Bamboo Lounge Is the Last of the Steam-Powered Tiki Bars
[Editor's Note: We all know local music and dive bars go hand-in-hand. So in the interest of merging the two together on Heard Mentality, we bring you our weekly nightlife column Dive, Dive, My Darling. Read as our bold web editor, Taylor "Hellcat" Hamby, stumbles into the dive bar scene every week to find crazy stories, meet random weirdos and guzzle good booze.]
It was 3:30 on a Sunday afternoon, and the parking lot had a few cars and three beautiful, shiny Harleys. I was walking into one of OC's unlikeliest places for a neighborhood bar: the backroom of a Jewish deli.
Separated from the rest of the classic Benjies in SanTana hides Bamboo Lounge, a kitschy tiki-style bar with bamboo-lined walls and vintage tropical tablecloths--along with Trader Sam's Enchanted Tiki Money Pit at the Disneyland Hotel, Don the Beachcomber and 320 Main on Tuesday nights, it's one of the last of the steam-powered tiki lounges in a region that invented the genre. Walking in, I figured the owners of those motorcycles would be at the Bamboo, not in the diner . . . and I was right.
Actually, they were the only three people in the lounge other than the bartender, their helmets sitting on the bartop dead giveaways. They were chowing down on sandwiches and such from the kitchen, and I saddled up to the bar next to them. The guy nearest me had a leather jacket and a folded bandana tied across his forehead that read, "LAUGHLIN." Awesome.
We all started chatting, talking about motorcycles and UFO sightings. Then as they were about to close out, the guy at the end of the bar leaned over. "You ever go to Father's just down the street?" he asked me, referring to the bikini bar. "We're just about to head over there."
"Why are you telling her to go there?" the bartender, Denise, asked. "She'd get eaten alive there. I do not recommend a woman going there alone." Thanks, sister, but I can take care of myself. "No, I haven't," I told the guy. "But I'm intrigued now."
"What? We'll be there," said our friend on the end.
But I politely declined--there was more drinking to be done here!--and said goodbye. It was just Denise and I for a bit until a man came in and ordered a pitcher of Bloody Marys--all for himself. My hero. When asked if he wanted his sandwich on rye bread, he replied, "Caraway seeds are evil."
"Business picks up a little later," Denise mentioned. "The seniors should be in for their early-bird dinners right about now." I had to go to a family dinner, so Denise brewed me a cup of coffee on the house before I left. Thoughtful lady.
I came back the next night; it was much slower. The Bamboo Lounge seems to be a day drinker's spot (it closes around 8:30 p.m., after all), though the bartender that night said it varies. A few seniors sat at the end of the bar, watching Jeopardy! on the TV. I scooted down to join them.
"I don't know how they know all of the answers," said an elderly man with black, thick-framed glasses. "How did they get so smart? What I really like is the Wheel." Bartender Kathy saw we were playing along, so she turned up the volume. While mixing drinks and pouring wine, Kathy occasionally chimed in with correct answers.
Everyone cleared out at 7:30, and it was just us until closing time. Kathy entertained me with anecdotes. "When I was living in Arizona," she said, "Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune would come on an hour earlier, and I would call my mom to give her the answers. My dad couldn't believe it when my mom would come up with these really hard answers. He caught on, eventually."
We played along with Wheel of Fortune together, me figuring out "Perfume and Cologne" and her solving "Through the Ceiling." As far as I could tell, she wasn't cheating.
BEST LINE OF THE NIGHT: "My dad would drink Coors," Kathy started. "When I was a teenager, I'd always ask him if I could have the first sip of his beer. As I got older, those sips got longer and longer till I'd hand him a can three-quarters of the way empty!"
COME HERE FOR: Day drinking, Bloody Mary pitchers and delicious sandwiches.
Bamboo Lounge in Benjies Deli, 1828 N. Tustin Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 541-6263; www.benjisdeli.com.
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