Tahitian Sundown

After a few piña coladas, who cares if the Chilean sea bass is overcooked?

Trader Vic’s used to be larger than life. Celebrities and society column nabobs jockeyed for tables, and queens and kings and presidents gathered to talk politics over egg rolls and Mai Tais.

But the Beautiful People, who once flocked there in droves, decided long ago that Trader Vic’s was so over. They moved on to other places even more sexy, more exclusive–establishments where they didn’t have to worry about being hit up by autograph-seeking fans as they stumbled out of the bathroom after drinking too many drinks capped by little umbrellas. Now us commoners can take our family there for special occasions and wonder at the old menus and say, “Gee, back in 1942 a beer was cheap.”

Most people refuse to believe that Trader Vic’s started in Oakland, on the corner of 65th and San Pablo. It’s much easier to believe that this chain was born on the beaches of Hawaii or Tahiti or any other tropical place where people walk around all day clad in only a thong and a slather of sunscreen.

But Oakland? A friend of mine actually lost ten bucks on a bet; he stubbornly insisted that Trader Vic’s originated in London, or at the very least, New York. He still couldn’t quite believe it when a friend pulled out some proof–a pamphlet from the restaurant. I knew what he meant. I was guilty of believing that the chain started in San Francisco, can you imagine?

Trader Vic’s was the dream of globetrotting culinary buccaneer Victor J. Bergeron. He was born in 1902 and died in 1984. In between, he opened up the original Trader Vic’s restaurant in 1932. Now eighteen Trader Vic’s span the globe, and at this very moment, architects in Cairo, Egypt and Fukuoka, Japan are drawing up blueprints for more. If you find yourself shanghaied in Singapore, there’s an ice-cold kamikaze waiting for you there. If you’re lonesome for a faraway isle as you winter in Düsseldorf, don’t despair, there’s a Trader Vic’s!

As we drove up to the faux-thatched building and had the valet park the car (hey–it’s the only kind of parking there is), I felt a rush similar to the thrill I had when I first stood in line for “Pirates of the Caribbean” so long ago. First to greet us was a table full of all manner of Trader Vic’s merchandise.

Trader Vic’s is “Home of the Mai Tai” and just as Pat O’Brien’s in New Orleans peddles its famous Hurricane mixes, you can purchase powdered Mai Tai drinks at the restaurant. Not only that: you can buy T-shirts, paper umbrellas, and other Trader Vic’s stuff so you can replicate the magic when you arrive back at your boring old home.

Although I knew in my heart that Trader Vic’s was well past its prime, I still had expectations. When I saw the merchandise, I realized my expectations were perhaps too high. It felt like Benihana and the Hard Rock Café all over again. Besides, there were no bejeweled celebrities tossing back Mai Tais, as Herb Caen had promised so long ago. Nor was there even a smug werewolf drinking a piña colada, knowing, of course, that his hair was perfect.

The place was crowded that Friday evening, but only with limo-loads of swanky teenagers pretending to be sophisticated grown-ups. Turns out they were having a pre-prom dinner.

If you’ve never gone to Trader Vic’s but thought to yourself, “Hey, I bet it’s decorated with tiki idols,” well, you’d be correct. Mammoth carved tiki idols scowl down on the vast dining room. For that nautical touch, old bronze diving equipment is scattered here and there, and shellacked sport fish and turtle shells hang from the ceiling. We waited for our table underneath a large picture of a tight-lipped Queen Elizabeth and a sour-looking Prince Philip.

The view overlooking the bay was predictably gorgeous, with mini waves lapping on the craggy shoreline. The correlation is well known: the more stunning the view, the more terrible the food. As sundown approached, the view grew more exquisite by the minute, and that’s when I really started to worry. In an effort to assuage my fears, I opened the drink menu and tried to ignore the impending glorious sunset.

In addition to the celebrated Mai Tai, there is a drink called the “Suffering Bastard,” which I suppose is an accurate prediction of how you’d feel after knocking back a few. My dining companion and I made fun of the drink menu for about half an hour which, in retrospect, was the best part of the evening. I didn’t feel like rum, which eliminated about 75 percent of the drink selection. I finally decided on the “Captain’s Big Ohu” ($10), although I thought it strange that some rugged swashbuckler favored ladylike champagne over more machismo rum. Not that I’m implying anything about the Captain’s masculinity.

I had a nagging suspicion that something combining champagne, gin, and mysterious “pleasant liqueurs” was a potentially frightening libation. My suspicions were correct.

Ramona ordered the “Manehune Juice” ($9). The drink, in typically cryptic Trader Vic’s fashion, was described as containing “rum and nectars.” Mysterious! It also came with a plastic little man that she played with all evening.

