Tiki Bar News & Review: UnderTow – Phoenix, AZ

UnderTow entrance

In February 2020 we ventured below decks of the UnderTow tiki bar in Phoenix, blissfully unaware that (for us) it would likely be for the last time in its original location. As the Arizona Republic recently reported, the bar will indeed reopen soon (September 22) but ultimately will move next door and take over the dining room of sister concept Century Grand. (I’m hoping that means the vintage train car experience Platform 18 will remain.) UnderTow has been closed because of the pandemic since March so it’s a relief to know they’ll be back in any form.

Tikis at UnderTow

My husband always loved describing UnderTow in the style of Stefon from SNL: “Phoenix’s hottest bar is underground in a coffeehouse that used to be an auto shop.” Barter & Shake Creative Hospitality opened it in 2016 and you can see how the project took shape on the Discovery Channel show “Blue Collar Backers” (Season 1, Ep. 3).

Cargo view

Wesley James and Daniel “Tiki Diablo” Gallardo transformed the former service pit into the hold of the UnderTow, a clipper ship circa the late 19th century. The idea was that the crew was so enamored with their travels in the South Seas that they built their own tiki bar aboard the boat. There are boxes of cargo, rum barrels and other souvenirs stored around the space.

Barstools

Make sure you check out their online reservation system in advance if you plan on visiting during the reopening period, since there will be no walk-ins allowed. There are fewer than 30 seats available in the current 500-sq.-foot space, and that’s even before any social distancing. There are bar stools at three sides of the central bar, small tables for two along the shiplap walls, and one corner booth.

Painting by Doug Horne

Artist Doug Horne contributed this painting depicting some of the colorful characters of the UnderTow crew, including Captain John Mallory and a rare Peruvian breed of Tropical Dodo. (Prints of this are available in his Etsy shop, by the way.)

Portholes

Portholes (equipped with LCD screens) give you a view of the adventure you’ve embarked upon that visit. These, combined with other special effects, bring a level of immersion and escapism that’s just thrilling to behold.

UnderTow menu, chapter 7

The storylines are evocatively written (by Mat Snapp) and illustrated (by Tom “Thor” Thordarson) in the beautiful menus, with the cocktails integrated into the narrative. Our timing was right to experience Chapter 7, in which the UnderTow has left the tropical jungles behind and now sails amid the treacherous icebergs of Cape Horn. (This accounts for all the icicles and piles of snow around. Is it just me or is there something sinister about that glowing ice…)

Tiki Diablo carving

UnderTow consistently makes some of the best tiki drinks I’ve ever had. They are complex, creative and always intriguing. You’re likely to encounter exclusive rums, infused spirits (like cashew-infused cachaça, pandan-infused gin or earl grey-infused rum) and secret ingredients such as “yeti milk” or “dragonblood sap.”

UnderTow cocktails

You’ll have the difficult task of choosing from 30 original recipes, 14 classic cocktails and four large-format drinks. If memory serves, my favorite was the Alchemy of the Damned (buchu-infused Botanist Gin, Banks 7 yr Blended Rum, falernum, guava, passion fruit, orgeat, pineapple, lime), though I recall the Domuyo Volcano and Jungle Wood also being delicious. Our mezcal-loving pal opted for the Piranha’s Kiss of Death Elixir and, for round two, the Blood of the Dodo.

Shaman's Return

The menu completely changes over for each new chapter, with few exceptions such as the Smoking Cannon. Its dramatic presentation, bound to capture the attention of fellow patrons, helped make it one of the best-selling cocktails from the start. The current iteration is the Shaman’s Return, featuring gardenia spiced fog and Buffalo Trace Bourbon, UnderTow private cask of Hamilton-St. Lucian 9 yr Rum, Lustau East India Sherry, Giffard Apricot, Ramazzotti Amaro, Averna Amaro, St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, pineapple cordial, Angostura bitters and citrus oils. It’s spirit-forward yet quite smooth.

Shrunken Head at UnderTow

For years, UnderTow’s merchandise had only been available to purchase at the bar, but they launched an online shop with t-shirts and signature mugs. Right now you can still order ceramics like Manuia Mug by Tiki Diablo, Shrunken Head by Thor and Panther Skull by Thor (you can see its silhouette on the right in the above photo). Act fast, though, as stock is quickly selling out.

