Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Texas Tiki Week: Rainey Street Crawl

Friday arrived, and with it the Texas Tiki Week tiki crawl along the Rainey Street historical district. There is a wide variety of bars here in old houses and the like, with Lei Low from Houston scheduled to hold a pop-up at Half Step, and Hot Joy from San Antonio to do the same at Anthem. Alas, Anthem backed out of the deal at literally the 11th hour, really stirring up a shit storm of epic proportions, and I'm not even aware of what went on behind the scenes. Maybe they had their reasons, but it's still a dick move to back out on something that's been advertised for a month, leaving Hot Joy high and dry. Fortunately, the hole-in-the-wall bar Little Brother stepped up and gave Hot Joy space for the afternoon. The bad news was that it was the afternoon, when most of us working folks were working and unable to enjoy their cocktail menu. And staggering the offerings kinda defeats the purpose of a crawl. Geraldine's also participated in the crawl, although they're a couple of blocks over.

I arrived around 9 p.m., and after braving the traffic and crowds (which aren't as bad as 6th Street, but still a bit rowdy and cross-eyed drunk for my tastes) I found Little Brother. I wanted to patronize them for stepping up to host Hot Joy. Inside, well, I was surprised by how little inside there was. It reminded me of a cramped, dark hot dog stand. There was a crowd around the bar, where a bartender was concocting a massive fishbowl drink for "7-10 people" although he confided in one of the girls there that he could legally sell it to as few as five people. Someone else inquired about one and the bartender said he couldn't make it because they only had one fish bowl, and it was in use. Clearly, this was not a craft cocktail bar and the patrons weren't well-versed in tiki. Still, I looked over the menu and settled on their Jaws 2 cocktail, a rum-and-coconut mixture. It came served in a hollowed-out coconut cup with a bamboo straw. The got points in my book for using a real coconut and not a plastic one. The bamboo straw was a nice touch, as was the silly gummy shark garnish. The cocktail itself wasn't bad. It could've used maybe a touch more sour for balance, but it wasn't cloyingly sweet. I finished it and move on to Half Step as the party people were still working on their fish bowl.

Half Step was crowded. I went inside and realized the crush of people at the bar weren't there for tiki drinks. I forced my way outside and was greeted by more people. There was a small satellite bar set up with a sign that said "Not Lei Low" so clearly there was no tiki to be had there. Where then? Around the side I discovered another bar, with another crush of people. This one, however, was staffed by the good folks from Lei Low, serving up a heaping helping of Donn Beach classic cocktail recipes.

Don't believe me about the crowd? This below is the scene that greeted me. Huge crush of people, with the line moving very slowly. One woman behind me complained loudly about the line's pace, and looked to be spoiling for a fight with anyone who might've even thought about cutting. After an extended period of general griping, she burst out, "How long to I have to wait for a f#@&!^% beer?" At which point another woman in the next line over said, "This line's for the tiki pop-up. You do know there's another bar serving beer inside, don't you?" The cranky lady then stormed off in a huff. In her defense, though, there was no exterior signage explaining things to anyone. The cool menus Lei Low had printed up explained things. And there were signs inside the Lei Low popup bar proclaiming it to be "Donn's Half Step Hideaway." But beyond that? Not so much.

When I finally got to the front of the line, my first cocktail was Don's Own Grog. The menu card described it as St. Lucia Aged rum, 110 proof Agricole, French blackberry liqueur, hibiscus grenadine, lemon juice and Angostura bitters. I can assure you, it was delicious. A blue rock candy stick was included as a garnish, and I chewed on this most of the evening.

My final cocktail was the Tahitian Rhum Punch, described as "Exotic fruits admirably mixed with Mexican limes and Jamaica and Martinique aged rums. It was quite delicious as well. It really showed how skilled the Lei Low staff was, rapidly making all of these Donn Beach drinks that weren't on their regular menu in Houston. I regretted that I couldn't sample everything they offered, as I had to drive home (yes, I pace myself by drinking water between cocktails and keep an eye on elapsed time). The Pearl Diver was an exceptionally flashy drink, served in a half-shell mug that people with know prior knowledge of tiki kept gravitating toward. I love a good Pearl Diver, and would've loved to try it.

I saw a number of friends there, including David and Jennifer. I'd really wanted to catch David playing with his band, the Phantomatics, bet because I am dumb I misunderstood and thought they were playing all night. Instead, they did one set earlier in the evening and by the time I got there, the Boss Jaguars were tearing it up onstage with surf guitars (they were quite good, although I was still miffed about missing the Phantomatics).

So here's the thing: For the Rainey Street tiki crawl, maybe 95 percent of the people there had no clue it was going on. The actual number of tiki folk was relatively small. I had one person ask me if I was in a group or club or something because of the "patterned shirts" he'd seen a few people wearing. The people standing in line for tiki cocktails more often than not ordered beer or vodka and soda when they got to the front of the line, utterly indifferent to the tiki cocktails being offered. I can see the thinking behind the event--expose more people to tiki who might not otherwise encounter it. Grow the tribe, so to speak. The trouble is, the crowd out on Rainey Street on a Friday night isn't looking for complexity and craft cocktails. They're looking to get shit-faced and laid. Full stop. I think it was a disservice to the great bartenders and cocktails being served that night. A slower night, with less "get drunk as quickly as possible" attitude would strike me as a better opportunity to draw in folks and convert them to the cult of tiki. Maybe. I can't guarantee Thursday or Wednesday night would work any better. What I do know is that Friday was a mess, with roving gangs of bachelorette parties shotgunning beers and taking tequila shots, and most definitely not looking to savor the grassy complexity of Rhum J.M.

I think the real problem rests in the fact that Austin does not yet have a real tiki bar to serve as ground zero for Texas Tiki Week. By this time next year, Tiki Tatsu-Ya should be open, and if the fates are really smiling on us, Quiet Village as well. Either or both would alleviate Texas Tiki Week's dependence on bars and patrons who have no interest in tiki. My fingers, they are crossed.

(I still had a good time, though, in case you were wondering.)

Texas Tiki Week: Opening Night
Texas Tiki Week: Eekum Bookum
Texas Tiki Week: Tiki Market

Now Playing: Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass Going Places!
Chicken Ranch Central

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