As the frigid days of this seemingly endless winter drag on, I can’t be the only one daydreaming of tropical beaches, palm trees, warm sand between my toes and fruity, rum-y drinks with little paper umbrellas.
A few decades ago, Mainers seeking a respite from the cold could find it in flaming pupu platters and potent scorpion bowl cocktails at restaurants like Hu Ke Lau in South Portland or Sing’s Polynesian Restaurant and Waikiki Lounge in Lewiston, Bangor and Westbrook. Remember them?
These palaces of Chinese food and kitsch were remnants of the once-robust tiki culture “invented” in the 1930s by a Hollywood, Calif. restaurateur known as Don the Beachcomber, which was also the name of his restaurant. Don is credited with creating many of the deceptively strong, rum-based cocktails that define tiki, such as the Zombie and the Singapore Sling. (The Mai Tai, however, is the creation of Don’s tiki rival, Victor Bergeron, who originated the Trader Vic’s chain.)
Tiki’s popularity ballooned after World War II, when there was money to spend on dining out and the hit musical “South Pacific” helped feed American vets’ feelings of nostalgia for that part of the world. In the 1960s, Portland’s newly swanky Westin Portland Harborview — then the Sheraton-Eastland Motor Hotel — boasted a Polynesian-style restaurant, Hawaiian Hut, which if you can believe the photo, served roast suckling pig, carved up by a fierce-looking waitress wearing a lei.
Like Hu Ke Lau and Sing’s, Hawaiian Hut is long gone. But tiki is alive and well at Portland bars and restaurants, where drinks like the Mai Tai and the Suffering Bastard are likely to share the menu with Manhattans and Sazeracs. On Sunday, March 28 from 6 to 8 p.m., five of the city’s top bartenders will compete in a Tiki Shake Off, sponsored by the Maine Chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild (USBG) at Maine Craft Distilling, 101 Fox St. And it’s FREE to attend.
The five semifinalists were chosen to compete after mailing in their cocktail recipes. Jeffrey Krowne from Top of the East, Steve Corman from Vena’s Fizz House, Matt Sherwood from Sur Lie, Rob Roy from Central Provisions and John Meyers from Portland Hunt & Alpine Club are shaking up tiki cocktails, which will be judged on originality, use of product, taste and presentation. Judges are Jason Loring of Nosh Kitchen Bar and Slab, Joe Ricchio of Maine Magazine, Laura Romasco of Crush Distributors and Sam Babcock from Sur Lie.
You’ll be able to sample the competitors’ libations and USBG members will be mixing up punches for purchase ($5-$6). Snacks will be provided by Slab. For more info, see facebook.com/USBG.