Every second and fourth Wednesday night of the month, legendary bartender/chef/restaurant insider Dave Mau hosts Dinner with Dave at Memphis at the Santora, where he treats drinkers to a free meal and live music as the evening progresses. To remind ustedes of this great night, Dave treats us every Wednesday morning that he's on to a random OC food or drink musing of his choice. Enjoy!!
We on the West Coast have a stronger affinity for all things Tiki than most and it has become an integral part of our national cultural lexicon as well, working its way eastward to even the most stalwart of New England lounges. Since its revival in the 90's due to many diverse influences, including the works of the one and only Shag himself, it's become all the rage to embrace the aesthetic and slam it into the mid-century/atomic ranch/Palm Springs kitsch sandwich that all the cool kids here in the OC find so appetizing. And that's not a bad thing either.
When I was a child my father, who was born and raised in San Francisco, would tell me tales of watching the China Clipper seaplanes taxi away from their mooring at Treasure Island. They would slowly bounce and plow through the bay, clawing their way into the sky (with all four of those glorious Pratt and Whitney radial engines straining at full throttle), ending with a long, slow arc over The Golden Gate Bridge as they began winging their way to Hawaii and beyond. That always symbolized, to me, the allure of that early tiki culture, before TV was commonplace and when making an overseas phone call was the biggest deal ever. The only depictions of that mysterious realm were through letters from soldiers, grainy newsreel footage, Life articles and secondhand accounts.
I genuinely (almost) feel sorry for my action sports retail friends who have to hop a Xanax-laced 16-hour flight (fingers crossed for business class) to tour a factory in China somewhere, but back then the trip took a week and just that first leg to Honolulu took a mind-numbing 56 hours. Oh, and the one way fare from San Francisco to the Philippines, by way of Hawaii, Midway, Wake, and Guam, was $700 -- the equivalent of around twelve grand today. But its inaccessibility was what made folks long for it so. Everything past the Channel Islands seemed to be an ethereal vision of topless native girls, white sand beaches (with a quaint village or two thrown in) and endless boozy luaus.
That's what people don't always understand about the origins and allure of Tiki, especially in the 1940's. It wasn't about being campy (well, maybe a little.) It was more about experiencing a tropical netherworld, trying to hold on to that Mai Tai until the very last possible moment and creating a vision of a far-away place that may or may not have been accurate but it sure was fun. The post World War II Tiki revival was sparked by returning vets, a guy named Thor Heyerdahl and a slew of plays and movies like South Pacific and was a strange cultural bedfellow indeed to the whole modernist/atomic age phenomena.
What I would call the "second wave" revival began with the admission of Hawaii as the 50th state of the union in 1959. During this, time air travel became more accessible and throngs of us haoles traveled there to experience this lush, romantic land. Of course, most people didn't make it past Oahu where they were greeted by a rum soaked orgy that would have made Don Draper cringe. This is also when the aesthetic took off stateside, with droves of tiki-themed restaurants, bars and motels being built (hit the Caliente Tropics in Palm Springs and tell me what you think) and the architectural influences even creeping into baby-boom era homes and offices. It was during this second revival that Bahooka restaurant, located in Rosemead, was born.
Sadly, this monument to tiki culture of moai-esque proportions closed its doors last Sunday after 46 years in business. I was, admittedly, a newcomer to the joint, entering the first time three years ago during a jaunt to my old stomping grounds in Arcadia. My jaw dropped and I fell in love the moment I walked in. Awash in an ocean (pun intended) of fish tanks, glass globes, plastic parrots and more random accoutrement than seemingly every TGIFridays in the world, it was packed like a hoarder's home with nautical objects so diverse it was beyond description. Stay in one spot for 46 years, and that is bound to happen.
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I hate to speak ill of the dead but the food was always lackluster, although the ribs were quite tasty, tender and not overcooked with just a slap of their house glaze. Almost everything else was fryer basket friendly with a host of various dipping sauces and the burgers varied in quality from dismal to marginal. But you didn't come here for the food, you came for the phone book-sized list of all the various cocktails and to hang out with the regulars which ranged from San Marino bluebloods to rough-around-the-edges SGV chicas and tacobillys and back again. From the chimney-glass-encased "Now or Never" (gin and apricot syrup) all the way to the massive "Bahooka Bowl" (enough booze, juice and laughs for two at least) the drinks did their job in spades.
What better way to mourn the loss of such a cherished landmark, celebrate one of my favorite cultural genres and heap honor upon thousands of years of indigenous Pacific islander heritage? Obvious! Hop a party bus and get shithoused drunk with 30 friends, that's how! The Hawaiian Shirt Klub/Doll Hut crowd are consummate pros when it comes to boozing it up, making the Rolling Stones look like a bunch of nuns. They are most definitely the Seal Team Six of cocktailerry. So off we went, including the company of the recently-relocated-back-to-the-OC Linda Jemison herself. Bahookas was packed, for obvious reasons, with folks from far and wide getting their last crack at swilling various rum concoctions and soaking up the atmosphere one last time. A good time was had by all and we left tipsy and more than a little blue at the prospect of never returning. There are rumors of an auction of the interior items, just in case you might want to take a little (or big) piece of it home with you. (I already scored one of those plastic parrots - Thanks Liz & Ryan!) A sad day for SoCal as another much-loved institution succumbs to the sands of time and bulldozer blade of progress.
But there's always Trader Sam's at Disneyland, right?