Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Tiki tour: The Alibi

Now we come to the final stop on our Pacific Northwest Tiki Tour. Those of you playing along at home will recall The Wife and I paid visits to A Very Taki Tiki Bar in Seattle, then Hale Pele, Tiki Putt and No Bones Beach Club in Portland. We also stopped in at Shark Bites way down in Coos Bay, but while it has some tiki influences, it makes no claims to being tiki and leans more to the surf shack aesthetic, so it's not reviewed (although the food's pretty good, and my eldest insists it has the best veggie burger on the planet).

There remained but one stop on our tiki list: The legendary Alibi, one of a handful of old-school tiki bars from the glory days of tiki's golden age (established in 1947, to be precise). Unfortunately, experiencing the Alibi turned out to be easier said than done. As mentioned in my No Bones writeup, we'd originally planned to hit Alibi for lunch with the kids, but discovered at the door that 21 and under weren't admitted. That was frustrating for everyone. Not only had The Wife and I wanted to share a little tiki culture with the kids, we were all hungry by then and ticked off we'd have to wait longer to eat.

After feeding the kids and dropping them off at the hotel, we headed back to the Alibi for a mid-afternoon drink. If nothing else, we expected it to be fairly empty and have the place to ourselves. And we were pretty much correct in that assumption. Walking into the place from the bright afternoon sun, we felt we'd stepped into a pitch black void. Seriously. Hale Pele had been dim when we entered it, but we could still find our way around. The Alibi, on the other hand, left us thinking, just of a moment, that it was closed. I don't have great night vision to begin with, but it took a couple minutes to even begin making out the soft glow of the various Orchids of Hawaii and Oceanic Arts lights hanging from the ceiling. When you hear people saying a good tiki bar should be dimly lit, the Alibi takes that concept and goes the extra mile. Seriously, they're not playing around.

We found a table in the mostly-empty place and sat there waiting for our eyes to adjust. The bartender brought us menus, and we used our cell phones to light them enough to read. We placed our order, and Lisa, who has eyes that handle darkness far better than mine, bounded off with her camera to take all the great photos you see here. The entrance was particularly cool, with a barrel-shaped foyer that was lined top to bottom with woven seagrass matting.

Lisa ordered a Banana Hammock, which came in a brandy snifter with a little plastic monkey hanging from the ubiquitous tiki drink umbrella. We both got a kick out of this and decided we'd get little animals for our tiki bar as well. As a digression, some of my fondest memories of childhood involved my Grandpa Fritz taking me to Sonic in Cuero in his '55 Chevy Bel Air and buying me a grape or cherry slushy. Those always came with--you guessed it--one of these little plastic animals. So yeah, I'm a sucker for nostalgia. Anyway, the Banana Hammock is comprised of a tropical rum blend, banana liqueur, orange curaçao, lemon coconut cream (?) and "tiki" bitters. Lisa gave the drink a thumbs up, in case you were wondering.

My immediate goal was to get one of the Alibi's souvenir mugs. Unfortunately, those were specifically for the Zombie. The Zombie is a classic tiki cocktail, but includes grapefruit juice and Absinthe (or Herbsaint or Pernod) as main ingredients. I can think of few things more disgusting that licorice flavor in my drink, and after the bitter disaster with grapefruit at No Bones Beach Club earlier, I was in no mood to suffer through another vile drink. So instead of the Zombie, I asked nicely and had the bartender bring be a Cobra Commander in the coveted mug instead. According to their menu, that's a "secret" blend of rums, falernum, blue curaçao, orange, lime and cinnamon. And they served it to me in their really cool tiki mug with gummie worms hanging out the top. I mean, that was trippy. Delightfully weird. And the drink was pretty good as well. This was my first encounter with falernum, and while I couldn't identify it at the time, I've since learned that I am partial to it's spicy mix of flavors.

Once we'd finished those drinks, we ordered a second round. Lisa, sticking with her plan to evaluate every Mai Tai in the Pacific Northwest, ordered a Mai Tai. Their recipe was pretty close to the traditional Trader Vic Mai Tai with some tweaks: Martinique rhum, Jamaican rum blend, orange curaçao, lime and orgeat. If I recall correctly, she felt this drink slightly less complex in flavor in comparison to the Hale Pele version, but she actually preferred the Alibi's take on the classic drink.

Wanting to stick with rum-based drinks and avoiding those with absinthe or coconut, I ordered a Jet Pilot, a "high-powered" mix of rums, falernum, grapefruit, lime and cinnamon. Again, the rum-and-falernum combination worked nicely for me. The grapefruit was understated and honestly, I couldn't taste any cinnamon at all. This one wasn't my favorite, but I'd happily drink it again.

