Friday, May 31, 2019

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

Despite their gradual slide into irrelevance and ultimate disbanding, there was a time when R.E.M. was among the biggest bands ever to ride the airwaves. Michael Stipe and company made hitmaking look so easy back in the day and held more influence than anyone could expect from a alternative college band. Case in point: "Man on the Moon" from their 1992 album Automatic for the People. This song is directly responsible for the Andy Kaufman biopic of the same name, starring Jim Carrey. It's an excellent film with one of Carrey's best acting performances, and to say it wouldn't exist without the popularity of this song is no understatement. The lyrics, like so many by R.E.M., make not one lick of sense, but when you listen to it everything seems correct and in its proper place. There's no small magic involved in that.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Jackson Browne.

Now Playing: R.E.M. Dead Letter Office
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Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Lauhala House

Texas doesn't have much of a tiki culture, historically speaking. There've been Trader Vic's and Don the Beachcomber's in Houston and Dallas, sure, but there's bnever been much in the way of homegrown tiki culture. Several things contribute to this, chief among them being Texas' restrictive liquor laws during the heyday of tiki, and the combined fact that winters are generally mild for much of the state and a significant amount of the land is either clay soil or shallow limestone. Why's that matter? Well, mild winters mean the foundations for homes don't need to be dug deep below the frost line, eliminating basements as a standard feature of homes. And even if residents wanted to add basements anyway, limestone and clay aren't conducive to cost-effective basement digs. The lack of basements corresponds to a lack of underground rumpus rooms and/or tiki bars. The liquor laws precluded the consumption of Mai Tais. Tiki was essentially stillborn in Texas.

A few tiki outposts managed to beat the odds for a while. One was Lahala House in Corpus Christi. Not much is known about it, other than it was primarily a seafood restaurant destroyed by Hurricane Beulah in 1967. THere's a single image of the dining room online, taken from a vintage postcard. Aside from that, nobody I'm aware of even knew what the outside looked like, until now. I recently scored a menu from the place off Ebay, and I have to say, I'm pretty jazzed about it.

Now we know what it looked like. And by golly, it really was right on the water.

The menu opened, with a clip-on bar insert.

The menu sans bar insert. The offerings look like a typical Texas steak-and-seafood restaurant, as opposed to the Chinese offerings many other tiki-themed establishments offered.

The menu also had bar offerings printed on the back, which makes me wonder why the insert was necessary.

As you can see, the bar offerings on the menu and the insert are nearly identical. Maybe the insert didn't originally go with the menu, but was available at the bar? Was there a separate bar area in the restaurant? I have no idea. Note that there are no real tiki cocktails on the menu. I'm assuming sales of spirits such as rum were restricted. Hard to enjoy a Mai Tai without rum!

As if finding the rare menu wasn't enough, just a few days after the menu arrived, a separate Ebay seller posted a matchbook cover! I snapped it up, of course.

The interior contained a miniature menu. That's clever, but anyone reading it has to have excellent eyesight. That print it tiny!

The original address for Lahala House was 4922 1/2 Ave. B, but at some point in the 1960s the streets were renamed, which made it hard to pinpoint where the restaurant was actually located. Enter the matchbook cover, which must've been printed shortly before the place was destroyed by Hurricane Beulah. Gulfbreeze is the street name today, and the address places Lahala House at the northernmost point of the North Beach area, opposite what is now the U.S.S. Lexington and the Texas State Aquarium. The property is empty now, reclaimed by sand and tides. I read online that Lahala House owner Harry Porter opened a new restaurant, the Torch, following the hurricane, but a newspaper clipping I've found from the Austin American-Statesman indicates the Torch, along with a second Lahala House in Austin (which became Steak Island in the late 60s, then the Magic Time Machine in the 70s, followed by Landry's in the 90s and Joe's Crab Shack in the 00s) were both in operation by 1965. So that's a little bit of Texas tiki history. I'll be sure to share more when I have it.

Now Playing: Yma Sumac The Ultimate Yma Sumac Collection
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Thursday, May 16, 2019

Jayme vs. Lost Lei

Austin has been without a true tiki experience since Steak Island on Town Lake was converted into the Magic Time Machine back in the 1970s. After visiting Lost Lei yesterday for their grand opening party, it's clear Austin's going to have to wait a while longer to get its tiki fix.

