Rum, Botany, and the Sash

A Mai Tai or a Zombie grabs you by the lei and hurls you south and, hello, you're a castaway.

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Xanadu Credits: John Mockus

Somewhere, sometime, chances are somebody served you a tropical cocktail. Chances are, that person said “Aloha” and the drink was strong and smelled of fruits inured to hurricanes, hot Christmases, and giant insects. Maybe it was named for one: Scorpion. Stinger. For that matter, Hurricane.

It frothed in a coconut shell or a cup shaped like a tiki or a pineapple. Strong, but unlike workaday drinks it did not go down harshly, like a scold. It was sweet, like Hawaiian Punch, maybe because Hawaiian Punch was in it.

Chances are, the scene was festive, with surf or the soft blue of a swimming pool, the plangent wheen of slide guitar, the plonk of steel drums. Torches. Fried won ton skewered with sunset-colored toothpicks.

It was on your honeymoon or at a frat house or at an ambitious theme party back in the days before hostesses knew that doing the limbo and serving pupu platters were imperialist acts. Now the tropical cocktail is cartoon fodder: a cliché that signifies escape from freezing nights and steel and glass to those pikake-perfumed thrashings on hot sand that are, to dreamers worldwide, what the tropics mean. More than a gin-and-tonic or a gimlet, whose associations are too disparate and too lifelong to lead you anywhere, a Mai Tai or a Zombie grabs you by the lei and hurls you south and, hello, you’re a castaway. The real world has been left behind, which is what drinking is all about.

I forget about drinking for months at a time. Earthquakes and the chance of finding diamond rings under park benches, I think of these daily, but drinking only crosses my mind every hundred days or so, with the same frequency as, say, Bavaria or jellyfish.

It strikes at times of generalized desperation, the way you’d think religion ought to. Psst, it whispers, blurred vision. And as for whether to drink at home or go out for it, let’s be real: this is a world in which a single nip costs as much as a big burrito or a toy boat or a hairbrush.

So if I am actually to buy a drink, it better, by God, come with a paper umbrella.

Thus it was good news when I learned that this spring Xanadu had remodeled its central lounge and bar and installed a new Asian tapas menu to augment its exotic cocktails. Tuffy and I headed for the West Berkeley restaurant on a cold night as unseasonable rain swept across the bay like gray silk scarves. Trade winds these were not.

In the train-track-hugging edifice that long housed China Station, and formerly housed an actual train station where Tuffy, as a child, was taken to meet his visiting grandfather, Xanadu consistently wins critical nods for its bold pan-Asian menu. Malaysian-born Executive Chef Alexander Ong, formerly of Stars, calls Xanadu’s fare “RestorAsian”; it bespeaks Bangkok and Bombay and beyond with the aid of galanga, mahi-mahi, and miso. The menu tells you which ingredients are yang and which are yin, and what may or may not heal what, though I’m not sure a menu is where I want to read the word “cancer.” Anyway, that night the drinks were the thing.

Beyond the front door with its stained-glass “X,” the lounge’s huge overstuffed sofas, loveseats, and banquette looked so soft, so deep, so welcoming that I was ashamed we had only walked there from the bus stop instead of sailing down the sacred river that Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his 1797 poem “Kubla Khan,” described as “five miles meandering with a mazy motion” till it reached Kubla’s “stately pleasure-dome” at Xanadu.

Upholstery the colors of peacocks and jam were dotted with fat throw pillows whose embroidered yellow satin matched a certain Chinoise gown Nicole Kidman wore to the Academy Awards a few years back. Faux-finish walls affected burnished copper. A dark wooden wall-plaque bore chiseled Chinese characters in an archaic style; the candles on our table looked like lengths of bamboo. Every now and then, another Amtrak train sped past the window.

Don Quixote would spin in his fictional grave if he could see tapas, those small dishes so popular in late-night Spain, suddenly popping up everywhere in international garb like automated figures in It’s a Small World. Skipping the Shrimp Chips ($2.50) and Pickled Green Papaya ($3), we ordered Edamame with Ginger Salt ($2.50) and Potatoes with Paprika and Roasted Garlic Aioli ($4.50) to soak up our drinks: a Yin-Yang ($5.25) and a Mango Cosmopolitan ($5.50).

I was sorely tempted by the Khan-Cubine, whose promise of Amaretto and pineapple juice was seductive, but whose cranberry juice would remind me, I feared, too strongly of Oregon. And the Mandarin Mojito’s blend of rum and Kaffir lime had a grown-up ring about it, but grown-up is the last way I want to feel in bars.

Which is why, as we waited for the friendly young server to fill our order, I kept shuffling my feet and looking around and waiting for the limbo to start.

But it wasn’t going to. Ever.

Bamboo-motif noren swung gently in a doorway; blond ceiling fans whirled overhead. Staffers slipped in and out wearing Nehru-style jackets. A kimono hung on a wall as lovely and still as a pinned butterfly. It was all exotic. But not kick-off-your-sandals fun. Not in a Hilo Hattie way.

The effect is very Shanghai Triad, with Zen-temple underpinnings and a dash of the Raffles Hotel. Elegant, a yearner’s dream of Asia. A pastiche that some might say reflects America’s new demographic, but which Tuffy compares to combining rodeos and alpenhorns and saying, “That’s the West.”

What was hip in the era of Hawaii Five-0 is unthinkable today. So this is what that now-forbidden spirit wrought: a mood as cool and understated as our cocktails: candlelight throbbing through Tuffy’s golden one and my turquoise one in their sleek glasses. A Maraschino cherry, a sugarcane spear. No umbrella. No tiny plastic monkey.

