There are exotic plants at the Sunset Lounge on Ross Avenue, but they're in the wallpaper -- giant, two-dimensional green leaves layered geometrically over beige paint as you look left from the bar. I'm looking at them as my attentive bartender, Rodney, who's wearing a stylish Duck Dynasty shirt, tells me what's in my Mai Tai. It's a mix of Sailor Jerry, lime juice, an almond liqueor, orange curacao, loaded in a pile of crunchy ice balls. Because alcohol somehow tastes better in a tiki tumbler, I make sure it comes in one. No frills or umbrellas in this one.
The drink is tart and eyebrow-removing strong, which is how a Mai Tai should be. The bar is throbbing with Rhianna songs and a group of 15 or so people, all wearing scrubs and clutching generic cocktails. On the menu, Sunset Lounge has 12 tiki-style cocktails, including a Rum Runner, a Zombie, and a Punch Bowl (recommended for two). But I am the only one with a tiki-themed anything at the place. Blazing through it, I find myself wishing for what Dallas scarcely ever had: a tiki dive bar.
I want Oahu-drunk decor, luau-soaked art, sandals and cheap plastic leis, mini flaming volcanoes and fresh cut pineapples. I want half of the cocktails on the menu to have the option of fire. There aren't enough Hurricanes in Dallas. There aren't enough drinks that come in a fish bowl (or a halved, spiny pineapple) and fourteen tiny, wooden umbrellas. On the San Francisco episode of The Layover, Anthony Bourdain declares of the tiki bar, "Every American needs this." In the same episode, after a cheers with a Singapore Sling, he says of San Francisco's tiki bar Tonga Room: "If you've got no love in your heart for this place, you are a sick, twisted, lonely fuck with too many cats."
Dallas has a sparse oasis. The Cedars Social on South Lamar does some tiki-themed drinks like the Diki Diki and the Ti Punch. Barter, in Uptown, does an entire tiki-themed brunch. They have flaming shrimp, with spicy coconut sauce, sticky rice and rum, and soy and ginger wings. For cocktails, good things are happening. You can actually get a Bananas in Paradise, a Planter's Punch, a Ancient Mariner, or a Fog Cutter.
"Everyone does brunch," Barter chef Andrew Dilda says excitedly over the phone, but Dilda says their team wanted to do something unique for people who work the beige-colored office grind six days a week. "We're not going to stop with this," Dilda says of the level of fun the Tiki brunch brings. "We're rolling tiki." His favorite drink is the Planter's Punch (Whalers Dark Rum, lime juice, lemon juice, fresh orange juice, house-made grenadine), but it sounds like a tough call.
So there's Sunset Lounge's 12 cocktails, a few at The Cedars Social, Barter -- and that's about it for Dallas' modern tiki scene.
It didn't use to be this way.
Over on the Texas Tikiphile forum on Facebook, an active group that posts daily, there is potent nostalgia for the real tiki deal in Texas. McKinney resident and passionate tikiphile Dennis Haberkern writes:
"Back in the day, Dallas was home some amazing Polynesian restaurants that capitalized on the tiki theme. Ports O'Call on the 37th floor of the Dallas Sheraton, Dobbs House Luau at Love Field, Don The Beachcomber on Greenville Ave. and Trader Vic's at the Dallas Hilton on Mockingbird. After the devolution of tiki, Trader Vic's was the sole survivor and eventually closed in 1988."
The tiki bar is an American beauty. The hodge-podge of island decor launches you to a vacation, and the drinks will wipe your iPhone reminders with rum and fruit. It's more than a dive bar; it's a boat. At a tiki bar, you're in clunking away in the ocean, even it's for a few seconds. You can't legally give a shit about anything while drinking punch at a good tiki bar.
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I asked Dennis what he believes a tiki bar brings to the community over the classic dive bar:
"A good tiki bar, to me, is about escapism. The well crafted rum drinks, dark and mysterious atmosphere...True escapism is not what you'll find in your local dive bar, and I do believe it is a necessary element in our lives. Especially in the hot and dry Midwest. It's a fantasy that comes true for a few hours and a place we can physically return to."
At the Sunset Lounge, the place is mostly empty except for the group in hospital scrubs. Rodney, the friendly bartender, asks one of the guys where they're going next, and I hope the scene will cut to all of us in a scene from Blue Hawaii. It doesn't, and I'm sad.
Can we make that happen, Dallas? Just to get away for a little bit?