Tiki drinks: Not traditionally my thing. I’ve often considered them the fruity equivalent of the tiki torch, a mid-20th-century novelty relegated to some musty backyard corner and occasionally dusted off for special occasions. (Though I must admit the Jet Pilot painstakingly constructed for me a few years ago at Seattle’s Tavern Law did rev up my yo-ho-ho.)
The California-born trend, popularized by Trader Vic’s, eventually fizzled. But with the last decade’s re-emergence of craft-cocktail culture, embers flickered in the ashes, and places like Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco and New York’s PKNY have breathed life back into a genre borne of rum, brandy, fruit juice and kitsch, giving tiki drinks a modest, if still mostly a niche, footing.
Last summer, Dallas’ The People’s Last Stand proudly carried the tiki torch on Sundays, whipping up flaming punch bowls and crushing ice like nobody’s business until the tradition flared out in December. And downtown, the Chesterfield has a handful of Polynesian tipples submerged in its menu’s oceanic depths.
But with last week’s lively grand opening of the resuscitated Sunset Lounge, on Ross Avenue just east of downtown, the local tiki revival is fully underway. Here’s a place daring to be all tiki, all the time, with classic drinks like the Rum Runner, Zombie and Bahama Mama dotting a menu of mostly house originals from general manager Nico Ponce.
Tiki generally calls for rum, though brandy or even gin sometimes get involved. To that is added lemon or lime, possibly a flavored cordial and sweetener, often reflecting island nuts and/or spices.
The Sunset is a makeover of a defunct dance club of the same name. Owners Josh Sepkowitz and Kyle Noon describe the re-do as “a neighborhood bar with a 1960s Southern California vibe,” and it’s hard to disagree: The low-ceilinged atmosphere is both cozy and classy, a low-lit watering hole submerged in palm fronds and aquamarine.
Eddie “Lucky” Campbell, Dallas’ itinerant and feisty barman, has been signed on to anchor the bar on Mondays, not to head the program as reported elsewhere. “It’s Nico’s program,” said Campbell, who spends the bulk of his time at Uptown’s Standard Pour. “I’m just going over there to back him up and give him a hand.”
Though Campbell’s brilliance with flavor and balance portends great things, the cocktail menu for now strikes me as small, probably because so many of the drinks are similar in profile. Among the highlights: the Texas Punch, a mix of house-made spiked horchata with red chile powder; and the Redrum, a rum-infused twist on the standard vodka/Red Bull. But if it be hidden treasure you seek, I’ve got one word for you, matey: guacamole.
– Marc Ramirez @typewriterninja