Trader Sam's Enchanted Tiki Bar at the Disneyland Hotel is a full-circle distillation of everything that came before it, descended from the kitschy Polynesian-themed tiki bars pioneered by Donn Beach in the 1930s (yes, the name behind Don the Beachcomber) and Walt Disney's own Tiki Room. The bar has totems with roving animatronic eyes and walls covered with tropical trinkets. At random moments, the lights darken and the room rumbles as if a storm cloud had settled atop the structure. Then comes the rain, a downpour projected onto the walls while the thunder claps. This, you realize quickly, is not just a tiki bar, but a bona-fide new Disney attraction.
A volcano erupts, a pirate ship in a bottle sinks, and at least a few bar stools lower unexpectedly as if you sat in quicksand. Each effect is triggered when someone orders a specific drink. Which drink? Well, it's easy to figure out, as they have such fanciful names as Shipwreck On the Rocks. But interactive Easter eggs of this kind are best discovered on your own. At least one drink glows red from an LED-lit ice cube; another is served in an oversized ashtray in which alcohol-soaked sugar cubes are set aflame and straws are inserted through the sides for two or more people to share. If you order the potent-like-cough-syrup HippopotoMai-Tai, an upgrade fee lets you take home the totem-head glass as a souvenir. I can also tell you that if you order the Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Rum, a creamy version of piña colada sprinkled with cinnamon, it's required that you recite all the “tikis.” I didn't, and the waitress shook her head disapprovingly. “Nope, can't let you have it,” she said. “You missed two tikis.” We all laughed. Then I complied by singing the order (it's the easiest way), and we all laughed some more.
As with most things inside the Disney fold, the cuisine is almost beside the point. Disney may be an innovator of rides and theming, but it follows the model set by quick-serve chains when it comes to food, resorting to easily and consistently reproduced items served to thousands. Trader Sam's menu of pupus is no exception, with a level of execution on par with Elephant Bar or Chili's. They've got a wasabi-and-yuzu-dressed ahi tuna poke and avocado presented in the usual cylindrical shape of a ring mold; as you scoop a few silken cubes of fish onto yet another wonton chip, you'll think to yourself how often you've had the dish before and how this one is just as luscious as any of those.
Most barflies will gravitate toward the bento box with a sampler of four items. The syrupy glaze that coats the notably well-fried chicken wings makes the meat dangerously close to cloying, but it's better than the bite-sized pork short ribs, which are dry despite being on the bone and shellacked in a tamarind-based barbecue sauce. The third and fourth bento-box compartments hold a flat papaya slaw and panko-breaded green beans owing a debt of flavor to the spicy sriracha aioli dip. For more substantial bites, chicken lettuce cups feature a bigger-than-typical mince of the meat, but it'll likely be the soggiest rendition you'll encounter of something that's supposed to sizzle. Far better is the kalua pork flatbread, a dead ringer for barbecued-chicken pizza, if you can excuse the lifeless cardboard texture of a crust so thin it could be lavash.
If it's a full meal you want, you have to leave Trader Sam's and walk over to Tangaroa Terrace. At this boring-by-comparison, no-frills quick-service restaurant and cafeteria next door, the most exciting feature is the touch-screen kiosks that send your orders to the kitchen, thereby eliminating waiters. But maybe the Mouse could've shifted some of the money saved from not hiring cast members toward the food instead of gizmos. A miso-glazed salmon was encased in an unidentifiable but strange cocoon too soggy to be tempura, deep-fried and served with a viscous, sugary, white liquid that's more melted cake frosting than any known variant of miso. The burger meat retained the shape of its original machine-formed frozen patty; the fried, breaded fish sticks and the chicken katsu were indistinguishable. Stay away from Tangaroa Terrace; instead, rush back to the bar for another drink that makes the room and your spirit come alive again.
This review appeared in print as “A Tiki Track of Mind: The food at the Disneyland Hotel's new Polynesian-themed bar and eatery is beside the point.”
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.