It was in Oakland in 1932 that “Trader Vic” Bergeron opened a pub across from his father’s grocery store and started serving goofy tropical cocktails and Americanized island grub aided and abetted by the South Pacific paraphernalia he had bartered for himself over the years. By 1936, a young Herb Caen was writing that “the best restaurant in San Francisco is in Oakland,” and ever since then boozers throughout the Bay Area have been sipping flora-bedecked, cobalt-colored concoctions in wicker-and-totem pole establishments more reminiscent of Anaheim than Arorangi. Outstanding local examples of the tiki-bar genre include San Francisco’s grandiloquent Tonga Room, which features regularly scheduled tropical downpours replete with thunder, lightning and sheets of rainwater; Trader Vic’s itself, now a global tiki-chain with its flagship location relocated from Oakland to Emeryville; the matchlessly exotic Forbidden Island in Alameda with its waterfalls, encompassing bamboo, and rampant Gilliganesque iconography; and the newest of the bunch, Tiki Tom’s, located on what the menu calls the Oakland Riviera.
For the past few years, restaurateur Tom Davies has been operating Tiki Tom’s Catering & Charter Company, providing patrons with brunch and dinner cruises and popular events thrumming with island music, Polynesian dancers, and the fragrance of pineapple and pig meat. In October an eponymous restaurant opened at the foot of the 29th Avenue Bridge overlooking the Oakland-Alameda Tidal Canal, thus bringing the Tiki Tom’s experience to a wider clientele. Here one can nosh on Honolulu Hot Wings, guzzle a Wiki Wiki, and listen to an ongoing array of pop and Polynesia while tribal masks and surfboards add a bit of that Don the Beachcomber’s atmo to the proceedings. However, Tiki Tom’s hasn’t yet mastered the art of serving fried finger food and carefully crafted tropical cocktails in a fun, festive, blissfully kitschy environment.
The low-slung, water-vista setting has a nice Papeete-beachfront feeling to it, with multicolored Chinese lanterns, seashell-shaped barstools, a selection of masks and woodcarvings, and the odd ukulele-strumming hula-girl figurine, but there aren’t enough palm fronds and fertility gods and flaming torches and other tikimania crowding the nooks and crannies to make the joint as eye-filling as it could be. What’s more, the lighting is on the bright side, especially for a mood-enhancing tropical getaway. But service is friendly and welcoming, and we enjoyed the live rockin’ music that didn’t let up as one band segued into another.
The focus of any tiki establishment is the bar, and Tiki Tom’s serves up forty island concoctions with names like the Tropical Itch, the Great White Shark, and the Guava Lava. Primary among them is the Mai Tai, an elixir of rum, lime juice, curaçao, and orgeat that was invented a few miles away at the original Vic’s in 1944. Tiki Tom’s rendition was watery and bland, lacking the zippy sweet-and-sour sparkle of the original, and on this day it was served without benefit of umbrella, plastic monkey, logo’d swizzle stick, or other tiki paraphernalia. The Volcanic Sunset was equally underwhelming, despite its name and the advertised presence of rum, triple sec, and Chambord, while the Mango Monkey tasted more orange-colored than mango-flavored. The Outrigger, on the other hand, was a tall, refreshing flagon of vodka, pineapple juice, and coconut rum ideally suited to a festive evening. But it’s telling that after sharing five cocktails, including the famously lethal Zombie, the two of us didn’t feel the least bit tipsy.
The appetizers in Polynesian restaurants, especially tiki bars, tend to be heavy, greasy, and oddly complementary to those sweet, juicy cocktails, but Tiki Tom’s offers a few noshes that transcend the stereotype. The Sweet & Spicy Ribs were tender and meaty with a nice smoky-spicy sauce; the Honolulu Hot Wings were even better, with a lush texture and a zesty afterbite; the sweet potato fries were hot and crunchy (although some sort of dipping sauce would’ve been nice). Other starters (soft, lukewarm onion strings; cloying, skinny coconut prawns; nondescript, inoffensive wontons and egg rolls) weren’t as successful. But the South Pacific Spinach Salad was a big, refreshing platter of kiwi, mandarin orange, red onions, and verdant greens, the perfect palate-cleanser.
The Big Kahuna Plate, one of the entrées, offered up luscious barbecued oysters, smoky skewered prawns, unexciting calamari, and a lackluster filet of sole with institutional-grade mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli, onions, and zucchini. The mahi mahi was marginally better, primarily because of the refreshing pineapple-mango-cilantro salsa and sticky rice that shared the platter. Our favorite entrée, though, was the Kalua Pig, shredded pork slow-roasted to the tender and juicy stage served with braised cabbage, which added an unexpected and delectable dimension of its own.
Aside from the cocktails, there isn’t a whole lot for vegetarians to embrace at Tiki Tom’s. Appetizers include the sweet potato fries, the onion strings, and the veggie egg rolls; only two of the eight salads are meat-free. There are no vegetarian entrées unless you get the clam or prawn linguine without the clams or prawns.
Among the desserts are a macadamia nut sundae that’s just a scoop of vanilla ice cream, a drizzle of chocolate sauce, a few scattered macadamias, and a squirt of whipped cream; a dry, lackluster pineapple upside-down cake with all the pizzazz of cellophane; and fun-to-behold yet heavily crusted flaming banana fritters that are heavy on the Bacardi 151. If the bar would stick the excess rum in the cocktails where it belongs, the dining room stock up on swizzle sticks and totem poles, and the kitchen offer appetizers as uniformly good as the ribs, chicken wings, and Kalua pig, Oakland would once again have itself a tiki bar worthy of the name.