Drink of the Week: Mai Tai

Posted by Anita on 11.16.07 7:22 AM

(c)2007 AEC  ** ALL rights reservedOn our trip to L.A. last weekend, we found ourselves driving west down Sunset Boulevard. As we rumbled out of Silverlake and into the fringes of Hollywood, we passed a cheerless cinderblock bunker in the middle of a barren lot.

“Oh, look,” I exclaimed, “It’s the Tiki-Ti!”

“What’s a Tiki-Ti?” Cameron asked.

“Oh, it’s this goofy bar we used to go to in college. It’s incredibly tiny and packed to the rafters with tropical crap.”

Alas, it was only 3 in the afternoon, so we couldn’t go in for a peek at the place I enjoyed some of my first drinks.

As dinnertime rolled around, we found ourselves strangely un-hungry. (Could it have been the massive plates of chicken and waffles we’d eaten for brunch?) Wanting to get out of the hotel but not yet ready for food, Cameron suggested we go for a cocktail. We ran down the short list of bar suggestions we’d gathered from friends and blog-buddies; nothing seemed appealing.

“Hey, I know: Let’s go back to that tiki place,” Cameron suggested. Hm, not a bad idea. It’s nowhere near the restaurant, but this is Los Angeles… nobody thinks twice about driving 45 minutes to dinner, after all.

As we walked in the door at 6:30p, there was exactly one seat left at the Tiki-Ti’s tiny bar. Just as I remembered, every surface was covered with float lights, tiki idols, and tropical kitsch. Behind the bar were two bartenders, working at a furious pace pouring brightly colored drinks for a festive group of customers. One of the regulars, an animated guy named Jim, welcomed us to the bar, quizzed us about the last time we’d been to the Tiki-Ti, and congratulated Cameron heartily when he heard this was his first visit.

“Tonight, you’re a tiki virgin!” he shouted, with a hearty back-slap and a giggle.

We ordered the drinks we usually save for tropical vacations: A Painkiller for me, and a Mai Tai for the bald guy. We chatted with the bartenders, inspected the amazing decor, drank our drinks, thanked everyone for a good time, and headed off to dinner.

Back home the next week, I cracked open the copy of Sippin’ Safari that I won in Kaiser Penguin’s tiki cocktail photo contest, searching for a trustworthy Mai Tai recipe. Beachbum Berry’s version looked interesting, although it certainly bore no resemblance to the fruity concoctions we’ve enjoyed in the islands. Imagine my amusement to discover that an old-school Mai Tai is really just a complicated daiquiri: No jumble of fruit juices, no bright tropical colors, and no goofball spirits… not even a pineapple wedge! It was a bit of a shock, but one I could easily digest — a well-made daiquiri is a thing of beauty.

But there was a bigger surprise awaiting me. Flipping to the index to look for possible mentions of the Tiki-Ti, I found neither a passing reference nor even a longer sidebar. In fact, the entire first section of the book was devoted to a man named Ray Buhen, one of the original Filipino back-bar “boys” at the legendary Don the Beachcomber — the world’s first tiki bar. In the early 1960s, Ray opened the Tiki-Ti in the space that used to house his father-in-law’s violin-repair store. He passed the torch to his son Michael and grandson Mike — the very same pair we’d met — when he retired in the late 90s.

Better yet, it turns out that this shoebox of a bar, which I’d naively assumed was an ironic hipster invention, was one of the vanguards of the Hollywood exotic-drinks craze at the height of its popularity. We had sat on the same stools that once propped up movie stars and millionaires, oblivious that our drinks were being made by the son and grandson of one of the original big kahunas.

Needless to say, it’s entirely surreal to discover that one of your old haunts is a cocktail landmark of this magnitude. It’s like finding out that your cousin is touring with Van Halen, or your next-door neighbor used to date Alice Waters. I’ve been chuckling to myself for the last couple of days, wondering what other legendary locations we’re breezing by with no more than a passing glance, and how many other legends stand unnoticed in our midst.