Ever since Lost Lei was announced several months ago, there were warning signs that this new "tiki bar" would fall far short of expectations. From their inexplicable marketing positioning it as "Sassy" to bragging about "exclusively sourced rums" that seemed to consist solely of Captain Morgan and Malibu, everything indicated this was not a serious tiki venture, but rather a cash grab by investors who saw tiki as a hot trend to jump on and exploit. When they announced via social media that the were taking reservations for the opening night party, and that all cocktails would be sold at a discounted $5 price, The Wife and I threw caution to the wind and decided to give it a shot. We were hoping for the best, honestly, although expectations were set pretty low.

There were problems right off the bat. Reservations were made through Open Table, which seemed simple enough, although the morning of the grand opening I received an email from Open Table announcing that we'd missed our reservations the previous night. Excuse me? Apparently, they held a soft opening event the previous night, and used Open Table for booking that as well. But didn't make that clear anywhere on the site. I suppose one could argue we should've paid more attention to the date on the booking site, but when the email and website specifically urge one to reserve seats for X event, it's not intuitive to check to make sure they don't have tangential, unadvertised events that might sidetrack you. Regardless, we corrected our reservations, although we had to settle for a time later than preferred. The drive up I-35 from New Braunfels was uneventful. Lot parking in the area was $25, whereas valet parking was $12. Even factoring in a tip, this is one instance where valet is the better deal.

Lost Lei is located at 117 W. 4th Street, in the basement beneath Capital Grille. When we arrived at 8:30 p.m. the place was full up, and the hostess at the door was turning away people without reservations. After a wait of just a few minutes, they seated us at the bar.

The first thing we noticed as we descended the steps is that it's dark, which any good tiki bar should be. The second thing we noticed is that it was noisy. Incredibly noisy. The floor was stained concrete, the walls covered with faux stone and the high ceilings were industrial and bare. It's the Spartan aesthetic that ensures every noise will echo and amplify, with absolutely nothing to break it up. I hate restaurants with this type of design, but for a tiki bar, which is all about escapism, it was particularly egregious. There was multicolored lighting throughout. The bar had thatch above it, which is pretty much expected for a tiki bar. Even A Very Taki Tiki Bar in Seattle, and Pilikia in Dallas, which are among the worst tiki bars I've experienced had thatch in spades. The most striking element in the place were the skull columns, however. The two structural support columns in the middle of the floor space had barrels (rum barrels?) at the base, with the upper portion wrapped in resin skulls. The setup was instantly eye-catching. After a moment, however, I decided it didn't really compare with the golden skull wall at Pilikia, and I saw missed opportunity by there not being color-change LED strips behind the skulls to backlight them. That would've been cool.

Our bartender was friendly and attentive, if a bit overwhelmed by the opening night crowd. The Wife ordered a Mai Tai, by which we judge all tiki bars by. We were encouraged by the fact it wasn't simply a mix of rum and pineapple juice. It looked properly made, garnished with a sprig of mint and a wedge of lime instead of a lime shell, but that's quibbling. As for the taste... well, the flavor profile was correct, but timid. Feeble. It's like they used the mildest rum and orgeat they could find. A Mai Tai should have bold flavor, but this was anything but bold. The Wife leaned in close and whispered in my ear, "Yours are better."

I'm more adventurous on the menu, invariably looking for cocktails I can't experience elsewhere. The Caribbean 75 caught my eye, which was a rum-based riff on the French 75 cocktail. It was good. THe drink earned points in my book for being on the dry side, which makes it a nice alternative to tiki cocktails that often reside on the sweet side of the spectrum. It was not a cocktail that made one sit up and take notice however.

Next, The Wife ordered a Washed Ashore, made with coconut rum, blackstrap rum, lemon, orange, passion fruit and cranberry. Like the Mai Tai, this one was overall a timid drink. I mean, Cruzan Blackstrap rum is a brute that can easily overpower a cocktail if not used with caution, but I struggled to detect any hint of it. With all those bold flavors--cranberry? passion fruit?--odds are that this would be a flavor pileup, but no, nothing of the sort. "Generic tiki drink" is often tossed around, and that's an effective description of this one.

