Wander into Tacoma Cabana, the latest restaurant and lounge to join the Pacific Avenue dining district, and you’ll find something I think downtown Tacoma didn’t know it needed: a tiki lounge.
I remember thinking “Huh?” when I heard this summer that Tacoma would be getting a tiki bar. Tiki bars really aren’t something we do here in this rain-drenched corner of the universe. Maybe it’s because the concept seems so bright and cheerful and we South Sounders – as sworn enemies of the sun – are skeptical of anything too flashy.
Enter Robyn Murphy and Jason Alexander, partners in business and life who have created a tiki lounge that is not at all grating and reads downright Tacoma: a little cheeky, gritty and welcoming. On a recent anonymous visit, I saw a hipster seated next to a row of politicians next to a dad with his kids. (Although kids are allowed, I wouldn’t call it exceptionally kid-friendly – there’s no kid menu.)
The menu is mostly cocktail nibbles with a few heartier entrees, all priced fairly in the $7-$12 range (scroll down for a summary). Murphy, who designed the menu, calls her style of cooking “vacation fusion.” The real emphasis is the tiki drinks – there’s a menu of more than 20 specialty cocktails, many including homemade infusions, mixers and fresh juice. Rum is prominent on the menu (see notes below about the cocktails and rum).
The creators have a history in Tacoma cocktailing. In 2010, Murphy and Alexander opened Villa Caffe and Imbibery, a downtown Tacoma sandwich cafe. They eventually tacked on a bar and started gaining a reputation for their craft cocktails. They closed the restaurant this summer before opening Tacoma Cabana in October.
Their concept restaurant is something that fits well in a neighborhood that houses another concept bar: Matador, a tequila bar and Tex-Mex restaurant. While I’ve long felt Matador catered to the under-30 crowd, Tacoma Cabana seems as if it’s making a grab for the sit-and-sip 40-something crowd. Good strategy, that.
Like Matador, the interior of Tacoma Cabana is well-tended. Murphy and Alexander spent months sourcing decor and created a look that’s layered and downright fun – from the replica of a 600-pound marlin that Alexander’s mother caught in Hawaii, to the surfboard above the bar that was a gift from City Council member Marty Campbell. Reruns of TV sitcom “Gilligan’s Island” play on the television. The soundtrack is pure Polynesian tiki fun.
Exposed brick walls, loungy furniture and a back room that feels like an underwater tiki refuge makes this a warm and inviting cocktail stop – probably the most visually interesting and most humorous concept lounge I’ve seen in Tacoma.
Here’s a closer look at what Tacoma Cabana does – and does well:
The specialty cocktail list has more than 20 hand-crafted tiki drinks. My top picks:
Vic’s mai tai: One of three mai tais on the menu, this one is modeled after the famous Trader Vic’s – made with dark Jamaican rum, aged Virgin Island rum or aged Martinique rum, orgeat, orange curacao and fresh lime. Not too sweet. $8 ($5 on Fridays if you wear a fez or a flower in your hair – gimlets and daiquiris are $5 on fez Friday, too).
Painkiller: Navy-strength rum, fresh coconut cream, orange juice, pineapple juice and grated nutmeg. It lives up to its name. $9
Pina colada: Alexander makes the base from fresh pineapple that is cored, cut up and blended into the drink, plus lime juice, coconut cream and rum. Don’t think of this as too girly and sweet – it’s a balanced cocktail with some pucker. $9
Zombie: Alexander’s recipe is a secret, but he describes it as “rich and spicy and a little bit smoky.” It’s made with three kinds of rum, a handmade ginger-lime liqueur, grapefruit-cinnamon syrup and grenadine. It’s on my bucket list for 2012. $13
As Murphy describes her menu, it’s “vacation fusion.” If you can find it on a beach, it’s a candidate for the menu – she leans on Island and Southeast Asian flavors – lime, coconut, curry, jerk spices – and steers into Polynesian territory with sweet glazes licked with a flicker of heat. Plating is pretty – exactly what you’d expect at a Polynesian restaurant, but also displaying Murphy’s previous life as a floral designer.
