Tiki Triangle: Mai Kai
For anyone that is a fan of Tiki, Polynesian Pop or even anything retro. This is a must visit over and under anything I am about to state here. If you are in the area, even for one night, you must visit. If you have the budget and the means, even if you are only going to come to this city once to go to one place, this would be it.
The overall decor is unsurpassed by any tiki bar I’ve ever visited. The gardens, bars, dining room, even the bathrooms are as tiki as you are ever going to see. I could not imagine being any more authentic or elaborate.
For more than 60 years the Mai-Kai has been in operation with ties still today from the original owners. Each room is named after one of the Polynesian islands. I started this journey at the Molokai Bar as you first walk in. There are over 51 different cocktails here to choose from starting including non-alcholic, mild, medium and strong. There is something for everyone here.
My friend was on medication so he opted to sample several of the non-alcoholic drinks. He tells me there were all good. As for me, I didn’t come here to get smashed, and I didn’t. I was just hoping to get through a few drinks without stumbling out so I can sample “the best of” the cocktails selection they had. I am not a lightweight but 5 drinks should have had an effect on me. I purposely got there at 6pm for cocktail hour so that I can enjoy at least 3 drinks at half price without blowing my dining budget. It was not until I got to the dining room after happy hour that I finally tasted some rum in the Yeoman’s Grog cocktail.
Along with the drinks, the food was also a disappointment. It was ok. Not the best, certainly not the worst, but how hard is it to get food served hot, or at least warm? Cold steamed broccoli and pork fried rice with no pork that is barely warm is not something I would pay $25 anywhere else for. But of course that is not the reason I came. Just as Catholic must visit the Vatican, or the Jews Jerusalem, the tiki aficionados must visit the Mai-Kai.
The pupu platter was not the traditional flaming hibachi you normally find in most Chinese and Polynesian restaurants. The flames were contained underneath the serving tray. One small eggroll was cut into 4 pieces. Clever. Bacon-wrapped chicken nugget smaller than an olive. You can never go wrong with bacon, but the rest left a lot to be desired.
I ordered a 2nd appetizer and they brought out their ribs. Again, nothing special. They tasted like bbq sauce from a jar, not at all tender, and not a hint of soy sauce or even that bright red you find in most Chinese ribs.
The crispy orange beef came with about 6-7 pieces, small enough to be an appetizers. I ordered it spicy, and it was, but nothing special here either.
The only thing that made this experience truly incredible was the Polynesian Show performance. A beautiful woman with a New Zealand accent comes on stage to describe to you every aspect of every performance, a bit about the Mai-Kai setup and it truly is a 50-minute tour of all the Polynesian islands. From Hawaii to Tahiti, Samoa to Fiji, they covered the entire Polynesian Triangle from various regions with historical facts, tradition and perfect execution and authenticity.
By the end of the show I had to have just one more cocktail to end the evening as a nightcap. The Kona Coffee Grog. The description reads: Flaming rum, coffee, honey cream and secret spices. I tasted no coffee, just hot chocolate made with hot water (no milk or cream) and overproof rum. The best part of this drink was the presentation and the mug I got to take home.
This is a busy place. In fact, that is the overall theme. I did not feel I was in a relaxed atmosphere. When I asked the waitress in the cocktail bar she was very pleasant and polite but told me she was busy. When I placed the order for ribs she ran off before I could order my second cocktail. And again, and the 3rd time I had to wave my hand to grab her attention and ask for a Mai Tai. Its hard to be angry at a very young pretty girl in a bikini top and a micro sarong, but I think she needed that drink more than me.
It was the same in the dining room, I had a special request but the lady, to have the drink outside. She politely told me that it was not possible and that they were “busy” and short of staff. I am glad I came here on a Thursday night instead of a weekend. After all, if people are too busy to place a drink order (or any order), that means a smaller bar tab and check (and tip on top of that).
I obviously have mixed feelings about this place, but don’t regret having visited at all. In fact, I am grateful I did have the opportunity. And while the execution, decor, authenticity was all spot on, its the overall feeling I had when I left that something was missing, and it was not just the buzz from alcohol, but a feeling of warmth and an experience of escaping the outside world. After all, tiki is all about escapism, but somehow I felt like I was in the same rat race as I was outside. A very fast-paced atmosphere where the prices do not justify the quality of the food or drink and it was more of a tourist destination than a true tiki experience. Again, it was the Polynesian dancers that made it all worthwhile. That was the only time I felt like I felt I was somewhere else in the world that had a much more tranquil setting.
Would I return here? Yes, most definitely. But my approach would have to be different. I would come only for the dinner and the show and pay the full price for cocktails so I got a full cocktail at full strength. That actually would have been cheaper in the long run than paying half price during Happy Hour.