But back to that vintage Mai Tai recipe: It’s a curious thing. It tastes delicious, but it looks a little wan if you’re expecting a tropical icon. Adding a splash of good-quality grenadine — a fairly typical touch in most recipes — warms the drink’s appearance, and the popular dark-rum float adds a whiff of warmer latitudes.

But hey, it’s the weekend: Try it both ways, see which you prefer, and raise a toast to Hollywood’s last great tiki bar.

(c)2007 AEC  ** ALL rights reserved(c)2007 AEC  ** ALL rights reserved(c)2007 AEC  ** ALL rights reserved(c)2007 AEC  ** ALL rights reserved(c)2007 AEC  ** ALL rights reserved

Mai Tai
1 oz fresh lime juice
1 oz light rum
1 oz aged rum
1/2 oz orange curacao
1/4 oz orgeat syrup
1/4 oz falernum (or simple syrup)
splash of grenadine (optional)
dark rum

Shake all ingredients except the dark rum with ice, and strain into an old fashioned glass. Top up with crushed ice, float a bar-spoon of dark rum on top, if desired, and garnish with a sprig of mint.

One year ago: Cape Codder

bar culture, Drink of the Week, drinks, recipes, SoCal



Comment by scomorokh

I think that Mai-Tai is the world best drink (after Dry M. of course :)

And I give up to this drink more time… I investigate this drink more and more :) all summer and autumn!

Some my survey (I hope is word is correct, no?) you can find here


In my opinion, the secrets of perfect mai tai are in follow:

1. Use only best ingridients as you can find… (This T. Vick`s expression is my motto)
2. You MUST to expiriment bravely with aged rums and their mixtures :)
3. NO Grenadine! (but I don`t try “realy good” grenadine) The rich taste of aged rums no need cheap sweetener.
4. Fresh lime juice and in some case essential oils of lime shell is second great ingredients of Mai Tai. It is good to shake your Mai Tai with cutted lime shell.

And I must to say, that you take great picture!

Posted on 11.16.07 at 11:41PM

Comment by greg

just discovered this wonderful site.. looking forward to scouring it..

but i have one question.. what the hell is “orgeat syrup”??

Posted on 11.17.07 at 8:55PM

Comment by Anita

Greg: Orgeat is an almond-flavored syrup, normally used in tiki cocktails and as an
espresso-drink flavor. In our area, we can find the Torani brand at Cost Plus World
Market, Beverages & More, and restaurant-supply stores. Or you can make your own: http://www.theartofdrink.com/blog/2006/02/orgeat-syrup.php
Scomorokh: Thanks for the compliment. You’ve certainly covered the Mai Tai extensively — impressive! We make our own homemade grenadine from pomegranate juice and simple syrup (using Paul’s recipe: http://www.cocktailchronicles.com/2006/05/21/grenadine-face-off/ ). It’s a much better cocktail ingredient than the flavorless commercial type. And this recipe calls for just a little bit, for color. Give it a try and I think you will approve.

Posted on 11.18.07 at 9:36AM

Comment by Tammy

Excellent. Let’s get this party started!

BTW, thanks for the comment on my blog birthday! It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one who turns out page after page of crap. That came out wrong.

Posted on 11.18.07 at 5:58PM

Comment by sam

that is a totally awesome story, Anita. I LOVE it.

Posted on 11.19.07 at 10:19AM

Comment by Rick


Great post! I must admit that I’m quite jealous of your trip to Tiki-Ti :)

Posted on 11.19.07 at 12:44PM

Comment by scomorokh


I think I am ready to try homemade grenadine. I read some post about it, and I will try. Results of course you may find on my blog.

Posted on 11.20.07 at 12:42PM

Comment by Wendy

Anita, too funny! We learned all about Tiki Ti at Tales and have it on our list of places to hit up when in LA next time! I was just talking to my uncle about it the other night!

Posted on 11.20.07 at 1:45PM

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