Tonga Hut – Palm Springs, CA


Next year Palm Springs Modernism Week will celebrate its 10th installment and it seems like appreciation for mid-century modern architecture keeps growing, so now is a great time for the city to get a quality tiki bar. (Sorry, Toucans.) And what better venue to deliver that than the Tonga Hut, the oldest still-operating tiki bar in Los Angeles.


This new Palm Springs branch is bigger and boasts a prime second-floor location on North Palm Canyon Drive right across the street from the Hyatt and just a few blocks from the Hilton. It was initially scheduled to open last fall but permit delays pushed the grand opening to this past Valentine’s Day.


After climbing the stairs you’ll find the host’s stand and a small waiting area with a few big tikis, lava rock wall and three-tiered shell fountain. On the left is the bar, lounge and balcony terrace. The North Hollywood location got a mid-century-style makeover a few years ago and the decor here takes many of the same cues, including a mod fireplace against a rock wall, bench seating with pillows, resin chunk lamps and Witco-esque works by Bosko (like the Map of the World).


Tiki Diablo and Chase Marshall designed the look, which features vintage items like this Easter Island mosaic along with contributions from many artists in the tiki community, among them Leroy Schmaltz from Oceanic Arts, Eric October, Bosko, Kirby, Nelson’s Tiki Hut and “Mad Dog” Mike Gilbert.


Colorful, glowing fish float lights give the terrace a nice atmosphere at night. This balcony has more of a tiki feel to it with an outrigger canoe and bamboo poles overhead. I’m sure this makes a great people-watching perch.


Unlike the original Tonga Hut, this branch serves food as well as cocktails. In all these seating areas I’ve mentioned you can order appetizers, salads and desserts, but the full menu is only available in The Hideaway dining room. The entrees and sides are split into two cuisine categories: “Polynesian-Cantonese Tiki Style” (kalua pork, pineapple fried rice, cashew ding chicken) and “Midcentury Steakhouse” (New York strip steak, baked potato, lobster macaroni and cheese).


If you want a full meal you should definitely make reservations as there are only five tables in the dining room, which is off to the right from the host’s stand. (Also on this side of the space is the “secret” tiki room. It’s so awesome that I must dedicate en entire post to it, so keep an eye out for that.)


One of the walls is completely covered in gorgeous carvings, and each of the private red vinyl booths has its own shadow box displaying photographs and memorabilia from vintage tiki bars of Palm Springs’ past (South Pacific Room at El Mirador, Romanoff’s, etc.).


The most interesting thing on the lounge menu seemed to be the lomi hamachi ($11), a riff on lomi salmon, composed of raw yellowtail, daikon, kohlrabi, white soy dressing and shoyu shaved ice served in a martini glass. It was cool and refreshing and exactly what I’d want to order on a sweltering desert day (or evening).


More hit and miss was the pupu platter ($22 for two), which had two bites each of shrimp toast, crab Rangoon, teriyaki beef, duck rumaki, egg rolls and spare ribs. We loved the egg rolls and the rich, creamy crab Rangoon with sriracha mayo, but the rumaki had a thick, crunchy batter that overpowered the duck liver and prosciutto.


Desserts were smaller than expected. We preferred the macadamia fluff pie ($9) over the haole chocolate cake ($9). We had a tough time trying to get the fork to break through the top layer of chocolate.


The pineapple upside down cake ($9) arrived with a blaze of blue flames but here again we thought the portion was a bit puny for the price. (Update: I’ve now heard that the desserts are bigger than before. Sweet!)


Marie King has put together quite an impressive cocktail menu with more than 40 drinks. In addition to “The Classics” (Manhattan, Negroni, Moscow Mule) and “Tiki Classics” (Mai Tai, 1934 Zombie, Navy Grog) there are several Tonga Hut Original Drinks, including ones that are exclusive to the Palms Springs location like Rose’s First Date ($10) made with vodka, rose and housemade date syrup.


We were intrigued and quite pleased by some of the more unusual flavor combinations, like the chai spice and coconut Chai Tai ($11) and Lucha Libre ($11) with Deadhead Rum and tamarind-chili syrup (pictured). If you’re looking for more of a deal, there’s a daily happy hour from 4 p.m.-6 p.m. and 10 p.m.-12 a.m. with $2 off Mai Tais and $4 appetizers (egg rolls, teriyaki beef and huli huli chicken skewers).


