Char siu pork. Photo by Richard Dallett.
Don Draper from the TV series Mad Men defined nostalgia as “a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.”
Perhaps that explains the soft spot I have in my heart for Polynesian-themed bars and restaurants. I remember accompanying my parents to these establishments as a child in the 1960s. Tiki totems flanked the entrance to a cavernous tropical paradise where dugout canoes hung from the thatched ceiling and beverages—even nonalcoholic ones—came with paper umbrellas and fresh orchids. Of course, most captivating to me were the teak pupu platters with sizzling prawns, teriyaki beef skewers, crispy chicken wings, fried wontons, crab Rangoon, and best of all, sweet and sticky barbecued spare ribs you sizzled on miniature flaming hibachis.
It turns out Victor Bergeron, aka “Trader Vic,” was the visionary behind this themed restaurant in the basement of the Plaza hotel in New York City. (His birthday is tomorrow, December 10.)
Bergeron, who invented rumaki—chicken livers and water chestnuts grilled wrapped in bacon (click here for Steven’s version)—and the Mai Tai, that rum-blasted cocktail that’s laid many imbibers low, was one of the earliest restaurateurs to understand that dining out had the potential to be an experience that transcended merely eating. It could be escapism in the best possible sense, transporting you to the South Pacific, the Caribbean, or other exotic locales.
And the food, best described as American-Cantonese, was damned good, too. Bergeron built barrel-shaped Chinese barbecue ovens, the design of which dates back 2,000 years to the Han Dynasty, in the kitchens of his restaurants to smoke and slow cook meat. Wood fires were built in a rectangular brick pit, then embers are shoveled into the bottom of the oven as needed. Meat, such as char siu pork or Indonesian rack of lamb, was suspended from hooks at the top of the oven. Capping the unit is an iron lid with a vent for heat control. Hmm, the Big Green Egg before its time?
Though Bergeron died in 1984, Trader Vic’s International continues to operate 19 restaurants throughout the world, including three in the U.S.: Beverly Hills; Emeryville, California; and Atlanta, Georgia. (From the menus, it appears the aforementioned ovens are in use only in the Emeryville and Atlanta locations.) Shortly after my last visit to the New York Trader Vic’s with my husband in the late 1980s, Donald Trump acquired the Plaza and closed the basement restaurant, denouncing it as “tacky.” I was bereft.
There is reason for optimism, though. A new generation appears to be discovering the allure of the tiki culture, or as it’s now known, “Polynesian Pop.” For starters, Thrillist recently published a digital guide to the 17 best tiki bars in the country. And Martin Cate, the owner of Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco (named Best American Cocktail Bar of 2016), and his wife Rebecca have written an engaging book called Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki (Ten Speed Press, 2016). In addition to more than 100 recipes, the Cates write eloquently about the movement’s founders—Trader Vic and Ernest Gantt, aka “Don the Beachcomber”—and why the tiki culture is enjoying a renaissance. Read Smuggler’s Cove, and you’ll soon be obsessed with rum and rattan.
In the meantime, snub your nose at Old Man Winter and celebrate Trader Vic’s birthday by grilling up some tropically inspired dishes from Steven’s books. Please post photos of your pupu platters or tiki-themed man caves on Facebook or the Barbecue Board!