Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Jayme vs. Kanaloa

The other week found The Wife and myself in Houston for an overnight visit. Having some time to spare in the evening, we decided to check out H-Town's newest tiki bar, Kanaloa. Despite quite a few tikiphiles in Texas, I haven't really heard much about it since its opening late last year. A month ago I tried to visit whilst passing through Houston, but after spending half an hour trying in vain to find parking, I gave up. Kanaloa's in the downtown area not far from the theatre district, which means street parking. And that fills up quickly. That's already a mark against it--who wants to escape to a tiki bar if one has to stress out over parking?

Fortunately, this night was not as super-busy as my previous, ill-fated visit. Traffic was light. We parked in a garage a block away and walked to Kanaloa without incident. The place is impossible to miss despite not having a big sign. There's a prominent thatch awning over the entrance, and lighting that shifts from garish purple to garish green. When word first came out that this space was being tikified, some of the early discussion was over the owners' decision to paint all the brick on the building's facade black. I wasn't a huge fan of this (I'm generally opposed to painting brick, period). I can kinda see what they were going for at night with the thatch and the lighting, but I remain unconvinced. Painting brick remains a bad idea in my book.

We stopped short at the threshold. The music blasting out of the bar was decidedly not tiki. It was club music. Beat pounding techno-pop alt whatever. I didn't recognize it, couldn't identify the singers or performers. Regardless, it was the most inappropriate tiki bar music we'd encountered since our visit to No Bones Beach Club back in 2017. Nothing can ruin the immersive experience of a tiki bar faster than inappropriate music. The Wife and I exchanged dubious looks. "We could go to Lei Low, but they don't have food. This place does." We were both pretty hungry. We agreed on giving Kanaloa one drink and a meal to win us over.

The first thing one sees upon entering are four enormous tiki heads lining the right-hand wall. They're huge. With their big-toothed grins, they look borderline clown tiki, but thankfully there are none of the garish colors that mark that degenerate tiki subset. The backlit eyes are illuminated, and the color changes with time. The effect is pretty cool. We sat at a table, not the bar, and looked over the menu. There were about 16 tiki cocktails listed, all classics (with the exception of "Caribbean Boilermaker" which was a shot of rum and a beer). There were no original cocktails listed. The next page had six group drinks, and here there were several original drinks, or at least riffs on existing shareables. Where the menu really stood out was with its rum list--four-and-a-half pages of rums listed. This tells me they're looking to compete more with the downtown rum bar High & Dry, which just so happens to be a block away. The Wife was not feeling particularly adventurous, so she ordered a Painkiller. It arrived in a grinning green tiki mug with a torched, smoldering cinnamon stick garnish. It may seem odd, but this is the first time I've seen a burning cinnamon stick garnish. It worked well. The presentation was nice and effective. This has got to be a fairly common garnish, but somehow I've avoided it until now. I'll steal it for future use, of course. The Wife reported the Painkiller to be a perfectly acceptable representation of its type.

I was tempted by their Three Dots and a Dash, but the music was really annoying me, and I was ready to cut our time there as short as possible. Since I was driving, I wanted to avoid their stronger drinks, which eliminated the Three Dots. Instead, I ordered a Sumatra Kula, a Don the Beachcomber original which I don't see on menus all that often. It arrived in a classic tiki mug with one of those thick, bubble tea straws. What was up with that? I dunno. The drink itself wasn't bad. The grapefruit bitterness was not overpowering but obviously there. I couldn't taste any honey, but again, the drink wasn't overpoweringly bitter, so there was sweetness in there somewhere, doing its job. This is a pretty simple drink for Don, one of those where there's no place to hide. Screwing up the recipe will be instantly noticeable. Despite my skepticism, they served me a solid cocktail.

As I mentioned earlier, we were hungry, and ordered dinner. I'd heard good things about their kitchen, which is apparently a permanent base for the Korean/Mexican food truck OhMyGogi! The Wife ordered OMG Fries (below right) and I ordered Jerk Chicken Tots (for the life of me, I've never been able to understand why tiki bars haven't embraced the deliciousness of Caribbean cuisine). The orders arrived and I have to say, they were both delicious. It amazes me how simple bar food has been upgraded to a culinary event. The portions didn't seem that large, but they filled us both up. They were flavorful and satisfying.

The back bar was an elaborate bamboo build, and looked quite impressive. Doubly so with color-changing LED lights illuminating the shelves and bottles upon them. On the other hand, the shelves were sparsely populated. The Wife and I both subscribe to the "more is more" aesthetic where tiki is concerned. A tiki bar shouldn't be neat and spare. There was a tremendous amount of wasted space behind the bar that could've been filled with more bottles, tiki mugs and other clutter. It was functional as it was, but also kinda sterile. Tiki bars should be all eye candy all the time. Every time you look, there should be something else to catch your eye that you hadn't noticed earlier. Kanaloa's bar, while nice, failed that test.

The rest of the bar was more in line with traditional tiki expectations. The ceiling decor, in particular, is a standout. Taking a page from San Diego's False Idol, Kanaloa's upper reaches are covered by dozens upon dozens of glass fishing floats. Speaking as someone who's priced these coveted items, this amounts to a significant investment on the part of the owners. That's not entirely surprising--last spring, before Kanaloa opened, Houston Eater ran a piece describing how the owners had visited tiki bars across the country for inspiration:

Doyle along with partners Roland Keller and Tyler Barrera have traveled around the country checking out tiki bars, and they’re currently hard at work sourcing tiki gear for the restaurant (think custom-made treasure chests). The hope is to open at the beginning of May within a completely transformed space featuring an outdoor patio and an event area upstairs.
The upstairs was closed. The rest of the downstairs had some nice booth seating and the required lauhala matting. There was the ubiquitous peacock chair in the back, along with a teddy bear and blow-up sex doll from the non-Valentine's Day party they'd held a few days prior. As we finished our meal, the lights flickered and a crash of thunder rolled through the place, so I give Kanaloa bonus points for incorporating theatrical flourishes that Don the Beachcomber would approve.

I went to the restroom, and when I returned I found The Wife had moved to the bar and was chatting with the bartender. They were discussing tiki, and he was waxing poetic about how good their Mai Tai was. Now, I have to confess, I'm not a huge Mai Tai fan. I can take it or leave it. But The Wife loves 'em, and judges tiki bars on the quality of their Mai Tai. We'd been planning to leave (yes, that music was still grating) but I threw caution to the wind and ordered one for her (just for her, as I was driving). The bartender pauses a moment, suddenly unsure of himself. "This isn't a fruity Mai Tai," he warned. "Mai Tais aren't supposed to be fruity," she responds, and the bartender looks visibly relieved. She takes a sip, and her eyebrows go up in a curious manner. "You have to try this," she said, offering me a sip. I tasted it, and it's not at all what I was expecting. It's recognizably a Mai Tai, sure, but there's a serious funkiness going on.

"He said he uses a flaming rum," The Wife said.

I thought a moment. "Rum Fire?"

"That's it."

I tasted it again. Wow. If Rum Fire made that much of a difference when used in a Mai Tai, I might start having to use it myself at home. I might even become a Mai Tai drinker. The stuff was good.

Before we left, we went to check out the back patio, which the bartender recommended as outstanding. I have to admit it's a nice space. It's enclosed by tall brick walls with vines growing up them, and string lights contribute a suitably dim, atmospheric illumination... but man, they haven't done anything with that space. There should be potted palms and living bamboo, maybe a water feature, and at least three or four 6' tiki carvings back there. As it is, there are a couple of vintage-style metal signs by Kerne Erickson (a personal favorite), a cobbled-together license plate that spells out "Tiki Bar" and a handful of mass-produced masks from Indonesia. That's it. That back patio space could be amazing! Instead, it's simply there.

Kanaloa is incredibly frustrating. It's got a lot going for it, but it's a case of "one step forward, two steps back." The music is just downright awful, and drove us away when we would've spent the evening there. I emailed the manager about the music once we got back home, but never received an acknowledgement. The food is great and the cocktails are solid. The cocktail menu is sadly limited, though, and lacks originality. The decor they have is great, there just isn't enough of it. The back courtyard/patio could be amazing, but they've done nothing with it. All in all, Kanaloa feels eerily similar to Pilikia, which was actually run as a nightclub-with-a-tiki-theme because the owners had heard tiki was a growing trend. That's kind of the vibe I got from Kanaloa. I don't think the owners or management actually understand tiki. It feels like Kanaloa is an attempt to cash in on tiki, because tiki is a hot trend right now. Which is dumb if true, because tiki is probably the most outrageously expensive concept bar to pull off. I think the club music is there because they want to fit in with all the other bars in the area. I suspect the more time passes, the less tiki Kanaloa will get, until it's pretty much indistinguishable from any other bar in the neighborhood, is sold and revamped as an Irish pub or German beer hall. Which is a shame, because they have the foundation for a potentially outstanding tiki bar. They just seem afraid to fully embrace it, which makes me wonder why they ventured down this path in the first place.

