Endless Summer: Tiki Reviewed

Jason Evenchik’s Tiki has brought some permanent sunshine to Midtown Village.

Mural at Tiki | All photos by Chelsea Portner

Mural at Tiki | All photos by Chelsea Portner

It’s way too early to be writing this review, and I don’t care at all. Best thing about being a critic? That moment when you find something that’s best only in that moment. That, for whatever reason—despite calendars and schedules and plans and rules—demands to be paid attention to now.

That’s Tiki.

There’s nothing to the place. It’s so stupidly simple that I love it in stupidly simple ways—without thought, just on pure reflex and lust for fried dumplings, acid-tinged surf rock and Bacardi 151.

AT A GLANCE

★★★
Tiki
102 South 13th Street, Midtown Village
215-309-3435

CUISINE: The name kinda says it all …

PRICES: $$

SNAP JUDGMENT: Strong drinks, pan-Asian snacks and (more) strong drinks, all in a kind of modern fantasy of an American tiki bar.

RECOMMENDED: Shrimp dumplings ($7), pork dumplings ($7) and pork bao ($9) for everyone, and zombies to wash them all down.

It’s a tiki bar (obviously), and what are tiki bars made for if not summer? For that school’s-out sense of freedom and lightened consequence that every summer retains, no matter how far from grade school you are. It would be weird to go here in the gloom of a November Tuesday. To trudge here through snow. I mean, who knows? Maybe it would feel like a nice escape, with its seduction of rum and pork buns and that false sense of being somewhere you’re not. But I’m not taking that chance. I love the place today, and today is what I care about. Today is what we’ve got, so we should celebrate it with highballs and grilled shrimp. With little paper umbrellas, raucous music and raised voices.

Tiki is a Jason Evenchik bar—another single-word concept bar like Vintage or Garage or Time—and it lives in the former home of Corner, at 102 South 13th in Midtown Village, which has always been one of the best underutilized spaces in Midtown Village. It’s deep and narrow downstairs, with tables and high-tops set with wobbly metal stools up front and a bar in the back. The walls are decorated with tiki masks, with weird little tchotchkes tucked into shelves behind a small table set under the stairs, and a huge mural facing the bar—sunset, surfboards, naked ladies, perfect. Upstairs, another bar. A second-floor patio fenced with bamboo and imbued with a dangerous kind of gravity: Sit there long enough and you’ll never want to leave, at least not until the snow starts falling.

I love the place for its short, smart cocktail menu, split between some tiki classics (a mai tai, a daiquiri, a zombie that’s pure, fruity murder in a glass) and some nouvelle tiki concoctions that are sometimes even better. And I love it for the equally brief food menu that looks at dining as a series of snacks, oft repeated. Go with three people and you could eat every single plate available—which I suggest you do right now, tonight. Stay long enough (through three rounds of drinks, maybe, or four, and at least until the sun has gone down) and you could order everything twice, which is also not a terrible idea. I love it for the music (no Don Ho, but lots of Beastie Boys, Jane’s Addiction, and weird West Coast surf-a-billy instrumentals that sound like Dick Dale rattling his pickups with an angle grinder) and for the way they turn it up LOUD because screw your conversations. I mean, did you really have anything that important to say? No, you did not.

Drinks at Tiki | Photo by Chelsea Portner

Drinks at Tiki | Photo by Chelsea Portner

On a Thursday night, I showed up early with a group, and we ordered cocktails almost before we sat down. The mai tai comes white, which is strange, and tastes like drinking the syrup out of a can of fruit cocktail, plus rum. The zombie, on the other hand, is deadly and flirtatious and charming. You can taste the fruit in it (pineapple and papaya juice dosed with a shot of grenadine, which in my world also counts as a fruit because it’s red), but not so much as you can taste the white rum, the dark rum and the gold rum, the apricot brandy and the 151. It’s flamethrower fuel with a splash of tropical sugar—in other words, an ideal starter drink. It napalms restraint and solves all problems (except, you know, alcoholism), like a dozen ounces of distilled sunshine that live inside you long after the glass is empty, particularly if you’re chasing it with snacks.

Dumplings to start, in two varieties: steamed with shrimp, fried with pork. These are junky Pac-Rim nonsense in the best possible way—dumplings like you remember dumplings being before every chef with two thumbs and a degree from the CIA decided he was going to be the asshole to reinvent the dumpling. The steamed shrimp are floppy and chewy, stuffed with chunky shrimp filling and served with a side of orange-spiked chili sauce that is neither defeatingly hot nor challengingly complex. It’s just sweet and spicy in a ratio that speaks to some elemental part of us that equates that with good times and easy choices.

