I was feeling a bit nostalgic. Perhaps it was due to a post-holiday malaise; maybe I was simply succumbing to the general trend in popular culture.
Whatever the cause, I began reminiscing on my first experiences drinking in public places: a smoky blues club, Chinese restaurant lounges, fancy dinners out with family, etc. While I was unable to locate a smoky blues club here in the Coachella Valley (send me suggestions!), I did visit two analogues of the other places to see how they matched up with my first memories of drinking.
I had never been to Melvyn’s before, but I felt like I had: So many people have told me about the place that I had a pretty good mental picture before walking in for the first time—and that picture was pretty spot-on. It was busy for a weekday (judging by the comments of the regulars surrounding me), but I managed to snag a prime barstool. I usually can; it’s kind of my superpower.
Surrounded by pictures of faces of celebrities living and deceased, I settled in and made friends with a couple of Canadian teetotalers next to me. They said they came here all the time, and were wondering if I was here to see it before the new ownership possibly changes things (which is apparently a big concern among regulars).
The bartender, Michael, was working the whole restaurant alone. I got anxiety just watching him, but he kept his cool. The maître d’ made the rounds and knew the guests by name. I asked the maître d’ what time the music started, and he pointed at the piano player: “At 7, or whenever the spirit moves him.” A minute or two later, the tinkling of ivory floated out from the corner. I guess the spirit was moving him—as it was beginning to move me.
I got a dry martini … what else am I going to put on a napkin featuring Frank Sinatra’s face? I ordered Bombay gin—craft gin’s not an option here. Shaken lightly, giant olives, hardly any vermouth … yeah, this is not the way you’d get it at my bar, but there are eras to cocktails, and they need to be acknowledged. For a place from this era, the tinkling of chip ice against the thin walls of a three-part shaker was a sound of success. I’m sure even Dale DeGroff was shaking plenty of gin martinis once upon a time. (That said, if you work at any place built in the last 20 years, and you shake my gin martini … well, let’s not go there.) Cold gin, a shrimp cocktail, piano music, Old Blue Eyes regarding me warmly from his paper prison … how much more old Palm Springs does it get?
The bartender suggested a Maker’s Mark Manhattan next, as though he were reading my mind; this drink was a mainstay of my early-to-mid-20s. Just like the ones I drank in my early-to-mid-20s, it was also shaken and light on vermouth, with nary a bitters bottle in sight. I didn’t come here for a Death and Co. Manhattan; I came for the kind my dad made at his bar—and I got it. (Again, bartenders: Don’t you dare do this if your clientele is younger than 75, on average.)
All and all, it was a lovely journey back to an era that we will never see again, since modern restaurant philosophy has changed so much—and so irreversibly.
So … there’s craft tiki; there’s tiki; and there is what I grew up drinking at the (long-gone) Aloha and other lounges that once peppered the Northeast: a sort of tiki/American-Chinese chimera with sour mix galore, and with loose interpretations of recipes by Trader Vic and Donn Beach (the creator of Don the Beachcomber), along with lots of greasy pork and noodles to sop up the ample booze. Oh, and ID checks were lenient, too. It was heaven. Luckily for me, some pockets of California held on to tiki in its more-or-less-original form. I’d heard that Tonga Hut, with a location in Palm Springs, was one of those places. I went to investigate.
First of all, it totally looks the part, aside from a balcony overlooking Palm Canyon Drive, but that’s a nice touch my Aloha could never have had. Everything was just as I imagined. I ordered a mai tai, which was made according to the Trader Vic recipe. (With all due respect to Donn Beach, I prefer the Trader Vic recipe, too—mostly because it’s way less complicated.) It was tasty and citrus-forward, with plenty of rum and a backbone of orange liqueur and almond—thankfully nothing like the pineapple-juice-and-rum versions of my youth! They had crab rangoons and beef teriyaki, and these dishes were actually much lighter-tasting and way less greasy than what I grew up eating (although I am not sure how I feel about that).
Next, I had bartender Josh make me a painkiller, one of those rarely seen tiki concoctions which was actually trademarked by Pusser’s Rum. It is a tasty mix of rum, pineapple juice, orange juice, coconut cream and a garnish of nutmeg. Because glassware is crucial to proper tiki, Josh even served it in a classic Pusser’s enameled metal mug. If you haven’t had one of these, give it a try: The ample nutmeg may seem a little odd at first, but once you get used to it, it really makes the drink feel festive. It has the DNA of a piña colada, but ends up tasting very different; the orange juice and nutmeg offer it a unique flavor.
Tonga Hut is definitely a good spot for those seeking a classic tiki fix, or for those, like me, who are just trying to scratch that itch for nostalgia.
Nostalgia cured, I went back to work.
I felt like I left the Bloody Mary debate a little unresolved last month, so I set about trying the drink at various places around town, despite my aversion to it in general. I felt it was my duty to know where the best one was; call it a sense of journalistic integrity, if you’d like.
I had been hearing over the last few months that Sparrows Lodge was a nice place to grab lunch, so when a friend called me up on a sunny afternoon, we decided to give it a go.
I had been to Sparrows once before, for an evening event, so I already knew the environment is unreal: You literally cannot take a bad picture here. I have tried. I ordered the Bloody Mary, knowing it could make or break my experience. It was wonderful, light and almost refreshing, with a sensible garnish of pickled okra. There seemed to be chili oil floating on top; I tasted mustard seeds and citrus. The vinegar was bright but not overpowering, with no congealed horseradish chunks in sight. While I would not have a second one in succession, because it’s still a Bloody Mary, I was impressed—so impressed that I am calling it the best one in town (at least that I have had so far).
So … goodbye nostalgia (and goodbye, Bloody Marys); time to move on and explore some new ground, even though it has been a fun trip down memory lane.
Kevin Carlow is a bartender at Seymour’s/Mr. Lyons and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.