Now, let's talk about the non-drink elements. The Alibi is amazing! Once we adjusted to the dark, 70 years' worth of history jumped out at us. Seriously. The interior decor is like the Platonic ideal of what a tiki bar should be. The place was huge--easily triple the size of Hale Pele. There was a classic wall mural on one end. Every square inch of ceiling had some intricate light or other hanging from it. The wooden railings and trim had an age-worn patina to them. There were layers and layers and details as far as the eye could see. Every time I started looking at something, another object would catch my eye. Some details went unnoticed by me until I looked at the photos after the fact. It was a sprawling eruption of concentrated tiki history, and it felt historic. Hale Pele had excellent, dense decorations as well, but those felt fresh and new, carefully selected and placed by interior designers. The Alibi was having none of that. Even the sections that were clearly planned and laid out had an organic, haphazard feel to them. The weight of years gave the place a gravitas I did not expect. I can only imagine how it must've been at tiki's height in the 1950s.

But... (and you knew there was a but coming). Sigh. It pains me to say it, but despite all that history and wow factor and decent drinks, the Alibi falls way short of being a good tiki bar because of the atmosphere. How can that be, after all the amazing photos I've shared? Those good drinks? How? Sinmple--they don't run it like a tiki bar. The atmosphere is anything but. The entire time we were there, they played 70s over the P.A. system. We're talking Foghat, Tin Lizzie, Zeppelin, all the stuff you'd hear on what used to be called AOR stations. Which, you know, is music I normally like, but it felt so wrong here. I'm not insisting they play Martin Denny-style exotica, but cool jazz, surf rock or even reggae would've been more in keeping with the tone. The song selection made the place feel like a biker bar, and you know what? That's the clientele that came in. Nothing against bikers, they're some fine people, but the attitude of the patrons and bar staff was one of a roadhouse or dive bar. There was a weird disconnect with all the booths and tiki paraphernalia. And one entire section of the bar had been given over to lottery machines and other automated gambling devices. This is the kind of low-rent "entertainment" normally reserved for the back rooms of convenience stores, where the floors are sticky and smell of stale urine masked only partially by sloppily-applied Pine-Sol. It felt trashy. It felt as if the staff and patrons were there in spite of the tiki elements, not because of them. I know there are people who are passionate patrons of the Alibi's low-brow aesthetic, who think their karaoke nights are the greatest thing ever. And that's fine. But it didn't take long for Lisa and I to start discussing how wonderful it would be for the owners of Hale Pele to take over the Alibi and return it to it's tiki glory. Hell, keep the karaoke nights that are obviously such a draw, but return it to being a tiki bar again during the day and early evening. Judging by the lines waiting outside of Hale Pele in the afternoon, there's more than enough fans of tiki in the Portland area to support such a move by the Alibi (particularly since 90 percent of the place was empty when we visited). That's not going to happen, but it'd be nice.

We were looking at the menu to order a third and final drink, when the cognitive dissonance really started to get to me. I looked over the menu twice and absolutely nothing was appealing. I was uncomfortable. It was getting later in the afternoon, and more people were filtering in, a loud and boisterous crowd. I turned to Lisa and said, "Let's go to Hale Pele." I didn't have to twist her arm. She felt that odd discomfort growing as well. Twenty minutes later, we were seated at the Hale Pele bar, and all the tension just bled away. Lindsey recognized us immediately as the folks from Texas that took all the pictures the day before. That resulted in a conversation from a Dallas transplant right next to us, who'd lived in Portland for years but was only just visited Hale Pele for the first time, and was amazed by the experience. There was a friendly, welcoming vibe permeating the place. We felt comfortable immediately. Lisa ordered a Blue Hawaii, followed by a Castaway. I opted for a Passion Fruit Batida, then a Shark's Tooth. They were all so good. Lisa and I aren't barflies. We never have been, but it hurt, really hurt to say goodbye to Hale Pele. Almost as much as it hurt to see what the Alibi chooses not to be. Regardless, we now have the standard for what all other tiki bars will be judged by.

And if you're ever in Portland, check out Hale Pele. Seriously. It is amazing.

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Friday, September 22, 2017

Chicken Ranch anniversary: Happy birthday Sheriff Flournoy!

On this date in 1902, Thomas James Flournoy was born to Tom and Etta Flournoy on a ranch near Rock Island. He would grow up to work as a ranch hand on the famous King Ranch, a Texas Ranger patrolling the Big Bend region during World War II and--most famously--as the long-serving sheriff of Fayette County. Sheriff Jim famously defied political and media pressure to close down the infamous Chicken Ranch brothel outside of La Grange in 1973 before acquiescing to a direct order from Governor Dolph Briscoe. A year later, Sheriff Flournoy confronted Marvin Zindler on the town square, ripping off the reporter's hairpiece and throwing it in the street. The resulting lawsuits and counter suits were eventually settled out of court with a large donation to the Shriner's Children's Hospital.

Sheriff Flournoy died on October 27, 1982, from heart problems. He would've been 115 years old today.

Inside the Texas Chicken Ranch: The Definitive Account of the Best Little Whorehouse is available from both Amazon.com and BarnesAndNoble.com. It's also available as an ebook in the following formats: Kindle, Nook, Google Play, iBooks and Kobo.

