Umbrella Weather: Mai Tais Conjure Up the Balmy Summer You Won't Be Having

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Mai tais at the Tonga Room: Evanescent as summer itself?
Summer arrives this weekend, and with it a crying need for all those tropical cocktails that deceive San Franciscans into believing that balmy evenings are on the horizon. The mai tai, a signature example of the genre, has a special connection to the Bay Area. It was actually invented at the original Trader Vic's in Oakland by the Trader himself, an early aficionado of Polynesian kitsch and cuisine who knew his way around a floating gardenia.

One legendary night in 1944 he whipped up a nightcap of rum, lime juice, curaçao, orgeat, shaved ice, and fresh mint and proffered it to a customer of Tahitian descent. The response was a happy cry of "mai tai-roa ae!" or, roughly translated "that's outta this world."

Nowadays every tiki bar worth its guava nectar serves a mai tai, many of them tarted up with maraschino cherries, but Le Colonial, located in the fronded recesses of an old Vic's outpost (20 Cosmo Alley at Post), shakes up a beautifully balanced, non-cloying rendition. If you ask for a mai tai at Hawaii West (729 Vallejo at Stockton) you'll either receive one of the city's finest or a blank stare, depending on the barkeep. Finally, although the Tonga Room (in the Fairmont Hotel, 950 Mason at California) makes its mai tai with triple sec instead of curaçao and fruit juice to boot, they do serve it in a coconut cup. Drink up: Due to close or relocate, the Tonga Room may soon find its thunder and lightning are outta this world forever. Literally.


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