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SoCal Road Trip 2016: Palm Springs’ Tiki Bars

Last weekend I went on a Southern California tiki road trip adventure with my friend John Coyle, heading to the Mod Palm Springs event. Earlier, I shared the Los Angeles leg of the trip, this is part one of our Palm Springs adventures: the tiki bars.

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Tonga Hut, Palm Springs

It had been at least 10 years since my last visit to Palm Springs (!), so the absolute tip-top of my wish list was to get to the Tonga Hut. I LOVED it. You better believe the first words out of my mouth were “Pu-pu platter, please!” The pu-pu platter was outstanding, but it’s the teriyaki popcorn chicken from our second visit that I’m still craving. Sincerely, it’s a problem, I need to get back there for more popcorn chicken. My dream now is of a pu-pu platter with only popcorn chicken. They serve it in four flavors: teriyaki, orange, lemon or sesame.

The withdrawals have been brutal.
The withdrawals have been brutal.

I was also thrilled with my drinks. Marie King leads the bar programs at both Tonga Hut locations (the original is in Los Angeles), and she now has a strong right-hand man in Jeff Cleveland, who recently moved to Palm Springs from Milwaukee. I’ve written more about Jeff, and how he made my new favorite tiki drink, Ohana Joe, in another Critiki News article.

The space—I’d seen pictures, but it’s more beautiful than I’d imagined. Especially the famed “secret” back room. Tiki Diablo built a portal to the Mai-Kai in there, I swear it. It’s the most stunning, comfortable space. The rest of the restaurant and bar, it’s all full of details and beauty. I’ve added 42 photos to the listing for Tonga Hut in Critiki.

 

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Bootlegger Tiki

I was also quite keen to check out Bootlegger Tiki. With its focus on craft cocktails and its location on the site of the former and fabled Don the Beachcomber, I was seeing a lot to like. It’s attached to and shares a bathroom with a coffee shop, so we popped in during the day for a sneak peek. I liked what I saw! It was more decorated than the photos I’d seen had let on: their use of almost exclusively red light makes the space suffer in photographs.

I'm over the kid's birthday party straw thing.
I’m over the kid’s birthday party straw thing.

When we returned in the evening… oof. There was just no getting over the music. It wasn’t just the peculiar choice of music (as we entered, it was The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” which I will admit is a song I completely adore but most reasonable humans are done hearing), it was the VOLUME. It was loud even from down the block. Inside the bar, it was unbearable. We were unable to talk, unable to think. This isn’t a nightclub venue, this is a small, cozy bar. It made the place tense and uncomfortable. We wanted to tough it out for at least one round of drinks. We ordered the Pod Thai, Thugs Passion and False Idol. All were interesting, but not very good. I suspect they’re recipes that need a careful hand to get the balance right, and the balance was not right. We tried to finish our drinks, failed, and left feeling pretty bummed.

Bad drinks and bad music are the kinds of things that can be variable night-to-night. Do try Bootlegger, there’s so much potential for a fun evening there. I hope you have better luck than I did. I’ve added eight photos to the listing for Bootlegger Tiki in Critiki.

 

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Toucans Tiki Lounge

You’ve probably driven past Toucans plenty of times, it’s one of the first buildings you pass as you enter Palm Springs. In all these years, I’d never gone in: when I first learned of Toucans way back in 2003 (it opened in 2002—pioneers!), what I’d seen of the interior online wasn’t particularly promising. Plus, it’s a gay bar, and I worried I would be intruding in a space not meant for me. But fast-forward thirteen years: I’d heard that they’d amped up the tiki angle at Toucans. I saw they were open at noon on Sunday (sure to be a quiet hour, when I hoped they’d be happy to serve a Mai Tai to a muggle).

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What a wonderful surprise! It’s pretty fantastic inside! The whole place was decked out in unfortunate cheap Halloween decorations, but there are great big tikis, tons of bamboo, and some gorgeous vintage resin lamps and beachcomber lamps. There’s even an outrigger canoe hung up above the bar—the whole bar has a really well-done roof. The mood is killed by a half-dozen bright television screens and the dancing lights all over, but this is a nightclub, it is what it is. The Mai Tai I ordered was of the red-and-orange sort, and almost certainly had Malibu in it… but as that kind of gross throw-whatever-in-a-glass Mai Tai goes, it was actually drinkable. Next time I’m in town, I may try to catch one of their drag shows. I’ve added 33 photos to the listing for Toucans in Critiki.

Read more about Tonga Hut’s Jeff Cleveland, including a recipe for my new favorite tiki drink. And soon, I’ll have another article with more about my Palm Springs explorations!

 

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