Throwing caution to the wind, I ordered the Beach Bum, which is bourbon-based, with amaretto, coconut water, banana and tiki bitters. My interest piqued when it arrive, as it had a strong scent of banana on the nose. I'm not a huge banana fan, but it works well in some cocktails. The taste, though... all of the nuance flew out the window. It was certainly the boldest-flavored cocktail of the night, but it tasted like a Port Light. Now, don't get me wrong, I like Port Lights, but how that flavor came through without any of the same ingredients save bourbon is beyond me. It wasn't disappointing, just perplexing.

I have to say, our bartender was very friendly and attentive. That was a big plus, and we left an appropriate tip. Beyond that, I don't have a lot of confidence in the bar program. I watched one bartender free pour as often as he used jiggers, which is problematic where tiki cocktails are concerned. And anyone hoping for a craft cocktail bar best look elsewhere--the syrups they used looked to be Finest Call. Ew.

I got up at this point to explore the decor, and quickly discovered there wasn't any. At least, not any beyond what I'd already seen. The faux stone walls, which looked somewhat interesting at first, now looked sad and empty. By 9 p.m. the crowd began to thin and I could finally hear the music playing as all the noise subsided. I fully expected to hear reggae playing, which many tiki folks have a problem with, but I don't find particularly offensive for a tiki environment. With dawning horror, I longed for good reggae. Instead, the Backstreet Boys were doing their thing to pollute the air. Shortly thereafter, they were supplanted by Justin Bieber. Talk about scuttling the escapism ship! It was very, very clear that Lost Lei had put zero thought into their play list. The vast majority of the crowd were early 20-somethings whose usual haunts are two blocks over on 6th street. They were there to party and suck down cheap, opening night cocktails. They seemed, by and large oblivious to tiki, although they thought the tiki mugs were cool (which I'll get to in a moment).

Much to my surprise, Lost Lei had several swizzle stick that, to my eye at least, looked like wholly original designs. I've since heard that Lost Lei initially wanted to copy the swizzles used at the Chicago tiki bar, Three Dots and a Dash, but Royer Corp., which is pretty much the only company that produces swizzle sticks, refused to infringe on the Three Dots designs and instead insisted on original styles.

This brings us to the real elephant in the room: Lost Lei's tiki mugs. When they first established a presence online, the Texas tiki community looked askance at the images used: It appeared Lost Lei's management had taken images of tiki mugs from Three Dots and a Dash and Photoshopped the Lost Lei logo on them. The truth is far, far worse. Lost Lei took those proprietary designs and had cheap knockoffs made with their name and logo on them. I mean, in what reality can someone think this is an okay thing to do? The skull wall at Three Dots is iconic, their signature decor, and their mug represents that. This mug isn't even a good knockoff. The same goes for the sea urchin mug and Fiji mermaid mugs--Lost Lei has uglier, lesser-quality versions of each. I checked underneath to see where they were sourced, and found the bottoms blank. No Tiki Farm, Munktiki or Eekum Bookum. Thank goodness, I guess. These were all cheap Chinese imports, sourced from kilns that don't lose sleep at night over such things as artistic integrity or intellectual property theft. Then I realized Lost Lei sounds an awful lot like Lost Lake, another well-regarded Chicago tiki bar, and started getting really weirded out.

In case the photos have not driven this point home, there is not a single tiki in this so-called "tiki bar." Given an hour, I could strip all the tiki/tropical/exotic elements from the place and it would function just as effectively as a generic Austin bar. I can't fathom they'll attract a devoted clientele, nor does it seem they're trying to. They out to pick up partiers, those spilling over when the 6th Street bars get too crowded on weekends. The investors behind this flaccid, wet noodle version of exotica seem to have zero knowledge or understanding of tiki, beyond visiting Chicago-area tiki bars at some point in the distant past and been inspired to plagiarize.

"Tiki's hot right now! We need to jump on the gravy train!" I can imagine the investors' meeting opening. "Wait, it costs how much to decorated a tiki bar? Screw that shit. Throw up some skulls and thatch. Hlaf-assed is a quarter-assed too much! The folks who'll stumble in will be too drunk to notice, anyway."

I predict Lost Lei will close and rebrand within six months, and those knockoff mugs will be relegated to curiosities in the collections of those who squirreled them away before the whole misguided trainwreck goes completely off the rails. I won't advise anyone not to go, but be advised the disappointment is akin to biting into a chocolate chip cookie only to discover the chocolate chips are actually rat turds.

Now Playing: Edmundo Ros The Very Best of Edmundo Ros and His Orchestra
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