UnderTow sign

While I will miss this tiny subterranean space, I’m sure they will do an amazing job with these future endeavors. I wish them all the best as they navigate these all-too-real stormy seas.

UnderTow
3620 E. Indian School Rd.
Phoenix, AZ 85018

Check out UnderTow’s Instagram or Facebook for the latest news.

Tiki Bar Review: Zombie Village – San Francisco

Zombie Village Tiki

I’ve heard San Francisco described as the American capital of Tiki — and though I’m L.A. biased I might be starting to agree. The Bay Area has long been home to some fantastic tiki bars, but a slew of new destinations have sprouted up in the past few years, including Pagan Idol, The Kon-Tiki (formerly Longitude in Oakland), Last Rites and, most recently, Zombie Village.

Skipper Kent's Zombie Village

Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic have been the inspiration for countless tiki bars, but Zombie Village pays tribute to a less famous name (to me, anyway). Frank “Skipper” Kent was a “traveler, lecturer, explorer, yachtsman and cinematographer,” as described on one of the original menus. While some other restaurateurs of this era embellished their personal legends, he was actually the real deal. He sailed all over the world collecting “authentic decorations and curios” that were eventually displayed in his two establishments: Skipper Kent’s in San Francisco and Skipper Kent’s Zombie Village in Oakland. He opened the latter in 1942 and it served as an escapist paradise for 25 years until it was destroyedby fire in 1967. (Naturally, Tiki Central has a very informative thread on its history.)

Zombie Village inside

Now, back to present day! This Zombie Village is a project from Future Bars group, which for more than a decade has created SF nightlife destinations with vintage flair, such as nearby speakeasy Bourbon & Branch (established 2006). It makes sense that eventually they would bring that immersive spirit and passion for craft cocktails to tiki bars. Owner Brian Sheehy and beverage director (now GM) Daniel “Doc” Parks debuted Pagan Idol in 2016 and then Zombie Village with an official opening in January 2019.

Zombie Village interior

My jaw dropped when we walked in. I’d seen a few pictures but it was even more stunning in person. The starry night sky and groovy projections on the wall and tikis bring such a unique vibe, sort of psychedelic. Every so often you’ll hear thunder crash and see a lightning bolt flicker across the wall.

Zombie Village carving

Artist Ivan Lee Mora collaborated with Future Bars on the design andfabrication of Pagan Idol and again with Zombie Village. He made this massive tiki and fish goddess (Crazy Al carved its counterpart), along with the Moai perched on top of the bar and much more. On top of that there are custom pieces from Bosko (carved panels on the bar), Woody Miller (maps of the Caribbean and Polynesia, plus other carvings), Mikel “MP” Parton (Tiki Bob velvet painting and menu cover art that’s also featured on the website) and Marc Atkinson (Aku-Aku painting).

Zombie Village huts

They also brought in Bamboo Ben, the famed fabricator of Strong Water, Clifton’s Pacific Seas, Frankie’s Tiki Room and many other incredible tiki bars. He built out the thatched A-frame huts that line one wall of the space. These private hideaways can be reserved on Yelp for groups of two up to ten people.

Bahooka hut at Zombie Village

Each of the eight huts pays tribute to historic tiki bars with their decor: the original Zombie Village in Oakland, the Aku-Aku in Las Vegas, Luau in Beverly Hills, Tiki Bob’s in San Francisco (with a black velvet painting of its iconic mug), The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale (my all-time favorite still going strong), Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood, Trader Vic’s and, finally, Bahooka pictured here. Note the nautical vibe with the wood planks and empty fish tank, which once had a carrot in it in honor of Ruffus. Huge shout-out to Rob for showing me around and pointing out all these fun details.

Zombie Village grotto

If you don’t manage to get a reservation for one of the huts, there are some bar stools around two corners of the central bar. Open seating is also available in the candlelit grotto — look closely and you’ll spot the “fossilized” impression of tentacles from a fearsome creature of the deep. There’s also plenty of standing room at the drink rail along the wall.

Doc's Voodoo Bar

A staircase ascends next to the gnarled roots of a banyan tree upstairs to Doc’s Voodoo Bar, which opens up on busy weekend nights or for private parties. It’s festooned with tropical foliage and vines overhead and a catacomb’s worth of skulls on the bar.

