Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Tiki tour: Hale Pele

When last we spoke of my trip to the Pacific Northwest, I lamented the very un-tiki nature of A Very Taki Tiki Bar. That bar has its place, I suppose, but they weren't even going through the motions. Tiki was a kitschy joke to them, not to be taken seriously. Not that tiki should be "Serious," because it's all about escapism, relaxation and fun. But there's a history that should be at least acknowledged, if not respected.

So, after tooling along the spectacular Oregon coast for the better part of a chilly week, we wrapped up our trip by spending a couple days in Portland. I have to say, I was looking forward to this the entire trip--my chance to visit the authentic, well-regarded tiki bar known as Hale Pele. It's easy to miss if you don't know what you're looking for. The photo above shows the understated storefront. It could just as easily be an unassuming strip mall. The sign above the awning doesn't stand out much more. Along the curb, only the "Open" sign (below) hints at what lies inside.

I was a little giddy, I'll admit. A relative newcomer to tiki, going on two years, I'd only had mediocre experiences with pseudo-tiki bars and the pretentious Pilikia. Hale Pele was supposed to be the real deal. What if it was underwhelming? What if was only separated from the other, lesser bars by a matter of degrees? I was nervous, because I had no reference through which to frame my expectations. I imagine I drove The Wife nuts with my neurotic angst. We went inside, and this is the scene that greeted us:

Wow! It looked great! Very atmospheric and textured. Warm. Cozy. Inviting. Tons and tons of eye candy. The foyer was small, but even that was fascinating--the floor was clear plexiglass, laid over a bed of black lava rocks with red light glowing beneath. A clever touch, perfectly in tune with the place's volcano theme. We'd arrived before six, but already there was a wait list. People get their tiki on early in Portland, it seems. Surprisingly, Hale Pele is small. Not tiny, mind you, but what you see when you enter is pretty much all there is. Sprawling, it is not. That's not bad, because it made the place feel more intimate, but at the same time, there was a wait list. As we waited, Lisa and I looked over the overwhelming cocktail list. Pretty much everything looked good (well, except for those drinks with absinthe or coconut, two flavors I'm not particularly fond of). Lisa ended up ordered Hale Pele's signature drink, A'a'po'e with the collectable tiki mug.

I ordered the Lapu Lapu, because I'm a huge fan of passion fruit and the rum, orange and lemon juice combination promised a different flavor experience than I get with classic Hurricane. I have to say, it was quite good. Very fruity and crisp, with the rum flavors complementing the fruit juices well. It was sweet, but not syrupy so. I could so see myself drinking this by (or in) the pool. I'm going to have to learn how to make it. The A'a'po'e was interesting. I'm not a huge fan of gin, and as one might expect, Lisa's drink leaned more herbal than tropical in flavor profile. Lisa likes gin, so she liked it, although it was her least favorite of the evening. I didn't dislike the few sips I had, but it wouldn't ever be my first choice.

So, when we were partway through our drinks, two seats opened up at the bar. Yay! The bar, though, threw me. Ever bar I've ever been at is high. Patrons sit on stools or elevated chairs so that they interact with the bartenders, who are standing, at eye level. At Hale Pele, the bar stools are regular chairs. The bar is short. But the area behind the bar is sunken, so that the bartenders are still interacting with patrons at eye level. That felt very odd at first, but we soon got used to it. Our bartender was Lindsey, and I have to say she was totally kickass. She saw we were photographing everything, so started presenting us each drink as she made it for a photo. And she really mixes a quality beverage. Once our first drinks were finished, Lisa ordered a Jungle Bird (below) made with Cruzan blackstrap rum and Campari. I was seriously considering this one, but Lisa ordering it made my decision easier.

I went with and 3 Dots and a Dash. I honestly can't remember if I tasted the Jungle Bird or not. It seems like my kind of drink, but I was completely captivated by my 3 Dots. I wasn't sure what to expect, and the menu indicated it was a complex mix of flavors for the adventurous rum lover. I'll vouch for the complexity. It wasn't terribly sweet, or terribly dry. There was a little bit of citrus coming through from the lime and orange juice, but overall it'd describe it as spicy, and just a little herbal, although not in a gin-herbal kind of way. Flavor-wise, it was like a puzzle box that kept defying my efforts to unpack it. This isn't a drink that I'd ever order multiples of, but one to savor and contemplate. Even now, I'm still fascinated by the mesh of flavors. About this point Lisa observed that the four drinks we'd had thus far at Hale Pele were the most complex and nuanced drinks she'd ever had. After so many false starts and blind alleys, we were finally starting to understand what the tiki cocktail fuss was all about.

Since we were driving and not familiar with the alcohol content of the tiki drinks (unfamiliar flavors can mask higher alcohol content and sneak up on you) we decided to split a Mai Tai before leaving. The quintessential tiki drink, we'd never had a real one. I now know what a real Mai Tai tastes like. It was a fine mix of rums with a hint of citrus, but also an unexpected spiciness, almost bitter, that must have come from the CuraƧao. That was interesting and added a layer of complexity I did not see coming.

As I mentioned earlier, Lindsey presented us with several cocktails we didn't partake in, but did photograph. This is the Boo Loo--a cocktail for two, made up of pineapple, several rums and honey syrup, served in an actual pineapple. It's an attention-getter.

This is, I believe, the Jet Pilot, a potent blend of rums, citrus and cinnamon, served flaming.

This is the striking crimson Lava Flow. The inside of the glass is coated with strawberry cordial. These were very popular--the bartenders made them continuously throughout the evening.

And, of course, the famous "volcano bowl" group drinks. That's a spent lime peel on top, with lemon extract-soaked bread crumbs flaming away. I know, I always thought it was overproof rum burning as well, but that apparently creates an anemic blue flame that doesn't impress anybody. Learn something new every day.

The volcano bowl presentation is quite theatrical. Manic jungle drums begin playing over the speaker system, so everyone in the bar knows what's happening. Then the server, as he or she reaches the table, sprinkles a mixture of ground cinnamon and nutmeg over the flame, which flares up spectacularly. It's really quite impressive!

Lisa and I spent several hours at Hale Pele, and enjoyed our time spent there probably more than the time we've spent an pretty much every other bar we've visited, combined. Granted, we don't go to bars often, but that's because we don't normally enjoy them. Hale Pele was different. Very different. We found ourselves wishing it were much closer to home. Lisa took a whole bunch of pictures, and at my urging, took even more. The colors and shapes and textures of the place were simply fantastic. I'm going to examine these very closely, checking out the details as I continue to build out my own tiki bar. I'll never reach the level of magnificence that is Hale Pele, but at least I now know what the gold standard is!

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