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Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

Last week I featured Jay and the Americans here, and referenced a certain 1980 hit by the great Bobby Bare. That song is, of course, "Tequila Shiela." This genius song was, of course, written by the lyrical genius Shel Silverstein. The video version from German television is a bit truncated, with Bare leaving out the first verse, but the whole song can be heard at the link above. Classic. Between Bare and Hoyt Axton, the late 70s and early 80s produced some of the best character songs country music has ever enjoyed.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Jay and the Americans

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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Tiki tour: No Bones Beach Club

Turn back the clock a couple of months and imagine we're still on vacation. We've completed our road trip along the Oregon coast and are spending the last two days in Portland. Got it? Great! Following out early excursion to the Tiki Putt, we planned to take the whole family for lunch at the legendary Alibi. The food there was reputed to be good, and since it's a vintage tiki location, I expected it to be open to all ages for lunch. All the classic tiki venues offered all-ages dining, right? At the very least, I figured they'd allow under 21 patrons until 6 p.m. or so, as many bars that offer food service in Texas do. Certainly, The Alibi's website gave no hint they were "21 and older" 24/7, with no exceptions. Alas, once we got there, we discovered that to be the case. Which really came as a disappointment, as The Wife and I wanted to share some cool vintage tiki experience with our kids. Our lunch plans scuppered, we went with Plan B: Lunch at the No Bones Beach Club.

Now, the No Bones Beach Club isn't exactly tiki, per se. It's pseudo-tiki. I learned about it from Humuhumu's writeup on Critiki. It's not a bar, but rather a restaurant with a beachy, tiki theme that has a limited menu of tropical cocktails. And get this--it's a vegan restaurant. I wanted to go here, in part, because my eldest daughter's been a vegetarian for more than a decade and I thought she'd appreciate it. The restaurant reviews were generally positive, and I seek out new experiences, so we gave it a try.

I ordered jackfruit flautas. I like jackfruit, and am planning on making an infused rum with which to invent new cocktails for my home bar, but I'd never had green, unripe jackfruit, which is reputed to have a neutral flavor and tears apart with a consistency not unlike shredded pork. In many parts of the tropics it's used as a meat substitute. I was skeptical, but wow, these flautas won me over. The taste simply exploded in my mouth. I'm not sure what spices they used, but it was a citrus-infused tomatillo and cilantro party in my mouth. The flavors were bright and crisp. The plate was filling, but it tasted so good I would've happily eaten another plate full, even if it made me miserable. Seriously, it was that good.

The Wife ordered beer-battered avocado tacos. She reports they were quite good as well. She didn't share any with me, so I can't report first-hand. They looked like better-quality fish tacos, and smelled fantastic.

My son refused to eat any of the "weird stuff" on the menu, but the girls got some Northwest nachos. They gobbled them up, but there were a few chips left for me to sample. Instead of cheese, they used a cashew sauce with smoked poblano. Texturally, it wasn't queso, obviously, but it had a spicy, savory flavor that was not inappropriate. Add to that black bean and corn salsa, charred tomato salsa, scallions and cilantro crema, and you've got a winning combination. I cannot stress this enough--the food is very, very good and the textures are such that unless you start off with the knowledge this was a vegan restaurant, you'd never notice from the actual dishes. Highly recommended.

Alas, the same cannot be said of their drinks. The Wife ordered a Mai Tai, having decided that would be her barometer of a bar's quality on this trip. The No Bones Mai Tai is not a real Mai Tai by historical standards--their menu lists it as a blend of light and dark rums, Saliza amaretto (no orgeat, but at least they made a gesture with the almond-flavored liqueur, right?), orange juice (what?), pineapple (no!) and fresh lime. The resulting cocktail wasn't great. It wasn't awful. Know what else it wasn't? It wasn't a Mai Tai, although I will allow that it looked very pretty.

I ordered a guava paloma. I'm not a big fan of grapefruit juice, which is the primary ingredient in a paloma, but I can take it in cocktails. And I am a fan of guava, which, next to passion fruit, is just about the definitive flavor of the tropics. Foolish me. When the paloma arrived, I tasted no guava. None. What did I taste? Bitterness. Bitter, bitter, bitter with a side of bitter. I don't know what they put in this thing, but I tasted no tequila, and even the grapefruit juice was overpowered by the bitterness. I let the ice melt to dilute it some, but that only improved it marginally.

As for the decor, well, again, it's not tiki. It was bright and airy and full of bamboo and matting and other things one would find in a tiki bar--up to and including tiki mugs--but the theme and vibe was more "tropical beach" than anything else. As such, it was pretty cool, except for the loud rap they had playing over the speakers. That did nothing for the ambience. After a few F-bombs, The Wife asked if they could play something else. Naturally, this annoyed the staff, who grudgingly changed the station to some generic contemporary techno-pop channel. That was still inappropriate music selection for the decor, but at least we weren't being bombarded with lyrics about "bangin' the bitches" or whatever. I don't understand why it's so difficult to grasp that some types of music are appropriate for certain situations and other types aren't.

Ultimately, No Bones Beach Club was a mixed bag. The food was fantastic, if a bit on the pricey side. I'd happily eat there again. I won't, though, because 1) the drinks were terrible, 2) the music selection was worse and 3) the atmosphere was completely lacking. It's not a tiki bar and shouldn't pretend to be one, but at the same time should embrace the tropical beach aesthetic and run with it. That, they're not doing. Pity, because this place is so close to being something special.

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