Tonga Hut – Palm Springs, CA

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.)

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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.).

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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!)

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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.

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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).

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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.)

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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.

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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
760-322-4449

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

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

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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.

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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”).

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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!)

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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.

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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).

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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
949-276-6657

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

Hapa J's on Urbanspoon

Tiki Tolteca at Felipe’s Taqueria – New Orleans, LA

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For a town that really enjoys rum, New Orleans hasn’t had much going on in the way of tiki bars until recently. The original midcentury ones closed by the 1980s — a common story around the country. But now Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, who is the ultimate authority on tiki drinks, is rumored to have something brewing, and in May 2013 a tiki bar turned up in an unexpected place: Felipe’s Taqueria.

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The private party space upstairs from this Mexican restaurant in the French Quarter has been turned into Tiki Tolteca, a “pop-up” tiki bar that’s open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5 p.m. to midnight, plus some Fridays and Saturdays 6 p.m.-3 a.m. Pop-ups tend to be temporary but I got the impression that they’d keep it going as long as there is interest.

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Tiki Tolteca has its own separate entrance off the street. A black chalkboard on the sidewalk points you to the stairwell and a couple of tikis signal that you’re headed in the right direction.

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I chatted with bartender Richard “Trader Dick” and he said part of the inspiration for this Latin-Polynesian mash-up was Thor Heyerdahl and his Kon-Tiki expedition. In 1947, this Norwegian anthropologist sailed from Peru to the South Pacific on a primitive raft to support his theory that the ancient Polynesians may have migrated from South America.

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The bar is just off the right when you walk in, then there’s a few tall tables and several wood & leather couches with cowhide cushions. On the brick walls are small carved tikis and ship’s figureheads straight from the Oceanic Arts catalog. Large Moai, colorful fish floats, bamboo room dividers, thatch and coconut pirate heads further contribute to the scene. The decor may be a bit minimalist for a tiki bar, but at least there’s no sign of anything from Party City.

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Also adding to the atmosphere the night we were there was a soundtrack alternating between surf music (The Ventures), exotica (Arthur Lyman), Doo-Wop (“Sh-Boom”) and Latin (“Oye Como Va”). Thursdays are “Exotica Lounge” nights with DJ Beach Bunny.

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The cocktail menu offers about a dozen tiki drinks, both classics and originals by Felipe’s bar staff. Half highlight rum while the others showcase south-of-the-border spirits like tequila, mezcal, pisco and cachaça. On the sweeter side is La Conchita ($8), an El Dorado 5 and Smith & Cross creation by Danielle. The Original Hurricane ($7) is bold and tart just as it ought to be, far from the alcoholic Kool-aid you find now at Pat O’Brien’s.

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The chef at Felipe’s Taqueria created a short list of small plates influenced by Mexico, El Salvador, Brazil and Peru. Paying tribute to tiki tradition is the classic rumaki. Reportedly invented by Trader Vic, it’s bacon-wrapped chicken livers and water chestnuts. Pineapple gastrique gives this version a nice hint of sweetness.

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My favorite of the food we tried was the sweet corn tamale cake ($7), a warm, comforting dish served with salsa verde, avocado and Mexican crema picante.

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On the other hand, I was hoping the tostones ($7) would have more flavor considering the crispy fried plantains were topped with habanero jelly and pulled pork. I’d say go for one of the other tempting offerings like the pupusas; Louisiana gulf shrimp ceviche with coconut milk, lime and pineapple salsa; or brigadeiros (Brazilian chocolate truffles).

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For round two, I went for the Subtropical Itch ($7), a Sazerac Rye cocktail created by “Trader Dick.” He told me how he has fun loading this drink up with garnishes, including a backscratcher (naturally).

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Patrons can take home a souvenir mug (Dynasty Easter Islander with “Tiki Tolteca” inked in permanent marker) for an additional $8. “Mai Time” happy hour is 11 p.m. to closing, with Mai Tais, Hurricanes and 151 Swizzles priced at $5.

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There’s a fun sense of humor here — their Mai Tai is described as “Trader Dick’s take on Trader Vic’s take on the QB Cooler” — but make no mistake these are serious cocktails. And considering the care and quality ingredients going into them, they are very reasonably priced too ($5-10, Escorpion Punch serves 2-3 for $25). ¡Viva Tiki Tolteca!

Tiki Tolteca
Upstairs from Felipe’s Taqueria
301 N. Peters St.
New Orleans, LA 70130
504-267-4406

Related Posts:
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Tiki Tolteca on Urbanspoon