And it’s the same with the fried pork dumplings. Hot off the flat top, they’re crisp and greasy and salty and have just enough weight to them to make it feel like you’ve actually eaten something. The sauce is a pineapple sweet-and-sour, scratch-made to the specifications of every neighborhood Chinese restaurant you remember loving when you were young and dumb and could eat anything at 2 a.m. with no fear. Or maybe that was just me.

More drinks. The Punching Nemo has a great name but is kind of a mess of rum and brandy and ginger green tea syrup that ends up tasting muddy. Skip it unless you’re at that point in your night where all you care about is the feel of that heavy glass in your hand and running a thumb over the tiki shapes carved into it. My dad would’ve liked the Hemingway daiquiri, because the only bit of cocktail wisdom I can ever recall him imparting to me was over the lip of a daiquiri—him furrowing his brow slightly and saying, “This is good. Not too much crap in it.”

The only deep thing about Tiki is the moment it goes full-bore trashy and starts bringing out cocktails served in plastic cups or mixed with terrible beer. It’s here that the house shows its understanding of the difference between your concept of what tiki bars should be (rum, pineapples, surfboards, hula girls, cheap highball glasses shaped like pineapples and tiki idols) and what, in actuality, they are.

What they are is plastic cups filled with cheap liquor and “fruit” juice (represented here by the Party Jawn, offered in “Blue or orange, vodka or gin”), or strange, bottom-scraping mixes thrown together near dawn when the bar is almost empty (like the BL Smooth, with its Faber gin, lemon, sugar and Bud Light Lime). What they are is meat on sticks cooked over fire and doused with something spicy, like the hunks of beef satay, served bloody rare and all hotted up with a Thai red curry that burns only as an oily afterthought, easily extinguished by another hit from that Party Jawn.

What they are is basic and barebones and crude and thrown together. Plastic cups and paper plates (or no plates at all). A party with a roof over it, nothing more. That’s Tiki at the worst of its best. The best of its worst. And it cheers me no end to see someone in Midtown Village thinking, Sure, we COULD give them glasses. But you know what’s better? Not doing that at all. The only thing I wish they’d added to the cocktail menu was a scorpion bowl with a chinstrap and a long straw, so I could just wear it as a hat.

roofdeck tiki chelsea portner 400The place packs them in on the weekends. Service is … confused. But I can’t make myself care. Everyone is smiling, and the things that you order usually show up, you know, eventually, so it all works.

The kitchen is remarkably consistent, too. For example, on the first night I was there, we ordered a plate of grilled shrimp that came to the table looking raw—like they’d only been shown the grill as a threat, then painted with grill marks and thrown on the plate with a little coconut and kaffir lime cream. I ate them anyway (because of course I ate them anyway), and they were fine—sweet and chewy and with just the barest hint of char. My justification was that I eat raw shrimp when I go out for sushi, so why not here?

Then I went back, ordered them again, and they came exactly the same way—so rare they were still floppy when I took them off the skewer. Third time? Same deal. So it’s deliberate, this undercooking. This bold and challenging decision to serve ’em white and warm rather than pink and cooked all to hell. And honestly, by the third time, I liked them that way. They tasted like shrimp, not char, not smoke, not anything else. The meat was allowed to be what it was. But if that freaks you out, just order the papaya salad instead. It’ll make you feel like you’re making healthy choices before you have one Party Jawn too many and start chain-eating fried dumplings with your hands. Or go with the pork bao. They’re great—pork belly and pickled mustard greens, cilantro (which you can pick off) and peanuts. They come two to a plate, and you won’t want to share. Not even with someone you like.

So yes, it’s way too early to be reviewing Tiki. It’s been open now a little more than a month, but seriously, what should I wait for? Seasonal menu changes? The place is ready now, and I had so much fun there that I didn’t feel like holding my tongue. I love the space, the bar, the patio and most of the cocktails. I love the plastic cups and the dumplings. The wooden hula girl at the door.

Mostly, I love Tiki because it’s summer, and summer demands a place like Tiki. A brainless, affectless, fun place full of hard liquor and snacks. We’ve got a few sweet weeks left of long nights and hot, bright afternoons, and it’s your duty as a creature of limited days and uncertain fate to seize as many of them as you can—to drink rum drinks with little umbrellas in them, sing along to Sabotage, eat too many dumplings and enjoy yourself.

Tiki is as good as it’s ever going to be right this minute. Go now. Don’t wait.

I’ll see you there.

Stars: 3 stars – Come from anywhere in the region

Tiki [Foobooz]