars, the Tonga Room in San Francisco, which opened in 1945 and rose to its current state of palm frond-festooned glory thanks to a recent facelift, might be closing, though the jury's apparently still out on that. ("What? Absolutely not!" said the bartender when I called on Thursday. "We're as popular as ever. When would you like to come in?")

Personally, I hope tiki trendiness remains on the fringes. There's nothing more annoying than your favorite dive bar being invaded by an army of fedora-topped, goatee-sprouting hipsters who want nothing other than PBR.

I prefer my tiki bars to remain friendly historical anachronisms -- places that reflect American pop culture of the 1950s, when returning U.S. servicemen from the Pacific theater brought back a new-found thirst for all things tropical. Places like Trader Vic's are emblematic of the era, and they were crammed with plenty of tacky to go along with the tiki. That was part of the look.

Here in the O.C., tiki bars have come and gone over the years. Don the Beachcomber is still the heart and soul of the scene, at least if you live north of Laguna.

I can point to two favorable developments for lovers of rum-based umbrella drinks and fake palapa booths.

Laguna's Royal Hawaiian got freshened up a few years back, a nice reno that improved the place without robbing it of its cheesy charm.

Last June, the Disneyland Hotel opened a tiki-themed bar called Trader Sam's, which replaced the Lost Bar in the pool area. Its concept was developed in conjunction with MarkeTeam, a Mission Viejo-based company that helps bars and restaurants create drink menus and other elements to help brand themselves and their products. Disneyland fans will immediately see that there are obvious tie ins with Disneyland's Jungle Cruise.

"If you're on the Jungle Cruise, the last thing you see is Trader Sam. The joke is he'll trade two of his heads for one of yours," said Brad Horner of MarkeTeam. "A lot of the drinks and food items on the menu are pulled from the Tiki Room in Disneyland. And the names of the drinks are based on characters from the Jungle Cruise and the Tiki Room."

You'll find all the time-honored stuff here. On the food side of the menu are the traditional pu pu platter and kalua pork, although there are a few concessions to the 21st century: chicken-lettuce wraps, ahi poke, flatbread, panko-crusted Chinese long beans.

The pseudo-Polynesian drinks include the obligatory multi-person monster, which Sam's calls the Uh Oa. Here's the recipe: light and dark rums, orange, passion fruit, guava and grapefruit juices, falernum, cinnamon and freshly squeezed lime juice. It looks like it's bubbling out of a tabletop volcano. Proceed with caution, and bring lots of friends.

I'm curious: are there other O.C. tiki bars that are worth the visit? Let me know!


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