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Monday, February 25, 2019

Chicken Ranch anniversary: Miss Edna (1928-2012)

On this date in 2012, Edna Milton Chadwell, better known as Miss Edna, passed away at the age of 84 in Phoenix, Arizona, where she'd lived a life of quiet anonymity since the early 1980s. Her final days were tragic. The previous October (or September--my memory is imprecise) she was involved in a car wreck that left her hospitalized with an array of injuries. From what I understand, her memory was affected, and her brain stopped converting short-term memory into long. In practical terms, it meant somebody could introduce themselves and begin a conversation with her, but five minutes later she'd have no recollection. Over the previous three years I feel I've gotten to know her as much as any person alive today who wasn't related to her. She enthusiastically supported my book project and graciously invited my wife and myself into her home for hours of interviews.

Throughout the six-plus years it took to research, write and publish Inside the Texas Chicken Ranch: The Definitive Account of the Best Little Whorehouse, there was no bigger supporter of mine than Miss Edna. As I've said elsewhere, my biggest regret is that she did not live to see the finished product. I can't say for certain what she'd have thought of it, but others who were close to the Chicken Ranch have given me the thumbs up, so I like to think Miss Edna would've approved (while giving me an earful about what I got wrong).

Let me share something about her that didn't make it into the book. When I first met Miss Edna, she asked where I was from. I answered that I was originally from Columbus. Miss Edna paused a moment, then said, "Twenty-two miles." Then she asked my wife where she was from. Bastrop, Lisa answered. Miss Edna paused again, then said, "Thirty-six miles." Almost four decades removed from her life in La Grange, Miss Edna still remembered those details that would've mattered to her prospective out-of-town customers. I'll wager we could've sat there for hours, tossing out town names like Brenham, Hallettsville, Bryan, etc. and she'd have come up with the distance between them and La Grange like there was nothing to it. I have long felt that a fascinating glimpse into her character.

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, February 22, 2019

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

Okay, this is something I never thought I'd see: A jazzy, smoldering version of the "Pinky and the Brain Theme" as performed by Postmodern Jukebox. That's Emily Goglia vamping it up on lead vocals, and, yes, the original voices of the lab mice themselves, Rob Paulsen and Maurice LaMarche. What amazing times we live in.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Weezer.

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Friday, February 15, 2019

Friday Night VIdeos

Friday Night Videos

It's Weezer's world. We're just living in it. Their cover of Ah-Ha's "Take On Me" proves it (as if their Weird Al/Africa cover didn't already do that. And by the by, shouldn't the kids from the video be playing the next prom in "Stranger Things"?

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Rodrigo y Gabriela.

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Thursday, February 14, 2019

Chicken Ranch redux, redux

I know what you're thinking: "Whoa, wait! Another Inside the Texas Chicken Ranch post? What's going on here?" I know, right? I've gone a long time without taking about that particular whorehouse, and now it seems like something's coming up every other week!

Today I'm heading back to Houston, where I'll be guest speaker for the Bellaire Historical Society's monthly meeting. I mean, what better way to spend Valentine's Day than learning all about the infamous Chicken Ranch? What could be more romantic? The presentation will be held in the CenterPoint Energy Community Room at 7001 5th Street in Bellaire. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. with the program beginning at 7:00.

And while I have your attention, can I take a moment to point out what a fascinating character our host, Mister McKinney is? A major history buff with a passion for the story of Houston and its environs, people with this kind of passion are few and far between. If you're of a mind to, how about giving him a "Like" on Facebook? You'll be glad you did!

If you know of a civic or business group in need of a speaker who can entertain and enthrall audiences with tales of a popular, yet widely misunderstood episode of Texas history, I am accepting bookings for the remainder of 2019!

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, February 01, 2019

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

I'm a huge Pink Floyd fan. And probably my favorite Pink Floyd album is Echoes. It's just terrific (except for "Seamus" but I pretend that track doesn't exist). I also love acoustic and flamenco guitar. Now, low and behold, the two have been married in an astonishing cover by a duo I've never heard of before, Rodrigo y Gabriela, who take Pink Floyd's sprawling, fascinating "Echoes" in unexpected, astonishing directions. This is how you cover iconic music, folks. I suspect David Gilmour would approve.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Piper Jones Band.

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