Extra presentation points go to the Tonga Hut Treasure ($11) from the “Bowl Drinks” section, served in a Tiki Farm shell bowl with the Tonga Hut logo. Our interest was piqued by this description: “This creamy, almond and light rum potion comes with a surprise at the bottom of the bowl. Find the pearl and take it home…” (Spoiler alert: It’s a cute pearly pendant.)


Be sure to take a look at the “Locals’ Originals” on the back of the menu. From past experience, I can say the Jungle Jetsetter ($10) is sweet and delicious and Reverb Crash ($11) is a favorite that I’ve made at home. This visit I went for Ron de Los Muertos ($11), a heylownine creation with dark Jamaican rum, vanilla and chocolate, and it was a winner, too.


There are signature T-shirts and barrel mugs for sale, plus the Tonga Hut Palm Springs Facebook page posted some photos of new tiki mug designs coming soon. This bar will definitely be a destination for me anytime we’re out in the desert. Tonga Hut in North Hollywood just celebrated its 55th anniversary and hopefully the Tonga Hut Palm Springs will also enjoy such longevity.

Tonga Hut Palm Springs
254 N. Palm Canyon Dr.
Palm Springs, CA 92262

Related Posts:
More Tiki in Palm Springs
Tiki Wonderland Event at the Tonga Hut
Palm Springs Modernism Week Coverage

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Aunt Tiki’s – New Orleans, LA


A few months ago when we visited New Orleans, Chad and I were walking along Decatur Street in the French Quarter on our way to Cafe du Monde when I stopped in my tracks, pointed up and shouted: “Tiki!” We’d serendipitously stumbled on Aunt Tiki’s, which had tiki not just in the name but also on the logo (along with a lady pirate and crossed flaming toilet plungers…).


I snapped a quick photo of the sign and we continued on our pursuit of beignets. By the next day I’d mustered up enough courage to go back and trespass on what seemed to be a locals’ dive. The “Star Wars” cantina song was playing on the juke box when we walked in, which seemed sort of appropriate.


As you might guess, I try to do my research on tiki bars before visiting a city so I was a little surprised that I’d never heard of this place before. (Even on Tiki Central it hasn’t been mentioned in nearly 10 years.)


We sat at the bar and inspected all the little oddities tacked up on the wall, like weird newspaper articles and a bumper sticker that proclaimed: “This is LA, not L.A.” I asked the beautiful tattooed bartender if it was considered a tiki bar. She said, “No, not really. It’s more of a Halloween-themed bar.” I love Halloween — and tikis, of course — so I wasn’t put off by this mash-up. (In fact, I’ve written about it before.)


The decor is definitely more on the spooky side with all the plastic gravestones and skeletons around. Nonetheless, there are still a fair amount of tiki-related things, including at least one carved tiki.


On the right just as you walk in is an awesome mural (made by a local artist) with a winsome wahine on a beach by a tiki shack with a smoldering volcano in the background.


A small glass fish float hangs above the gargoyles perched on the video poker machines, and in the light of the neon beer sign I noticed a faded Party City tiki banner along the doorframe in the back of the bar.


It was sweltering outside that day and not much cooler inside. However if you went through that doorway you’d find this secluded little space where you could actually feel the air conditioning. I was intrigued by its exposed brick walls, fairy lights and tropical touches like shell lamps and paper palm trees.


Rum and pineapple juice is the closest thing to a tiki drink served here. The other patrons seemed to prefer PBR and shots of Fireball cinnamon whisky. There are no beers on draft, so your best bet is probably a bottle of Abita. Aunt Tiki’s keeps the doors open and liquor flowin’ 24 hours a day, so it’s sort of like Frankie’s (except it’s nothing at all like Frankie’s…).


Aunt Tiki’s would be a perfect place to start your Halloween revelry — and there’s a small vintage shop next door — but if you’re looking for a tiki bar in New Orleans, you’d be better off visiting Tiki Tolteca at Felipe’s Taqueria.

