Once cool, then decidedly out of fashion, the loosely Polynesian-inspired lounge lizard tiki bar scene is experiencing a national and local revival. James Norton, editor of Heavy Table, joined MPR News' Tom Crann to talk about the local tiki scene.
TOM CRANN: Why tiki, and why now?
JAMES NORTON: It's not just why — it's also how. Cocktail culture has risen apace with food and beer culture in the United States, and tiki is part of that culture.
Underneath all the sugary fruit juice and rail booze there is a real spark of joy and love that powers the zombies and mai tais that populate the world of tiki. I think people are perpetually enchanted by it — it's got a nostalgic sheen to it, and almost a lost innocence.
As for how: There are a lot of ways to do tiki. You can do it straight up, you can do it ironically, you can do it with a mixological sophistication, you can do it as exploitation, or craft, or even art. It really varies wildly from place to place.
CRANN: The reigning champ must surely be Psycho Suzi's in northeast Minneapolis.
NORTON: There's no doubt. They're the reigning queens and kings of tiki ambiance, and their Mississippi River-facing patio is one of the modern Minneapolitan wonders of dining — at least in terms of the view.
They front a really good game in terms of the types of cocktails they offer and their glassware is 100 percent tacky tiki — giant volcanoes, Easter Island heads, and so forth. But my last couple of visits there have been pretty disappointing from a flavor perspective — so-so food, and oversweet, watery drinks that are much more about cheap sour mix than fresh fruit juice and decent, intelligently mixed liquors.
CRANN: Well, what do you expect at a tiki place?
NORTON: That's totally fair — tiki has long been a gimmick, not a sign that you're getting something good. But that's changing.
CRANN: Before we get to that: The owner of Psycho Suzi's has a big project in the works, right?
NORTON: Very big. Owner Leslie Bock moved Psycho Suzi's two years ago to its present riverside location but retained ownership of the original location. That original location, 2519 Marshall St. NE, has been slated to become a new spot called Betty Danger's Country Club. It's set to feature a mini-golf course, a taco-and-beer hut, and a slow-moving, 60-foot Italian-made Ferris wheel with gondolas that will accommodate eating, drinking, and viewing the Lowry Ave. Bridge and downtown Minneapolis.
Now as skeptical as I am about the food and drink they'll be slinging, I'm actually incredibly excited about this — I love a good gimmick restaurant. Every time I get up to Duluth I try to get to the revolving restaurant at the top of the Radisson, and I know that's a personal failing, but there you have it.
CRANN: Tell us about the Torpedo Room.
NORTON: One of the most exciting new bars in the Twin Cities - and I'm certain one of the most exciting new tiki bars in the country - opened up recently inside of Eat Street Social on Nicollet Ave. and 26th in Minneapolis.
It's called the Torpedo Room, and it's just the latest project by bartender Nick Kosevich, one of the guys behind Bittercube Bitters and still beloved by those of us who used to enjoy his craft cocktails at Town Talk Diner on Lake Street.
The place, which is really a bar within a bar, has a cozy wicker grandeur to it, and they've gone all out on a mission to update tiki drinks with a smart, modern Midwestern sensibility — they call it "Minnesota Exotic."
CRANN: How do you implement "Minnesota Exotic," exactly?
NORTON: Well, carefully. But I tried two drinks there, and they were both excellent in surprising ways.
The Royal Hawaiian Number Pine came together when bartender Marco Zappia misread Kosevich's notes, mistaking pineapple juice for pine liqueur. It's a classic gin tiki drink, The Royal Hawaiian, but with Zirbenz pine liqueur added to it — the pine and citrus of the drink pair really well with the gin's aromatics.
I also tried a Corn Tiki - it's an Upper Midwestern variation on the Painkiller cocktail, swapping the coconut cream for a sweet corn cream, and mulled apple cider instead of pineapple and orange juice. There's a big navy grog snow cone in the beverage and the luscious sweet corn flavor and mulled spices actually bring to mind an artisanal eggnog more than the tropics. I loved it.
And just so you don't think my whole assessment is based on a couple of cocktails, the Heavy Table did a full review of the menu and interview a couple weeks ago — it's a great read, and the photography is killer. There's a real showsmanship going on with the decor and cocktails at the Torpedo Room.
CRANN: Is there anywhere else you like to go to escape to the tropics by way of a cocktail glass?
NORTON: Yes, but it's a bit of a drive. If you're ever down in Madison, Wis., there's a bar on the East Side called Jolly Bob's Jerk Joint that I discovered in college and have stayed loyal to ever since. The food isn't bad, and while the drinks aren't strictly tiki — they're Caribbean-inflected — there are a lot of the same exotic rums and bright, fruit-driven flavors you'll find in tiki beverages. And unlike a lot of places, the mixers are fresh-squeezed juices, the rums are really top shelf and deployed with sophistication, and while the drinks are profoundly well-made and go down easy, they pack a wallop worthy of Goliath. Take a cab.