Trader Vic's is alive. It rose from the dead earlier this year after being entombed in its original space for 20 years, sleeping through the weird shape-shifting of its hotel womb, which went from the Hilton Inn, to the Hiltop, to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi transcendental meditation and holistic health living center, to the rundown Hotel Santa Fe, to a $70-plus million America Realty Group face-lift that inadvertently breathed new life force into tiki.
Founded in 1934 in Oakland, California, by the late Victor Bergeron, alleged inventor of the mai tai (though Donn Beach of Don the Beachcomber restaurants wrestled him for the claim), Trader Vic's drove a frothy Polynesian fad from the 1950s—propelled by returning Pacific-theater GIs after World War II, Hawaii's rise to statehood and Elvis hula flicks—through the 1970s in cities across the country. Don Ho drew sustenance from the same Polynesian vogue.
But Elvis died in Graceland's bathroom. Hawaii chic became passé. Despite memorable Brady Bunch and Fantasy Island cameos, Don Ho faded from the television airwaves. Trader Vic's mai tai iconography slipped from vogue to tacky. For a quarter-century the exhausted Trader Vic's concept suffered a painful contraction. Donald Trump shuttered the Manhattan Trader Vic's in the Plaza Hotel. Bergeron retired to become an artist painting ice-skating nuns and perky otters. The Dallas version succumbed in 1987 after 21 years.
Now the tomb has been ruptured. Rum flows. The rattan accents, the lamps fashioned out of fish traps, the tiki mug totems chiseled and polished out of thick posts, the Polynesian outrigger strapped to the ceiling—all were stripped of their thick, moldering layers of dust gathered during the years under padlock. New tikis carved in Indonesia and fresh planks painted in New Guinea filled in where age had taken a toll. Now huge, glittering, red, Chinese wood-burning ovens smolder behind glass. To your table, servers bring baskets of pumpernickel with plastic cups of peanut butter whipped with soy sauce, lemon and salt and topped with coconut. Mickie Crockett—veteran of Old Hickory Steakhouse, Culpepper Steak House, The Riviera and Timpano Italian Chophouse—crafts the quasi-Asian cuisine in a Polynesian altered state, marking the first female chef in Trader Vic's 73-year history. Mai tais and the tiki puka pukas are bartended. Tiki-kitsch is the new Lazarus, reanimated by a weird association with cutting-edge irony.
Still, Don Ho is dead. Despite phrases of quasi-tropical music you can snatch amongst the tiki bustle (two women and a man issued thunderous belly laughs at a table that included former Mansion chef Dean Fearing), there was no Don Ho; no "E Lei Ka Lei Lei" or "Beautiful Kauai" or "Pearly Shells."
A server tells us tropical cocktails take time to compose. "They're made individually," he says. And there are a lot of individuals to serve. Tiki nostalgia is pent up and spills with vigor. There's a new cocktail: the Dallas star, made with blue curaçao, rum, lime and agave nectar. The tropical lagoon-blue drink is garnished with a slice of star fruit. "It's almost like a margarita, but not quite," our server says. "It's more sour. It's not sweet." It's sweet. It's lethargic.
For those with unbreakable dining habits, there is a wine list. But wine is tiki-sacrilege, so it isn't practiced much here. A glass of A to Z Pinot Noir from Oregon was poured from old opened stock. The bottle of Saintsbury was poured so rambunctiously, dribbles rained down the neck, staining the tablecloth.
Before the appetizers—called "cosmo tidbits"—comes a white, winged dish with a dab of Chinese spicy mustard on the left and a blot of Trader Vic's barbecue sauce on the right. But we didn't dip crab Rangoon—the shredded crab cream cheese gob swaddled in a hot crispy wonton—into either. We didn't drag the dry cha siu pork speckled with sesame seeds through, nor the crispy prawns. But we smeared the spare ribs—competent things but not much more—with the barbecue sauce.
Trader Vic's has its rituals. A restaurant so loaded with talismans must have rituals. Beef cho-cho is skewers of cold, raw and loose beef arranged on a silver dish. But it won't stay that way. Another dish filled with pink Sterno gel is set alight until a blue flame hisses high—a do-it-yourself hibachi.
Trader Vic's crispy half-duck is just another term for Peking duck. The shredded meat is plated and served on a silver rack. The duck bits are to be folded in mu-shu pancakes with scallions and cucumber and a few smears of hoisin sauce. It's delicious when everything merges just right, allowing the duck to unfold in stages—crispy salty, sweet, moist, rich—leaving a cinnamon layer across the tongue for a finish. Yet the pancakes are cold, the crispy duck sometimes parched.
Trader Vic's does those things that you would expect them to—won ton soup, butterfly prawns in panko crumbs, salad of baby greens and Javanese dressing—with aplomb. But there's a little kitsch-less sophisticate sass too. Scottish salmon in chive butter sauce is lithe and fearlessly pink, the sections crumbling off the fillet hunk, glistening before dissipating on the tongue.
Here's more: Big eye tuna poke. This couldn't have been pawned off to the Elvis hula crowd a few decades ago. A peak of red raw tuna with avocado and flecks of foliage is finely chopped, cool and rich. No hints of sinew or errant pockets of inferior meat threaten here. Its glue is a lithe soy-ponzu sauce that breathes a punchy brine layer into the meat without thumping its essence into impotence.
A competent filet mignon topped with grilled onions from the wood-fired oven ("natural smoke and heat is derived from split, seasoned wood," we're reminded) is served over a rippled berm of wasabi-whipped mashed potatoes. Macadamia-nut-crusted red snapper (the evening's Alaskan halibut stunt double) was sweet and moist. Indonesian barbecue rack of lamb on a bed of curry noodles sewn with bok choy and other stuff absorbed quite a bit of that split seasoned smoke. The meat itself, though, was disappointing, fatty and sinewy, tough here and there before going tender and then returning to tough. It comes with a grilled pineapple slice.
The dining room bustles, not quite to the point of irritation but close. Servers somehow weave and bob through the ruckus, sifting out requests, dispensing suggestions and offering tips such as the best way to roll mu-shu pancakes (put the meat in the middle) and to sear beef cho-cho (let it hiss). But blunders do creep in. Creamed spinach was delivered instead of the requested sautéed. Plates are cleared while eating is in progress.
For dessert you can chew banana fritters or suck snowballs (vanilla scoops topped with coconut and chocolate), but it's better to grab another mai tai or rummage through a hot rum cow (milk, vanilla, rum and cane sugar). Rum is the best finish.
Don Ho is dead. Long live Trader Vic's. 5330 E. Mockingbird Lane, 214-823-0600. Open 4 p.m.-10 p.m. Sunday, 4 p.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 4 p.m.-12 a.m. Friday and Saturday. $$$.