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