Zombie Village menu

Doc’s menu features traditional tiki drinks (Mai Tai, Painkiller, Nui Nui) as well as more experimental offerings, like a Jamaican Zombie spiced up with Scotch bonnet chilis. There are also a few large-format concoctions, including the Scorpion Bowl, Chief Lapu-Lapu and Zombie Luau.

The Bird of Paradise & Coconut Pandan

The Bird of Paradise ($13, mezcal, cachaca, lemon, passion fruit, vanilla) had a bold smoky flavor that could be tempered by the tart sweetness of the passionfruit whip and the tangy li hing mui (salty dried plum powder) dusted on top.

The Coconut Pandan ($12) blends two flavors often found in Southeast Asian cuisine, the latter derived from the leaves of a tropical plant. (I first tried this nutty flavor in a tiki drink a few years ago in the Pandan Painkiller at Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago.) This drink featured Barbados rum, coconut milk, pandan and coconut rum liqueurs, plus a lychee and coconut popsicle that is a delicious bonus.

Zombie Village mugs

On a shelf behind the bar you can spot the limited edition tiki mugs that have been designed for the bar so far (along with ceramics from other tiki bars). There’s the Moai Mug by Woody Miller and Zombie Village mug by Eekum Bookum (inspired by the glowering genie-like figure that appeared on the menu covers of the original Zombie Village.) For their recent first anniversary they released a new glaze (with a black and gold fez) and on my visit last month there were still a few available to purchase at the bar for $120. (If you’re looking for a cheaper souvenir, don’t forget to take the cool custom swizzle stick from your drink.)

Zombie Village entrance

Zombie Village is open Monday through Friday 5 p.m.-2 a.m. and Saturday 6 p.m.-2 a.m. (closed Sundays). It’s located in the Tenderloin District, not the most savory of neighborhoods but don’t let that deter you. (Their Instagram has recommended tourists that walk over to come down Jones from O’Farrell instead of up from Ellis.) It’s just a short rideshare trip away from sister spot Pagan Idol, or you could head over to Smuggler’s Cove or the Tonga Room….but you just might fall under the spell of Zombie Village and make an evening of it.

Tiki Bob at Zombie Village

Zombie Village
441 Jones Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
415-474-2284

Zombie Village: website
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Preview of Pacific Seas Tiki Bar at Clifton’s Cafeteria – Los Angeles

Clifton's Cafeteria in LA

Los Angeles has some of the oldest and greatest tiki bars in the country, but the opening of Pacific Seas has still been much anticipated. (It’s officially on Saturday night!) There was talk that a tiki bar would be part of the revival of LA’s historic Clifton’s since Andrew Meieran, the nightlife entrepreneur behind The Edison, purchased the last surviving location of the cafeteria chain in 2010.

Monarch Bar at Clifton's

After undergoing a massive renovation, the multi-level bastion of kitsch and comfort food finally re-opened in Fall 2015 — but with no sign of a tiki bar yet. That didn’t stop Clifton’s from becoming one of my favorite places in LA, with its faux woodsy wonderland atmosphere (and Art Deco style mugs shaped like an owl and bear, manufactured by Tiki Farm and designed by The Pizz and Thor, respectively).

Gothic Bar at Clifton's

I was lucky enough to attend a preview night for Pacific Seas last week. To get there, we were instructed to go up the staircase to the third floor that houses the moody Gothic Bar (pictured) and The Brookdale room, then seek out the speakeasy-style entrance “through the looking glass.” Once you venture past the mirrored door, you’ll continue up even more stairs and past a vintage phonebooth (for a second I thought it might be like the secret door at Tonga Hut Palm Springs, but no) to arrive in tiki paradise.

The Map Room at Pacific Seas

The bar is named after the long-gone founding branch of Clifford Clinton’s “cafeteria of the golden rule,” where those suffering from the Great Depression could pay whatever they wanted for a meal (nothing, in many cases). In 1939, that location was given a tropical makeover and dubbed Clifton’s Pacific Seas. The first thing you’ll see in this modern tribute is the Deco Map Room, a “departure lounge” to this world of fantasy, featuring a gorgeous mural from Sammy Beam.

Bahooka relics at Pacific Seas

It feels somewhat bittersweet to browse around the space, because everywhere you look you’ll see something from Bahooka. When that beloved nautical establishment shuttered in 2013, Andrew Meieran managed to snap up a lot of the artifacts, including humongous outriggers (26 feet long!) and other boats, tikis, netted fish floats and more. (But not poor Ruffus, alas.)

Bamboo Ben's decor at Pacific Seas

Responsible for putting all the pieces together was Bamboo Ben, who also outfitted the interiors for tiki bars such as Frankie’s Tiki Room in Las Vegas, Tiki No in North Hollywood and Forbidden Island in the Bay Area. With Pacific Seas, he’s really gone above and beyond. There are so many different carefully curated areas where patrons can settle in for a drink, from a table next to a shipwrecked boat on a rocky shore to the cozy “living room” (pictured) to the “chief’s hut” with an outrigger serving as a place for patrons to sit beneath the thatched overhang.

Vintage Clifton's ad and "spears"

The décor is a wonderful mix of old photographs, advertisements and relics (like original plaques and a slit gong) from Clifton’s Pacific Seas, flotsam and jetsam collected by Meieran throughout his travels, more amazing murals from Sammy Beam, contemporary carved tikis from folks like Jason Joffe and Smokin’ Tikis, and clever custom creations from Bamboo Ben, such as these “spearheads” made from classic car hood ornaments.

Bar and rum jail at Pacific Seas

Bamboo Ben also crafted the display area behind the bar out of pieces of antique rattan and bamboo furniture. To the right of the bar is the jail (from one of my favorite dining nooks in Bahooka) that will store bottles of rum for regulars. If you take a closer look, you’ll notice that the top piece is actually the wing of a DC-10.

Bar boat at Pacific Seas

Jutting out from the bar into the middle of the main room is an antique Chris Craft boat. A DJ was spinning tunes from it that night, and an acrobat showed off her balance skills on the foredeck.

Mermaid serenade at Pacific Seas

We were also entertained by Polynesian dancers performing on the stage as well as some artists from the avant-garde circus Lucent Dossier Experience, like this mermaid singing haunting tunes with a ukulele.

Chief's Hut at Pacific Seas

At the cafeteria on the ground floor, diners can nosh on traditional turkey dinners and jello, but up here you’ll choose from a completely different menu that includes reinvented versions of shrimp cocktail and pupu platters, along with larger plates like poached Maine lobster stuffed with scallop dynamite and avocado. We sampled coffee-rubbed steak and diced yellowtail with avocado on a rice cracker, but I don’t see those listed on the full menu uploaded by Eater LA.

Cocktails at Pacific Seas

For the media night, they offered three cocktails: Singapore Sling (gin, Cherry Heering, Benedictine, orange and Angostura bitters), Mai Tai (based on Trader Vic’s 1944 recipe with house-made orgeat, lime and Jamaican and Martinique rums) and Daiquiri (aged white rum with lime, apricot, cinnamon and orange bitters). Other classic tiki tipples (Navy Grog, Fog Cutter, Painkiller) will also be on the menu alongside a few original creations, all priced from $12-$14, except for the $40 four-person Scorpion Bowl and Bird of Paradise (a riff on the Jungle Bird).

Clifton's barrel mug

I adore these Pacific Seas coasters evoking the golden age of travel. Ceramic fanatics will want to take note of the custom barrel mugs emblazoned with “Clifton’s” (made by Tiki Farm). There are clamshell bowls that are not exclusive to Pacific Seas (though they are stamped with the name). I also saw a slew of other recent Tiki Farm mugs behind the bar, including Pau Hana Honu by BigToe and Marqo-Coco and Nari Rani Tiki Mug by Flounder.

Blackbeard's telescope at Pacific Seas

One last thing: Keep an eye out for the pirate Blackbeard’s telescope in one of the dioramas! Pacific Seas officially opens November 12th, and the hours will be Tuesday and Wednesday 5 p.m.-midnight, Thursday through Saturday 5 p.m.-2:30 a.m. Reservations can be made for parties of 10 or more.

Pacific Seas
4th Floor of Clifton’s Cafeteria
648 S. Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90014
213-627-1673