The menu lists plenty of cocktail nibbles with a handful of heartier options – watch for happy hour specials. For light eating, stick with the pupus. All kinds of food on a stick makes juggling a cocktail glass easy – try the meatball or chicken skewers or a fun spin on rumaki, bacon-wrapped pineapple (priced $5-$7.50).
I sampled just a few dishes on a first-bite visit, I’ll be back to try more because Murphy already has changed the menu.
Coco chicken skewers, $7: Hit with curry and coconut milk and grilled, these chicken skewers are just like the kind you can find at your favorite Thai restaurant – just with more garlicky, chunky peanut sauce.
Hale tiki chicken, $11.50: With all those calories you’ll pack in from the tiki drinks, you’ll appreciate the low-cal grilled chicken breast flavored with jerk spices, served with rice and a skewer of fruit. Loved the pretty plating of the rice – dual molded circles of steamed rice dusted with herbs.
Kona beef burger, $11.50: Tinged with spice from pepperjack and jalapenos, a flavor packed burger, but the pink center of the patty might bother some. Also made with chicken.
Tiki platter, $12.50: Skewers of grapes, strawberries and mango paired with squeaky cubes of what tasted like dried caramelized bananas (how’d they do that?), dried pineapple, blueberries and sliced star fruit – served with bittersweet chocolate fondue for dipping. There was enough cheese to give you serious grief if you’re lactose intolerant.
As is true of the tastiest Polynesian cocktails, Tacoma Cabana drinks are all about the rum. If there are four rums to try before you die, Alexander said they should be:
Demerara 151: From Lemon Hart, this is a palatable rum that Alexander uses in his Navy Grog cocktail ($10). Said Alexander, “You have to be a little brave, but you can sip it. It’s got some nice dark aged smoky flavor to it.”
Aged Martinique rum: Try the Clement VSOP or Neisson brands. “That’s mandatory,” said Alexander of the Clement. “They press all the juices out of the sugar cane and distill the rum from that juice. It gives it a nice, earthy, grassy flavor.”
Barrel-aged rum: Try Appleton Estates 12-year aged rum. “It’s got real dark molasses with brown sugar notes. In a top shelf mai tai, that’d be the complement to the Clement VSOP.”
Oronoco rum: “It’s a white Brazilian cane rum and it makes the best daiquiri you’ll have for the rest of your life,” said Alexander.
In tiki lore, the competition between Trader Vic’s and Don the Beachcomber is legendary. Here’s how the story goes via Alexander: Bartenders were kept in the dark about the recipes used to make the tiki cocktails at the competing restaurants. The fear was that bartenders would be hired away to the competition and take their cocktail secrets with them. Thus began the secret bottle method. Mixers were prepared by only a few who knew the recipes, the mixers were placed in numbered bottles, with the formulas only given to bartenders. Alexander has a similar secrecy to his mixers, only there’s no need to number the bottles, he’s a one-man show. Alexander makes several unusual mixers. One is falernum, a cordial of rum steeped with spices, lime and ginger. For a syrup he calls “Donn’s Mix” – named after Donn Beach, founder of Don The Beachcomber – he blends grapefruit juice with a cinnamon syrup. He also makes grenadine from scratch, but that’s a secret recipe.
Where: 728 Pacific Ave., Tacoma
Hours: 4 p.m.-midnight Tuesdays-Saturdays
Contact: 253-222-4184, tacomacabana.com
Kids: Diners younger than 21 are seated in a family friendly section until 10 p.m. There is no kids menu.
Vegetarian entrees: Not much, but the cheese-and-fruit platter is a good choice
Beverages: Mostly hand-crafted tiki cocktails with a lot of rum concoctions peppering the menu, and wine and beer
Our pledge to readers: Sue Kidd dines anonymously, and The News Tribune pays for all meals. Reach her at 253-597-8270 or firstname.lastname@example.org.