Lee’s Hawaiian Islander
What to love about places like this, is that they have not changed on the inside or out for nearly half a century. Its really surreal to step off the street into a place that looks like its practically closed. There are no windows, so the outside world is shut out, and you are immediately transported into a dining room with trickling water and Hawaiian music playing. It is decorated with blowfish, lights, native masks, and bamboo booths.
This place could be a magical escape, at least for awhile. Sometimes you have to take things for face value, and this is one of them. Once inside one should immediately order the Pu Pu Platter and cocktails. If you get hungry beyond that, I would suggest another pu pu platter, but the food really leaves a lot to be desired.
To be fair, I knew very well that this was not going to be a culinary nor a satisfying cocktail expedition. I was here about 12 years ago and was not impressed, but knowing this is one of less than a handful of original tiki places left in New Jersey, I had to give it one last chance.
The cocktails are generic tiki drinks. This means that its just basically whatever juice mixed with whatever spirit the bartender working that night decides to include. There are no hard set rules. When something is disguised in a mug its hard to tell one from the other when most of it is crushed ice.
It is interesting to note that when I went into the bar area to snap a photo and both the waiter and bartender looked up at me to see what I was doing as I spotted a half gallon metal can of Dole pineapple juice being poured into a classic drink mixer you still might see at some older diners. The only one possible real rule for a classic tiki drink is, that it must be fresh juice. Almost nothing else matters. You can even use vodka instead of rum (as they do) but fresh juices are what separates the classic cocktails from just anything else you can get at your local megachain restaurants like Applebees, Chilis, etc.
The waiters are Chinese and quick to take your cocktail orders but very slow to come back after that. The one table next to us actually chewed out the waiter and we were there before them.
When you ask the waiter what is in each particular drink the answer is either rum, vodka, juice. I speak at least half a dozen different languages to understand most foods and/or ingredients and living in the New York City area I could understand nearly every single accent the world has to offer. Not in this case. My wife has only been in the USA one year and has been attending many English classes so she too knows many accents. However she too was laughing because the waiter seemed to rattle off whatever what is in his mind just as an answer to satisfy the question with the most unrecognizable vocabulary in any accent.
The only time the waiter gave me a good description was when I asked what was in the Islander Zombie and he finally showed some enthusiasm and held up his hand to say “5 liquors”. Of course I had to try their signature drink. It was strong, and my wife agreed it was tasty, and it should be for $10, but it was nothing that I could not make better at home that is more complex with better layers of flavor. Again, I know this was not going to be any sort of transcendental experience, but perhaps just a little less slushy ice watering the drink down to the point where I can only taste ice water and some strong liquors.
Four drinks, one entree and one pu pu platter later, we walked out owing $100. I did have to order a small pork fried rice since rice does not come with the $17 entree, which is unheard of. A half cup of rice retail costs like 20 cents at the most? This place would be a whole lot more fun and enjoyable if the prices were half of what they currently are. I think I am being fair when I say that is the fair market price. $7 for a small rice when it should be included free with an entree? The best value here is the Pu Pu Platter which included 2 fried shrimp, 2 shrimp toast, 3 ribs, 2 beef sticks, 2 mini eggrolls (though poor and tasteless), and 4 small chicken wings.
This place is what it is, don’t expect a lot outside of the kitsch and atmosphere. Its fun, its a must-visit for tiki lovers, just keep track of your drinks, as they can be expensive at $9+ and remember the food here is only to keep you from starving and/or drinking too much without anything in your stomach.
Lee’s Hawaiian Islander 201-939-3777
768 Stuyvesant Avenue Lyndhurst NJ 07071