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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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!
Upstairs from Felipe’s Taqueria
301 N. Peters St.
New Orleans, LA 70130