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Smuggler's Cover in San FranciscoInstagram: @smugglerscovesf

Global Beats: Tiki Time In San Francisco

Mei Chin explores the world of tiki in San Francisco.

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Breaking from the norm, our Dublin's Global Beat columnist, Mei Chin, has jetted off to the US and brings us the beats from San Francisco, CA! Most notably, the all-consuming craze for tiki cocktails and Hawaiian cuisine. 

Aloha from San Francisco’s Liholiho Yacht Club, one of the most coveted spots in town. Maybe it’s the overcast skies and farm-to-table talk, but Dublin is beginning to look a lot like San Francisco these days. Like the new Aer Lingus flight, trends in the Bay are travelling direct to the Old Schmoke, skipping London and New York. For this reason, I’m contemplating Dublin’s future sipping hibiscus mezcal. From where I sit at Liholiho, I predict tech Bros, high rents, and tattoos. Hopefully, there will be Cali bounty to alleviate the sting.

The Tiki Cocktail Craze

My first desire is that tiki – that exuberantly California cocktail craze - will soon sway onto the Irish scene. Created in nearby Oakland and LA by white men in the 1930s, tiki is a fetish, fictional Asia with a dash of the Caribbean and Cuba. It is Singapore slings and piña coladas, water chestnut and bacon rumaki, and geishas and girls in grass skirts. Also flaming volcano drinks, indoor lagoons, and sculptures bearing the sombre visage of the original Tiki, who, in Polynesian mythology, was the father of humankind. Who cares about accuracy? Tiki sells paradise.

What was post-colonially cringe-worthy got addressed in tiki’s SF reboot. Caucasian cultural appropriation was balanced with obscure rums and woke irony. Today, San Francisco is a showcase for modern tiki’s many faces. Last Rites is gothic tiki, decorated with many skulls begging the age-old question, “What if Ginger ate Gilligan?” Obispo is the anti-tiki, a “serious” rum bar; Zombie Village and Pagan Idol are second-wave tiki.

Exotic Cocktails And Asian-ish Flavours

The Tonga Room is retro-tiki, a throwback to when it first opened in 1945 to a clientele of WWII veterans returning from the South Pacific. But it is Smuggler’s Cove that best represents San Francisco in its Comic-Con glory. With its 500 rums and 75 plus cocktails, this bar single-handedly restarted the tiki craze ten years ago. Call it tiki for geeks.

Most SF serious cocktail bars have at least one tiki drink; many also boast a tiki-ish menu. Take the perpetually cool Trick Dog where I recently had an excellent sesame negroni called Pharaoh’s Horses. For food, it serves garlic shrimp noodles, Hawaiian rib tacos, and beef tartare with hoisin. It only goes to show that Asian-ish dishes remain the most surefire partner for a strong, exotic drink. Perhaps it’s why tiki’s magic has endured.

Hawaiian Food Fare

I first was smitten with Liholiho’s downstairs, a space called Louie’s Gen-Gen Room. While the cocktails were wonderful, it was the food that had me reeling. A hamachi poke was pillowed on a cobweb-like octopus chip, similar to a Chinese shrimp chip and freshly fried. A kimchi cheese dip was reminiscent of Doritos, its tingle mellowed with crab and butternut squash. A butter waffle was lavished with bone marrow and smoked sturgeon. It was a bewitching mélange of elements that were both foreign and comforting. In my life, I had never encountered its like.

At first blush, it’s tempting to think of Liholiho Yacht Club as tiki. Its website, which has only recently begun to accept reservations, is graced with a laughing girl and palm trees. Also, Yacht Club might be deceiving, for there’s nary a crisp linen or posh seersucker in sight.

Liholiho Yacht Club was what Hawaiian-born chef Ravi Kapur’s uncle and his friends would laughingly call themselves when they would kick back on the weekend, and drink a few beers on the neighbourhood sidewalk. In many ways, Liholiho is the opposite of tiki, which started as a white man’s fictional fantasy of Asia. On the other hand, the food at Liholiho is Kapur’s reimagining of his authentic Hawaiian childhood.  

A Mix of Cultures and Cuisines

Hawaiian culture is an organically developed blend of its indigenous Polynesian people (from which we get lomi-lomi, poke, and pupu) with immigrants who are Japanese, Chinese, Indians, and American. Spam musubi, which is sushi rice, nori, and the luncheon meat made popular by American GIs, is a classic Hawaiian staple.

Kapur was once the executive chef at Prospect, so he has fancy French classical chops. His kung pao sweetbreads are velvet nuggets bathed in a sticky sauce and dotted with crisp fresh pineapple, Chinese takeaway through a luxurious lens. Hamachi, rich, briny and glistening, is paired with strawberries. Homemade spam is folded into kimchi fried rice.

The signature dish has Jewish kosher echoes, smooth beef tongue drenched in mayonnaise and sandwiched in a Chinese bao whose poppy seed crust is reminiscent of a bagel. I’m not a fan of sweet drinks, but Liholiho’s cocktails explore the other aspects of tropical. Surfer Rosa with hibiscus mezcal is astringent and refreshing.

Perhaps my favourite dish was octopus with curried raisins, olives, and green goddess dressing, which is California avocado blended with the American darling, mayonnaise. Ultimately, everything about Liholiho is American. Through delicately calibrated contrast, Liholiho reflects the loveliest this checkered nation has to offer.

A Classic Slice Of San Fran

My longtime San Francisco guilty pleasure is Asia SF, which has been in SOMA for twenty years and is a classic example of San Francisco’s flamboyant finest. Strictly speaking, the cabaret-restaurant is not tiki because there’s no rattan or lagoon (it’s more Suzy Wong than South Pacific), but in my opinion, Asia SF embraces, delightfully, the original tiki spirit.

For two decades, Asia SF’s cabaret has some of the city’s most exquisite transgender performers. Together with New York’s Lucky Cheng’s (which was hyper-tiki when it was in the East Village), Asia SF is a shining example of how Asians in America have reclaimed tiki’s fetishized “Asia” for themselves.

Asia SF
Asia SF

Asia SF may be a mainstream experience, overrun by tourists and bachelorette parties, but it is still a guaranteed uplift.  The dancing is spectacular, the food surprisingly terrific. Like Lucky Cheng’s, Asia SF has exploited the double entendre possibilities of poke and Satay skewers. Baby Got Back Ribs? Banana beignets? All of it is salacious, exotic, and fabulous.

More Info: 

Liholiho Yacht Club,  871 Sutter St, +1 415-440-5446

Smuggler’s Cove, 650 Gough St, +1 415-869-1900

Asia SF, 201 9th St, +1 415-255-2742

Author: Mei Chin

Mei is from New York and Connecticut. She has written for Saveur, Lucky Peach,
New York Times, Irish Times, the Sunday Times, Gourmet, Fiction, Bomb, and is the
recipient of the James Beard MFK Fisher and two IACP Bert Greene awards. She is
currently collaborating with editor and writer Georgia Freedman on a new
magazine, Ampersand: Eating at the Cultural Crossroads. Now based in Dublin, Mei
spends much of her time obsessing about Caesar salads, tacos, and martinis.