Don't Pu Pu It

Sneaky Tiki has great service and a fun atmosphere, but we'd rather sneak past the food

When a place opens that calls itself Sneaky Tiki, this is what I expect: kitschy décor, kitschy drinks, kitschy food. When I'm told the restaurant also features, in addition to its own bar, an adjacent cocktail lounge (with a separate entrance and its own name, the T Bar), nightly DJs, and private screened booths with their own server call buttons, I know I'm entering Clubland -- an area of the dining-out world that I approach with trepidation. My idea of fun rarely involves trying to talk over (or under) loud music. I like good conversation as much as I like good food; they enhance each other, I find. But when I'm asked to come up with an idea for a festive weekend dinner for a group of international cosmopolites in town for work meetings, I remember what I've been told about the taste of one of the ringleaders, Pierre from Paris, and suggest Sneaky Tiki.

In the event, the dinner party that assembles at Sneaky Tiki for Saturday night supper and cocktails is not the one for whom the reservation had been made: A number of guests deemed the hour too early, though it was selected to allow the possibility of additional clubbing after the meal. The five of us who arrive first are led to a perfectly set-up table for our party of nine. I just have time to note the sleek, shiny, silvery foyer, the clear tiki masks, and the beautiful tall stools (two shades of acidic green, upholstered seat on sculptural base, unexpected and chic) in the adjacent black and dark bar, separated from the small dining room by a black divider of stacked circles, very '50s. When we're seated in modern gray upholstered wing chairs with curved tops, I note the absence of any tiki paraphernalia in the dining room: sneaky indeed. The menu looks like a folder of classified information, very Secret Service: sneaky again.

I'm dining with a different crowd than the blasé international lowlifes I'd expected. On my left are two women who both competed in races that morning -- one who came up from L.A. for an Ironman triathlon that involved a mile-long swim in icy San Francisco bay, another who ran a 15K -- with their mates. (I spent most of the day horizontal, in a welter of magazines, newspapers, and books.) I am surprised when, as we're examining the multipage menu, the already dim lights go down a couple of notches; when I pull out the tiny menu light I rarely use, two others at the table flash their own. I am not surprised when the triathlete tells me she doesn't eat meat. Therefore, I add a couple of plates of tuna tartare to the two pu pu platters I order, almost reflexively, to accompany a riotous selection of drinks. (It's in the beverages that the tiki theme is strongest, in conception as well as in name: During the course of the evening, we consume a Hula Colada, a Peeko Punch, a Lychee Cosmo, four Tiki Tais, a Blue Lagoon, three Passion Margaritas, most adorned with a fresh tropical bloom, and a Fish Bowl, served in a plastic approximation of its name and big enough for several to share. At some point someone gives up and orders a Bombay Sapphire and tonic.)

The dining room is very '50s, but not very 
tiki: sneaky.
James Sanders
The dining room is very '50s, but not very tiki: sneaky.

Details

Island spiced wings $6.95

Barbecue ribs $8.95

Coconut curry shrimp $16.95

Aloha cowboy steak (for two) $38.50

Sugar snap peas $5.95

Pineapple napoleon $6

Hula Colada $8 small, $14 large

701-TIKI (8454)

Open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and for dinner Sunday through Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m.

Reservations accepted

Wheelchair accessible

Parking: fairly easy

Muni: 9, 12, 47

Noise level: high

1582 Folsom (at 12th Street)

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We also get a plate of chicken wings ("island spiced") and another of barbecue ribs. If you asked me to name a few items I'd expect on a generic pu pu platter, these two would be among them -- as would, say, egg rolls and maybe rumaki, that echt-'50s cocktail nibble, here called bacon chestnut wraps. (I'm tempted to add an order of the wraps, too, but sanity intervenes. A friend who tried some tells me they're indeed tasty, no surprise since Hobbs bacon is involved.) Sneaky Tiki's pu pu platter contains what it calls island meatballs, which I find rather too big and bland; its own beef jerky, in tiny chunks, much moister than the convenience store staple and a little awkward to eat; threadlike sweet potato straws; and spider bowl calamari, described as "crispy fried calamari in a light coconut batter," tonight neither particularly crispy nor coconutty. The menu promises three dips -- mango "ketchup," cilantro-jalapeño purée, and sweet-and-sour sauce -- but the mango never materializes. The tartare, a dish found in numberless Bay Area restaurants, contains some badly trimmed, clumsy lumps of fish (in addition to the expected small cubes) and is underseasoned, to my taste. There's not much more going on here than the ginger, soy, and mirin mentioned on the menu, and to describe the tartare as "spicy" is a bit of an exaggeration. (Everything on the pu pu platter is wildly salty, however.) The best bites are the wings, divided at the joints into tiny drumsticks and another morsel, and the chunky barbecue spareribs, which are meaty and porky and the only dish, so far, that I'd order again.

The main courses are divided into two sections: half a dozen entrees, suggested for individuals, and five platters, "large portions perfect for sharing." Our party of nine gets two entrees and three platters, as well as two vegetable sides. I'm somewhat happier with this course: The coconut shrimp are nicely cooked under their sweet sauce, as is the miso-slicked grilled salmon served with baby bok choy, both entrees. The waiter expertly fillets the whole bass steamed in a banana leaf, to great acclaim, but the fish itself is soft and mushy. I think the cowboy steak is terrific: a great big thick tasty rib-eye, accurately described as "huge" and "grilled to perfection." But I'm disappointed, again, by the tiki harvest platter, two dullish slabs of tuna rubbed with nine spices, the description claims, and surrounded by garlic mussels and manila clams. (Everybody else is enjoying the food much more than I am. But I've only had one Tiki Tai.) The sugar snap peas are crunchy, and I like the sweet, lightly gingered Japanese-style eggplant, too.

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