As Ramona played with her man, I looked at the extensive menu. Although Trader Vic’s specializes in seafood, there is also a lengthy section for “oriental food,” and you won’t have a problem getting a steak. Specials are also offered daily. We ordered two appetizers, one that staple of the tropics, cheese bings ($9). We didn’t want to go overboard, but we were eyeing the chicken satay ($9) as well. For entrées, we went with one of the specials, the Chilean sea bass wrapped in a banana leaf ($21), and the mahi mahi encrusted with macadamias ($19).

After about twenty minutes, the cheese bings were plopped on the table. I never thought that I would be forced to say anything complimentary about Gino’s frozen mozzarella sticks, but the world is full of surprises. In comparison to the bings, Gino’s mozzarella sticks, straight from your grocer’s freezer, are a miracle of fried cheese and I shall never again take them for granted.

The Trader Vic’s version was terrible. The bings consisted of six limp Swiss cheese sticks that had been dipped in some tasteless crumb spackle and then barely fried. They came with two dipping sauces, a hot mustard sauce that about blew the roof of my mouth off and a run-of-the-mill cocktail sauce about as sassy as a bottle of ketchup. We hoped the bings were just a fluke. Surely the satay will be delicious, we assured ourselves. The meager appetizer arrived–six skewers with a pitiful mouthful of chicken attached to each end. It’s safe to say that I’ve had more generous samples at Costco. Trader Vic’s chicken was juicy and flavorful, that is, until it was dipped into the peanut sauce.

Peanut sauce is not that difficult to make. Take a few spoonfuls of peanut butter, add a little fish sauce, whir it in a blender and you have a pretty decent–albeit lazy–peanut sauce. Unfortunately, this sauce managed to be oily, thin, salty, and not peanut-y at all. However, it did have a nutty brown peanut color, which only added to its mystery.

After a lengthy wait, the entrées appeared. Keeping with tradition, the portions could not be described as hefty. A layer of garlicky pesto sauce had been smeared on a thin slice of sea bass, wrapped in a banana leaf, then steamed. Both dishes came with a side of mashed potatoes and asparagus.

My entrée was overly cooked–a tragedy with sea bass–and the delicate flavor was obscured by the overwhelming harsh garlic flavor in the pesto. The asparagus was, as Ramona described it, “flaccid midsections that had a greasy flavor.” The mashed potatoes had a strange nutmeg-y flavor.

The mahi mahi had hardly any of the promised macadamias. The small portion of fish did have a pleasant smoky flavor, although it should have been taken off the grill sooner.

After dinner, we were quiet for a while, wondering if we were asking for it by ordering dessert. We were sort of scared but curious. After debating for a few minutes, curiosity prevailed.

Since my spirits were flagging, I wanted a flaming dessert. When the waiter came with the menu, I ordered the Kona ice cream with tropical fruits ($6). Ramona, who at that point had given up, resolutely ordered the cheesecake with raspberry coulis ($5).

While we waited, I started thinking about chain restaurants. There’s a certain inertia that comes with selling out, a lazy smugness that says, “Well, we were great once, so who cares if we’re just so-so now?” As I saw the crowds of people whipping out their credit cards, I became convinced that people would rather dine on nostalgia than taste the mediocre dinner sitting in front of them. Besides, everyone looked happy. After a few piña coladas, who cares if the Chilean sea bass is overcooked?

Unfortunately, the waiter set my dessert aflame not at our table, but over in the corner. As he brought the anticlimactic ice cream to the table, one blue alcohol flame weakly flickered out, much like my expectations for the evening.

The alcohol had not burned off but had settled in a boozy pool on top of the ice cream, which came with spears of banana and pineapple. After a few tentative bites, I realized the ice cream was pretty good–it had flecks of real vanilla, and the pineapple and banana were refreshing, although some other varieties of tropical fruits would have been a nice treat.

Ramona’s cheesecake looked attractive with its squiggle of raspberry coulis. After a bite, she said the texture was chalky. She was right.

As we waited for the check, I leafed through the Trader Vic’s brochure. When I came to the page with the bottles of sauce, I could feel a rant coming on. One passage caught my eye: “The Trader believed that his recipes should thrill, not overwhelm, the palate.”

“Well, how do you explain the bings?” I asked his photo.

I wished I had experienced Trader Vic’s in the early days, before all the powdered drink mixes and salt and pepper shakers. But don’t get me wrong, as much as chain restaurants bug me, I don’t want to be hypocritical: whenever I’m in a town that boasts a Hooter’s, I’m there at the counter buying an extremely tight-fitting T-shirt. I love gaudy Benihana, and I’ve been known to go to fake-Mex Chevy’s (also in Emeryville but with a cheaper view). Still, I know in my heart that these places are counterfeit versions of the real thing.

As the valet drove up with the car and the sun set behind the Golden Gate, I came to the conclusion that my big mistake was confusing Trader Vic’s with the genuine article. Or maybe not–in my secondhand copy of the Trader Vic’s cookbook is this inscription: “To Joyce, Some of this stuff is okay, some of it stinks. Trader.”

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