Aunt Tiki’s
1207 Decatur St.
New Orleans, LA 70116

Related Posts:
Big Burgers & Super Strong Drinks at Port of Call
Tiki Tolteca – A Latin-infused Tiki Bar in New Orleans
Reviews of New Orleans Tiki Bars

Hapa J’s – San Clemente, CA – Home of the Man Fries!


I first heard about Hapa J’s a few years ago through Tiki Farm. Back when the tiki mug company was still located in San Clemente, they organized a few dinner and drinks nights at the nearby restaurant. I hadn’t been able to make any of those events, but we decided to stop by on a drive back to LA from San Diego.


Orange County native Justin Shea opened this Hawaiian-inspired spot in 2009 with chef Aaron Lee at the helm. They had met while they were both working at the Moana Surfrider Resort in Waikiki. The restaurant was named in honor of Shea’s son, Jaedon, whose heritage is part Asian/Pacific Islander (a.k.a. “hapa”).


I was a bit taken aback when I saw this quote from an OC Weekly review printed on the menus: “Absent is Roy Yamaguchi’s corporate polish and Don the Beachcomber’s tiki kitsch — This is a Hawaiian restaurant in the real world.”


It’s true, this is not a tiki bar. (Of course, I think it would be even better if it were.) Rather, the decor is sleek and simple, though I would have liked to have seen a bit more island flair.


The best ambience seems to be in the lounge, which is on the left when you enter. I liked the high ceilings, dark purple beams, red lotus lanterns and string lights. I imagine it’s also a nice setting during the day with all the natural light let in by the windows lining the three walls.


The food is described as a “fusion of Hawaiian, Asian and American cuisine,” with plate lunches, burgers and rice bowls for lunch and some fancier fare like macadamia crusted mahi mahi added at dinner. Most of what our party ordered was from the all-day starters (pupu) section, like the spicy Asian-style chicken wings ($9.75).


Poke is a point of pride at Hapa J’s as they took home first prize at the 2011 I Love Poke Festival in San Diego. The ahi poke trio comprises three varieties: spicy tobiko, shoyu and sesame. It hit the spot as I’d wanted something light and fresh so I wouldn’t feel so bad about diving into this next dish…


MAN FRIES! Probably the most notorious thing on the menu, these are the yukari-seasoned Hapa Fries ($6.75 + $6 for Man-style) loaded with cheddar and jack cheese, kalua pork, special wing sauce, ranch, barbecue sauce and green onions. The massive portion size can easily feed four people, but don’t be afraid of bringing home leftovers because they were even more flavorful the next day.


The kalua pork quesadilla is one of my favorites at Don the Beachcomber, and Hapa J’s version ($11.75) topped with avocado sour cream sauce and chipotle aioli is also really good.


The bread pudding ($7.75) made with King’s Hawaiian bread and white chocolate sounded and looked delicious. Unfortunately the menu neglected to mention that there’s also macadamia nuts in it, which would be good to know for people who have allergies. (Like me!)


There are a few tiki-ish drinks among the cocktail options. While it may have a tough-sounding name, the Gravedigger is actually a sweet, rainbow-colored concoction of coconut rum, melon liqueur and pineapple juice, topped with Stroh 80 rum. The Rossy Boy Mai Tai tastes like a Hawaiian-style version; purists can request the off-menu “Old-School” Mai Tai which more closely resembles what Trader Vic intended.


Happy hour is Wed.-Sun. from 3 p.m.-6:30 p.m. with $2 off pupus (which include nearly all the dishes above), $3 drafts and $6 Mai Tais. There are also various specials throughout the week, such as Taco Tuesdays (with homemade corn tortillas) and Aloha Fridays ($3 Primo drafts all day and a Luau Plate with lomi salmon, huli huli chicken, haupia and more for $20).


With so many real tiki bars in Southern California deserving of business, it’s hard for me to put Hapa J’s too high on my return visit list. On the other hand, those Man Fries are quite the temptation…

Hapa J’s
2016 S. El Camino Real
San Clemente, CA 92673

Related Posts:
Reviews of Tiki Bars in San Diego, CA
Happy Hour at Don the Beachcomber
Reviews of Tiki Bars in Orange County, CA

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