Restaurant Reviews

Tiki Tacky

Authenticity is hard to acquire. The acquisition is especially difficult when the object of desire is a series of lush tropical volcanic bumps and coral atolls pimpling the South Pacific and you're landlocked on a stretch of concrete and bricks near an overpass on the North Texas prairie. But never underestimate the resourcefulness of the Dallas restaurateur.

Tiki Bob's is a piece of faux island culture with the aura of a Polynesian paraphernalia warehouse club equipped with a concrete dance floor, red strobe lights, a DJ, lots of lighted beer signs, awnings composed of bamboo poles and corrugated steel, and large gray plastic commercial garbage cans positioned just off the row of booths in the dining area. Individual television screens in wooden cases are positioned at each table. We watched an incessantly recurring rerun of a motorcycle racing accident with one rider tearing the racer off of another bike with his front wheel on some maximum/extreme sports channel; this before our drinks even arrived.

Located in the West End opposite Hooter's (itself a piece of Polynesian culture if Gauguin's paintings are to be believed) in the space formerly occupied by Bar Dallas, Tiki Bob's motto is "grab the nearest vine and swing on into Tiki Bob's."

Bob's is sort of a quasi-revival of Tiki culture, which sunk roots in America in 1936 when the peg-legged Victor Bergeron transformed his Oakland, California-based pub Hinky Dink's into Trader Vic's, a pseudo-Polynesian restaurant serving Tahiti-Chinese cuisine and rum drinks. Wrested from Polynesian mythology (Tiki was either the first man on earth, or the sexual organ of the god Tane, depending on how much rum you've had), Tiki paraphernalia gripped American pop culture when GIs returned from the Pacific theater at the close of World War II. Leis, mai tais, backyard luaus, likenesses of the Tiki god reminiscent of those 80-ton Easter Island heads of stone--even a Bali Hai trailer court--marched across the landscape through the 1950s and '60s before waning and petering out in the '70s.

Trader Vic's, with its drinks such as the scorpion and the zombie, and menu entrants such as crab Rangoon and bongo bongo soup (made with strained baby food spinach), even slipped into Dallas in the Hilton hotel at Mockingbird Lane and Central Expressway before shutting down more than a decade ago. Today there are five or so Trader Vic's restaurants left in the United States out of more than a dozen that were scattered across the nation, although they continue to flourish internationally, especially in the Middle East.

There was a sort of Tiki culture revival in the late 1990s, and maybe the vestige of this is what Tiki Bob's is feeding on, though it's hard to tell exactly. Tiki masks with eyes that blink on and off are parked behind the bar next to fanned rows of Miller Lite, Bud Light and Smirnoff Ice bottles.

It's hard to find any signature rum drinks, though, at least any that we could see. But there is a Tiki Bob's signature sip known as the Tiki ball, a large glass coconut vessel filled with bright red fluid pierced with 10 long yellow straws that rise out of the glass like umbrellas with the canopies stripped off. The ball tasted like very weak, artificially sweetened Kool-Aid, which in fact it was, spiked with Everclear. The pity was that the buzz didn't kick in before the flavor wore down your resolve.

Amazingly, Tiki Bob's has a wine list, too, for those who fear eye injury from an errant yellow straw: chardonnay, merlot and white zinfandel. We ordered the chardonnay, and when it was delivered, our server explained there was only a little bit left in the bottle--the only bottle of wine the place had. It was divided among three plastic tumblers, and it was horrid dreck.

Yet what sort of idiot orders wine in a Tiki bar, especially when you could no doubt have requested Bud Light in one of those Tiki ball vessels with a straw and probably gotten it delivered?

Food was another matter entirely. Or was it? Our server was a fetching blonde in a dinky pink bikini, a grass skirt and flip-flops. A sparkly thingamajig dangled from her navel, nearly down to the elastic upper edge of her bikini bottom. At various times she returned with a roll of bills inserted in her cleavage, a roll of bills peeking out of her bikini bottom and a bill roll in each nook at the same time. Was there a fire pole somewhere off in the corner?

Her grasp of the menu was tenuous, or maybe we were just struck with daffiness from the artificial sweetener. We couldn't get sides with appetizers, she explained, or sides if we ordered appetizers, or entrées if we ordered sides with appetizers--or something like that (entrées come with a choice of one side dish and a pickle spear). A manager must have noticed the dazed looks on our mugs because he stopped by to explain that our server was in effect a beached flounder on the dining room floor since her natural habitat was behind the bar, although curiously she couldn't tell us what went into the Tiki ball. He comped prodigiously.

We sampled three Tiki appetizers: Cheezy fries, volcanic shrimp and spinach dip. The shrimp were never delivered, no doubt an appetizer/side vortex casualty. The "homemade dip straight from Bob's kitchen!" was actually pretty good, smooth and balanced, but the accompanying "home-fried tricolor" chips were greasy. Cheezy fries were by far the best. The hefty heap of thick potato planks was relatively grease-free and glued together with just the right amount of cheese and flecked with a flurry of crunchy bacon bits. But the plastic ramekin of ranch dressing contained enough dip to cover the tips of maybe half a dozen fries.

The odd thing about Tiki Bob's menu is that it doesn't even attempt to breach the pseudo-Polynesian cuisine beachhead. There are no coriander, coconut milk or kiwi fruit treatments anywhere (Trader Vic's was the first non-ethnic restaurant to employ kiwi fruit, which makes it both famous and infamous). But the kitchen does make use of the Tiki roll, a hoagie-like torpedo perhaps blessed by the Tiki god or soaked in Everclear.

The 100 percent Black Angus Tiki burger on a Tiki roll was bone dry, yet it had rich flavor, perhaps on account of the "Tiki spices."

Tiki wraps, a salvageable chicken breast topped with shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes, onions and ranch dressing was served on a "sun-dried tomato tortilla" that differed little in texture from pounded linoleum. Tiki roasted turkey with provolone cheese consisted of turkey slices that seemed shaved from one of those processed turkey breast loafs. (The menu said this was served on the ubiquitous Tiki roll, yet ours, as best as we could tell, came on a smashed croissant, perhaps a salute to French Polynesia.) The side of black beans (the side dish/appetizer puzzle was partially conquered) was pasty and sour. Grilled portobello sandwich, marinated flats of mushroom grilled and with pesto dressing, showed no signs of pesto and was laced with over-assertive sourness, perhaps from an overbearing marinade.

To conclude this Tiki toot, Tiki Bob's offers just one dessert: a vanilla ice cream, fudge brownie, chocolate syrup and whipped cream concoction called "death by Tiki's." Bob must be irony proof, too.

2020 N. Lamar St., 214-871-2877. Open 5 p.m.-2 a.m., Wednesday-Saturday; dinner 5 p.m.-10 p.m. $

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz