Thursday, March 25, 2010

Kon Tiki - Tucson, AZ

Kon Tiki is the best Polynesian Pop spot in Tucson, Arizona. But that's not saying much. Most folks say it's been open since 1963; some say 1961. The confusion is irksome, but once you drink one of their infamous Scorpions you'll slur the details too.

Jenny and I have been inside twice, once back when we were researching our motel book (in '03, or so) and more recently during our 2010 weekend in Tucson. OK, we've been inside three times, but one visit doesn't count. I'll get to that in a moment.

Back in '03, we confronted the odd placement of this homage to Hawaii Five-O reruns and Thor Heyerdahl voyages across the Pacific. A dreamy abode of stone idols and dark rum, Kon Tiki is jammed among dusty strip mall businesses in a dreary part of town. Crossing the threshold requires some faith in the tiki gods.

During that first visit, birds squawked in a terrarium while semi-pro drinkers lounged the afternoon away in beat-up chairs that might have been patched together with electrical tape. The meal was canned-quality Ameri-Chinese gunk. Lots of gooey sauce and pineapples. We had a good enough time, though, and tipped appropriately. Even so, our server chased us out into the parking lot, asking why we didn't tip her more.

Let's say we left with a bad taste in our mouths.

This time we returned more optimistically, especially since a new owner has pledged to restore Kon Tiki to its old glory. Sure enough, the place is cleaned up a bit and they've commissioned swell mugs and glasses for collectors. Heck, starting this April, they're even planning to start lighting the torches outside. The food isn't much improved, I must say. But who goes to a tiki lounge for the food?

As per my custom, I carefully surveyed the menu, which runs delightfully amok with strange drink names that sound like mystical incantations (though I couldn't tell you why this place sells a "Suffering Buster" instead of the more common Suffering Bastard).

A sucker for the classics, I drilled right into the Mai Tai. They serve two kinds in this place, an "original" and a house style. But are reputed to be "improved" by Kon Tiki mixologists over the Trader Vic classic, but neither did it for me.

The original suffered from an overly syrupy constitution and a discordantly intrusive rum flavor. The house style was lighter and more balanced, but still overly pushy for my tastes: too much like a pink grapefruit "Let's party, Ladies!" drink, when I prefer something a bit more subtle. No matter. The effect was pretty potent either way.

By the way, during this last trip, we visited Kon Tiki twice. The first time was a Friday night when the place was packed with local 20-somethings and not one single aloha shirt to be found. Bouncers, Auto-Tune dreck, and woozy lines out the bathroom: it was like someone had taken the most depressingly generic college bar you could imagine and teleported in some Maori idols, just for the hell of it.

Thank goodness we returned Saturday afternoon, when the place was quiet, relaxed, and better suited for exotic fantasies of sand and surf. The service was slow and the food -- well, again, no one goes visits this kind of place for the food. Still, we enjoyed our return and can happily add Kon Tiki to our second tier of must-see places that keep the Polynesian Pop spirit alive in these decidedly non-tiki times.

It's not a Top-10 Essential, but Kon Tiki is worth a visit when you're in Tucson.

Once more, here's my list of top tiki lounge experiences:

10. Castaways in Colorado, CO
9. Drift in Scottsdale, AZ
8. Thatch in Portland, OR
7. Forbidden Island in Alameda, CA
6. Trader Vic's in Chicago, IL (closed)
5. Tiki-Ti in Los Angeles, CA
4. House Without a Key in Oʻahu, HI
3. Hula's in Santa Cruz, CA (ranking skewed by homefield location; ask for the Tiki Room)
2. Mai Kai in Fort Lauderdale, FL
1. Kahiki in Columbus, OH (closed)

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

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