Sporting two kinds of rum, coconut juice, and blue Curaçao, my icy Yin-Yang was as lovely as a church window to look at and, evoking a clear, pineappleless piña colada, went down more swiftly than a cheapskate or a lightweight can afford. Tuffy knew that the fresh mango purée in his Mango Cosmopolitan wasn’t supposed to remind him of the canned apricot nectar of his youth, yet it did. But he loved apricot nectar, and what with the addition of vodka and Cointreau the drink transported him, though he did wish it was larger.

Cut lengthwise in fourths, the potatoes were lightly fried: their insides meltingly creamy, their outsides crisp, with a paprika patina whose rich redness went well with the furnishings and whose tartness offset a luxuriant aioli. And the plump edamame, piled high in a Japanese bowl, were just salty enough to balance the sweetness of the drinks.

A few days later–granted, nowhere near a hundred–the weather having gotten yet bleaker, we were still craving a bit of the old coco-loco. We considered our options. Templebar, on University Avenue near 9th Street in Berkeley, is the real deal: Hawaiian-owned, with occasional live entertainment. But its hours of operation tend to be unpredictable, if not downright chimerical. Albany’s Club Mallard knows how to get those inner tiki-torches burning, too. And Emeryville is no less than the actual birthplace of the Mai Tai.

Having lost a leg in a childhood accident, young Vic Bergeron–the son of a San Pablo Avenue grocery-store owner–became an avid storyteller and a mixer of curious drinks. In 1932, the self-styled “Trader Vic” opened a pub near the grocery store; its Polynesian decor and menu, he wrote, brought to mind “beaches and moonlight and pretty girls.” In 1944, a time when the tropics spelled hell and romance more than ever, he mixed rum and sweet things to invent the famous cocktail whose name means “the best” in Tahitian. Today Trader Vic’s is a glamorous international chain, with nearly two dozen restaurants ringing the world from Osaka to Abu Dhabi to London to right here, on Anchor Drive.

We were tempted, but it just seemed too easy. Too obvious.

So we went to Spats instead.

A less likely site for tropical cocktails than Shattuck Avenue Spats would be difficult to find. Okay, ceiling fans spin overhead, but in a Victorian vein and not a Key West one. Like so many establishments that opened in the early ’70s, its walls and ceiling are a wacky collage of what were then thrift-store staples: old street signs, framed mirrors, vintage liquor ads, mounted antlers. High on one wall near the TV, a taxidermed elk faces off with a taxidermed wildcat. Across the room, as velour soul warbles from the speakers, a female mannequin is dressed like a Roman centurion. A tuba gleams dully.

Yet Spats’ exotic drinks have been winning local papers’ popularity polls for years. Appearances deceive.

The printed menu, too, is a ’70s relic: sepia photographs accompany ribald, pre-PC text explaining with apocryphal bluster the origins of drinks like the Daiquiri, the Dankobar Screamer, and the Pisco Sour (inspired by the heartbreak of a Mexican named Pisco: “Please drink it slowly,” the menu begs). Bold and bracing, Spats’ Borneo Fogcutter was born when “the innocent lustiness of the Borneo natives” so unbuttoned a female explorer that she devised this blend of “rare juices and exotic inebrients of the South Seas.”

Tuffy longed for a Creme de Cacao-spiked concoction dubbed the Tootsie Roll, but in the spirit of tropicality opted instead for a Di Saronno Breeze ($5.75). Partial to its hilariously misspelled legend on the menu, and in homage to “The Banana Boat Song,” I chose the Tarantula ($5) and could hardly wait for it to arrive.

Just outside the front windows, a downtown crowd was making its way home. Buses roared past. Here and there inside the bar, after-work confabs were unwinding slowly, comfortably–and that, I realized, was the link. Making no attempt to actually look tropical, save a few laquered paper umbrellas among the snowshoes and Indian-chief posters on the walls, Spats comes around to it through a metaphorical back door: with an ineluctable, unperturbed mellowness that washes tensions away as surely as a soak in warm Gulf waters. Time slips away gently here, without bestirring you to look up, get up, or move on.

The tequila in my drink made a snappy counterpunch against the blended banana and coconut milk, so that every sip sent a tattoo of sweet-strong-sweet-strong drumbeats to the brain, giving it something to do while the alcohol flooded the blood. Smoothie that it was, the Tarantula stayed just frosty enough to prevent me from sucking it up all at once.

We shared a Garden Burger ($5.95) –served in a plastic basket, ’70s style –and succulent sautéed mushrooms ($3.95) while trading sips. Tuffy’s Di Saronno Breeze took the bittersweet refinement of Amaretto, as aromatically Old World as a convent cloister, teased it with pineapple juice, then doused it with rum to show it who, in this jungle, is boss.

And that’s an earmark of tiki-esque mixmastery: a what-the-hell esprit de coeur, an intrepid inventiveness. Sitting there trading sips made me want to go home, put on a floppy straw hat, and get busy with those bottles of Cointreau and banana liqueur my father bought in Cuba in ’51, which have long outlived him and which he never got around to opening. But first, a trip to the party-supply store for some plastic monkeys.

The Original Mai Tai
as devised by “Trader Vic” Bergeron

2 ounces 17-year-old J. Wray Nephew Jamaican rum

1/2 ounce French Garnier Orgeat

1/2 ounce Holland DeKuyper Orange Curaçao

1/4 ounce Rock Candy Syrup

juice of one fresh lime

Hand-shake and garnish with half the lime peel inside the drink; float a sprig of fresh mint at the edge of the glass.

Then again, for those like myself for whom no amount of coconut is ever enough, the blender offers endless possibilities.

Chi Chi

2 ounces vodka

5 ounces pineapple juice

1 ounce coconut cream

1 cup ice

1/2 tsp. superfine sugar

Pineapple slice

Combine the first five ingredients in a blender and blend well at high speed. Pour into a glass and garnish with the pineapple slice.