Tiki drinks have had a renaissance in recent years, inspiring themed restaurants (like Portland’s Rhum) and earning spots on cocktail menus in high-end lounges, though the new incarnations have been upgraded from the juice-and-rum umbrella drinks of yore to include spices, bitters and refined garnishes.
I don’t know what it was like in the ’40s and ’50s, when these Polynesian-inspired cocktails first became popular in America, but in later decades, before the trend took hold again, it seemed you could only get a Mai Tai or Zombie served in a ceramic coconut from the oft-overlooked drink lists of Chinese restaurants, many of which – from what I’ve seen – have small, underused bars that either act as an office space for the owner or solely serve a couple of regulars. Now, the drinks and their associated glassware seem to be everywhere.
The bar at Zen Chinese Bistro on Portland’s Danforth Street falls somewhere in between the old and the new — more accommodating to the drinking crowd than your typical take-out-heavy establishment but not breaking any molds with its mixology.
The first floor of the two-story restaurant is dominated by a long, dark wooden bar that nearly stretches the length of the back wall. On the same level are a few high-top tables and a couple of booths, all together giving the area a more lounge-like feel than the upstairs dining room.
The cocktail menu has a section of Polynesian staples, from the Suffering Bastard to the Singapore Sling, all for $9, as well as some borrowed from other cultures (mojito, Polish mule, both $11), some house concoctions (like Zen’s Coconut Lemonade, $10) and a half-dozen frozen drinks for $10, including Pina Coladas and Mudslides.
There are also 10 beers on draft, including craft beers from here and away (Rising Tide, Dogfish), Stella Artois, Murphy’s Irish Stout and Downeast Cider, for $6 to $7. Bottled beer and wine are also available.
But, if you can make it on time, the way to do Zen is at happy hour, which is weekdays from 4-6 p.m.
I was aware this existed, but hadn’t been before, so was puzzled when the happy hour specials were nowhere to be found when a friend and I sat down at the bar at 4 p.m. on Tuesday in front of chalkboards listing drinks but no prices and were each handed two menus, neither of which mentioned happy hour. I hoped I wasn’t mistaken; I’d ducked out of work early to take advantage of the full two hours.
When I asked if there were any happy hour specials, the bartender looked at the clock and retrieved two menus created specifically for this purpose.
The happy hour menu consists of seven cocktails for $6 or $7 and four draft beers, house wine and prosecco for $4, as well a selection of Chinese and Japanese appetizers for $2 to $5. Indecisive about our food order, we quickly realized we could get all 10 appetizers for just $35. I won’t say whether we did, but can confidently recommend the boneless BBQ pork, dumplings and avocado salad.
For drinks, we went slightly tropical but not quite tiki with the Blood Orange Cosmo (Skyy Blood Orange Vodka, Cointreau, lime juice, blood orange nectar) and the Mango Mediation (Stoli O, Cointreau, coconut creme, lime juice, mango puree, mango juice).
Both were pleasant – not too juicy, not too boozy and, best of all, not overly sweet. This is where Zen sets itself apart from old-school tiki joints. You can leave happy hour without feeling weighed down by greasy foods or getting a sugar high from pineapple juice, but you can also stuff your face with crab Rangoons and Mai Tais without worrying about the see-and-be-seen scene.
In fact, very few people came through Zen at all that evening and no one else sat at the bar, which is a shame — or maybe a great thing.
WHERE: 45 Danforth St., Portland
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
AMENITIES: Large bar in lounge-type area, extensive cocktail menu including Polynesian-inspired drinks, great happy hour specials on drinks and food from 4-6 p.m. weekdays
BOTTOM LINE: Zen is an upgrade from the bar at your typical Chinese restaurant but not just jumping on the recent Tiki trend. Offering great deals on food and drinks every day of the week, its happy hour is under-appreciated – but that also means you can easily get a spot at the bar.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes