On a visit to California, I drove by a Trader Vic's with no idea what it was—a West Coast knockoff of Trader Joe's? Apparently, I was showing my youth. My girlfriend's mom laughed. "No, they've been around since I was your age." My girlfriend's father recounted post-prom shenanigans at a Trader Vic's in the Plaza Hotel in New York. That, however, is a story for another day.
Long before tiki lounges with brightly colored drinks popped up in cities across the country, Trader Vic's commercialized the hell out of them. Walk inside one, and it's Magnum PI meets TGI Friday's, with Polynesian artifacts all over the walls. Started as a West Coast chain in the 30's, Trader Vic's rode a Tiki culture wave in the 50's and 60's, before declining in popularity in the 80's. Its claim to fame? Founder Vic Bergeron supposedly invented the Mai Tai.
Now, Trader Vic's is a global company, with over twenty-five restaurants. There are only seven left in the United States, mostly west of the Rockies. Surprisingly, the real hotbed of activity is the Middle East. There are more Trader Vic's in the Middle East as there are in the US. Yup, one in each of Bahrain, Jordan, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, and then four in the UAE. Since Trader Vic's is known for their cocktails, I was somewhat surprised to learn it, but since they've forged a relationship with numerous hotel chains, the international expansion isn't absurd.
Trader Vic's Mai Taiis a combination of J. Wray Jamaican Rum, sugar syrup, orange curacao, and French orgeat. And it's one of the most popular drinks on a crazy-long menu. (We saw a tableful of blue-haired grannies order a round of 6.) This drink was surprisingly strong and not nearly as sweet as some versions I've had. Normally, I think of a Mai Tai as a "chick" drink—it's too often nothing but weak juice-drowned booze—but though this one had fruit and citrus flavors, it wasn't cloying and definitely tasted like a cocktail. Trader Vic's may or may not have invented the Mai Tai, but they certainly get it right.
The Eastern Sour (bourbon with crushed orange, lemon, and ice) continued the pattern: Trader Vic's doesn't skimp on the alcohol. The Eastern Sour was just as spirit-forward as the Mai Tai, with the right amount of citrus and not too much sugar. Count me pleasantly surprised.
Of course, part of the fun is the drinking vessels: the Black Stripe, effectively a hot toddy with cinnamon and cherry, came in a skull mug. This one was sweet, but boozy, and it arrived on fire. If there were ever a place for flaming drinks, this is it. The Samoan Fog Cutter—"a blend of rum, gin, brandy, and sherry wine with orange juice and orgeat"—tasted very tart, obscuring any of those alcohols' flavors. My dining companion didn't like it, but I felt like it was a refreshing break from the stronger drinks; it pulled me out of the buzz I was entering and sharpened my senses.
Last up was the Planter's Punch: a mixture of dark and gold rums, fruit juices, grenadine and soda water. Four words: strong, fruity, sweet, and sour. If you're down with rum punches, this is a good one; a beachfront drink amped up with a few glugs of extra booze.
If only the food were as easy to enjoy as the drinks. The appetizer platter advertises Shrimp, Pork, Ribs, and Rangoons; the shrimp were greasy and chewy, the ribs unremarkable. The sweet, fatty pork was the best of the lot; the duck tacos, duck meat wrapped with crispy mini-tortillas and chili-hoisin sauce, were also enjoyable, if not particularly refined. It's like a Polynesian Peking Duck. Let's put it this way: None of the food was great at first, but after a couple of drinks it got a lot better.
Trader Vic's is Cheap Buzz with emphasis on the buzz. When it comes to drinks, they don't mess around. I went to the one in Palo Alto, and if ever another dot-com bubble bursts, this will be the place to drown your sorrows and hold on to your few remaining greenbacks.