Published on May 22nd, 2014 | by Katy Evans0
Shangri-la at Tacoma Cabana
I first met Robyn Murphy and Jason Alexander, owners of Tacoma Cabana, a few years ago when they were operating the Villa Caffe and Imbibery, a pleasant hole-in-the-wall on Market Street.
At the time, Villa Caffe had been an exciting find (and it turns out, a portentous one). I would saddle up to the bar, impressed with Jason’s growing selection of quality liquor and his intrepid bartending. Even then he built inventive cocktails served unapologetically in pint glasses featuring bold flavors and a telling penchant for rum. And I would stuff my face with Robyn’s gorgeous desserts and generous salads and sandwiches.
It was clear the pair had something up their sleeves when Villa Caffe closed; Jason and Robyn had just cut their teeth and were ready for a bigger challenge: enter Tacoma Cabana.
In November 2012 Robyn and Jason debuted their true passion project: a large Pacific Avenue tiki bar and lounge capturing the best and most gratuitous elements of Polynesian kitsch under one thatched roof. Tacoma Cabana is the height of Tiki culture – and I’m not talking Māori mythology – the Cabana is Tacoma’s proud successor of the American-grown Polynesian Pop tradition.
Tiki is what now?
“If you can’t get to paradise, I’ll bring it to you.” – Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, the original Don the Beachcomber
Tiki is a uniquely American confluence of mid-century West Coast restlessness, bootlegging, bootstrapping, and rum. Born of the Great Depression and Prohibition, Tiki was invented by men like Ernest Gantt (Don the Beachcomber) and Victor Bergeron (Trader Vic) in the 1930s: fantasists, cultural-appropriators, hustlers, and creators of a rum-fueled paradise complete with false mythology. Now more than 80 years later, we can safely say this hedonistic world-building was a good idea.
An historic aside: Tacoma has it’s own connection with Victor Bergeron. In the fall of 1949, Trader Vic debuted the Sabre Room, a not-at-all-Tiki, English-pub themed restaurant in the downtown Winthrop Hotel. The Sabre Room was a popular destination well into the 60s.
Tiki only became more popular after World War II as soldiers returned with tales and souvenirs of the South Pacific, as jazz artists created the acculturated lounge genre Exotica, and as Hawaii gained statehood in 1959. A war-fatigued America became obsessed with vacation, incorporating Tiki not just into its cocktails, but into architecture, clothing, design, and entertainment.
By the 1980s, Tiki had fallen out of favor and remained dormant in our uncles’ basements for a few decades, only to regain popularity at the end of the century. Now Tacoma Cabana joins the growing ranks of sophisticated Tiki bars unafraid to embrace vintage kitsch and elevate rum.
The liquor that was once the cheapest, harshest, and most plentiful now flaunts ranks of devoted connoisseurs obsessed with its myriad regional variations and preparations. Jason Alexander is one such obsessive, curating a massive, nearly exclusively rum back bar at Tacoma Cabana. Jason has collected more than 100 distinct bottles, featuring nearly every conceivable variation of this delectable sugarcane spirit.
If you are a cocktail devotee, you know Tacoma suffers a dearth of crafted options; thankfully, Jason is one of just a few working hard to help address this lack, creating complex, delicious and, um, powerful quaffables.
Jason’s cocktails, both original and classic, feature intricate combinations of myriad ingredients, many of which he keeps secret. This secrecy is another nod to Tiki; in the early days, Don the Beachcomber’s cocktails were so popular that recipe theft was rampant, with Don’s original drinks cropping up in imitator bars across the country under slightly different names.
The Cabana drink menu is split into four sections: one dedicated entirely to the king cocktail of Tiki, the Mai Tai, featuring seven different varieties; the “Tiki” section offering 22 different cocktails; the tantalizing “Blended” section of three frothy cocktails; and, my favorite, the “R(h)um” section: eight different rum cocktails including three variations on the daiquiri, the bracing rum-agricole classic ‘Ti Punch, and the Rum Old Fashioned. The menu concludes with a nearly twenty-page Captain’s List, inventorying the Cabana’s huge rum selection by place of origin.
Tacoma Cabana’s cocktails are some of the very best I have had – and I’ve enjoyed good tiki drinks from lots of great bars; from Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco to Hale Pele in Portland. Jason is of – and in many cases above – par, building cocktails that deserve national attention.
On a recent visit, the crack Post Defiance Taste Team and I enjoyed a nice variety of cocktails and food, from Jason’s newest, flaming creations, to some Tiki classics.
The Jungle Bird, Hemingway Daiquiri, Mac Nut Chi Chi, and Jason’s spin on the Hurricane all delighted, but my favorite that night was the Penang Afrididi #3 – a spin on a Don the Beachcomber classic (the Penang Afrididi #1 and #2) in which Jason advances the rummy, juicy, anise-tinged original concoction with some of his own secret additions.
And it gets better: Cabana also serves excellent food. Robyn’s “vacation fusion” cuisine fills stomachs with tasty and generous portions, resulting in smiling, satiated diners ready for a second drink.
The Taste Team sampled a LOT of dishes. From the Pupus menu, the team happily chewed through the Cabana Meatball Skewers, the Bali Hai Pork Sliders, Rumaki (bacon-wrapped pineapple), and the Cheese Quesadillas. Final verdict: all were delicious served creatively and in spot-on portions.
A few of us graduated to the Entrees menu; said Kris about local favorite, the Kona Burger: “All the ingredients were fresh and flavorful. The veggie condiments blended well, complementing the sandwich and adding moistness that could disguise dry chicken if necessary, though it was not. And while the condiments were plentiful, they didn’t mask the meaty flavor of the chicken itself. The large bun reined them in, absorbing just enough juiciness to keep the sandwich from being sloppy. And despite the inclusion of pepper jack and jalapeno, the spice level was just right, not overpowering.”
And though the Loco Moco isn’t the most photogenic of dishes, I both enjoyed and appreciated the offering, especially since it features one of the most rarely found condiments in Tacoma: vegetarian gravy.
A monumental heap of white rice, hamburger (or veggie patty), eggs, and gravy, this classic surfer’s breakfast is hearty and toothsome enough to fortify your gut for a second cocktail, or to build up your strength to grab a board and brave the Puget Sound chill.
The call of (a Polynesian pop) Cthulhu
Tacoma Cabana isn’t done exploring Tiki history or its contemporary evolutions. In fact, Jason and Robyn are striking out on their own, contributing to the culture by uniting their own passions with Tiki – this is clear in Jason’s inventive melding of H.P. Lovecraft, the Cthulhu mythos, and Tiki cocktails.
I concluded my evening with a sampling of Jason’s original cocktail, the Innsmouth – the name is a reference to Lovecraft’s fictional ocean town setting – served in a gorgeous Cthulhu Tiki mug.
This provocative drink illustrates the new vibrancy that can be found in contemporary Tiki culture as new elements of pop contribute to its expression. The tradition of Tiki can be what you make it, as long as you use it to celebrate something that fascinates you.
Maybe the threat of attack by a terrifying, octopus-like god-monster is a slightly different vision of tropical respite than Don the Beachcomber had in mind, but now, and here in Tacoma, we don’t comb beaches, we comb the dark waters of the Puget Sound. We’re good with a little danger in paradise.
Tacoma Cabana, 728 Pacific Ave, Tacoma, WA 98402, 253-222-4184
Wednesday – Saturday, 5 pm – 12 am
Thanks to the Post Defiance Taste Team (aka the Meat Team): Emily Abbott, Cheryl Bockus, and Kris Hay.