“I was trying to put a chi-chi on the menu, but I’m not a huge fan of vodka,” says Christ (“krisst”) Aivaliotis of Oakland tiki bar The Kon-Tiki. “I want all the flavors. I decided to use rum, so it’s a piña colada with macadamia-nut liqueur.
“When I was trying to think of a name, I was thinking of why they call it a ‘Chi-Chi,’ ” he adds, “and I looked up the Hawaiian word for breast, and that’s ‘uma uma.’ ”
This is totally unrelated to Oumuamua, the bizarrely shaped asteroid that’s the first known rock with interstellar origins to pass through the Solar System. (Its name, which means “scout,” also happens to be Hawaiian.) In any event, Aivaliotis’ method rests on taking the tiki vibe — which he calls the “goofiest possible bar” — to its limit, then going beyond. There are Fog Cutters and Volcano Bowls, and lots of kitsch on the walls and ceiling. There are also not one but two dudes behind the bar rocking mullets on a recent Wednesday night. But instead of trotting out just the same old rum-orgeat-and-pineapple drinks that typify this occasionally controversial faux-Polynesian aesthetic, Aivaliotis wanted to switch things up.
Take the Crab Rangoon, a mid-century appetizer consisting of seafood and cream cheese stuffed in a wonton. After arguing with the kitchen over whether they should serve it at all, it’s now a dip. (Sometimes, Aivaliotis says, he gets it on a burger, calling it the “secret menu.” Additionally, drinks that might once have evoked a helpless maiden being hurled into a caldera to appease the fire god, now have subtle tweaks. The combination of tequila, mezcal, lime, passion fruit, pineapple gum, and spicy chili isn’t a Virgin Sacrifice. It’s a Virgin’s Sacrifice. This lady has agency, damnit.
“I love having these drinks on the menu that have the word ‘virgin’ in them that aren’t virgin,” Aivaliotis says. “To me, that’s hilarious. Why do we call them virgin drinks? Because they haven’t been fucked by alcohol? It doesn’t make sense. It makes confusion for people and we have to have that conversation. This is one of the two virgin drinks that aren’t virgin — plus I love the name Virgin’s Sacrifice. It’s a joke.”
The Kon-Tiki took over the space that for the last three years housed Longitude, a tiki bar in its own right. That meant something of a smaller investment and more room to play. For the Zombie, Aivaliotis riffed on the classic recipe but added a homemade grenadine and velvet falernum — falernum being a more heavily spiced cousin to orgeat, or almond syrup — plus a Hamilton Demerara 151 rum, to get that over-proof kick. Made with mango puree, the Tropical Itch is “basically a boozy mango lassi” — and Aivaliotis plans to roll out a proper back scratcher garnish, the decorative bamboo utensil that towers over the actual hurricane glass.
Aivaliotis is a veteran of James Syhabout’s Hawker Fare, having begun Holy Mountain along with Troy Bayless, the Jodorowsky-inspired bar inside it. In his years of research, at least some of which appears to have consisted of arguments with scornful know-it-alls adamant about this and that, he learned that there used to be a chain of tiki bars called Kon-Tiki, itself a nod to Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl’s voyage across the Pacific Ocean in a raft built by hand. Those bars began as a project by a “sleazy Hollywood layabout” named Joseph Stephen Crane, who’d also been Lana Turner’s ex-husband. They were not well-regarded, and in some quarters, neither was Aivaliotis’ choice of a name — which, incidentally, happened not to be trademarked.
“I’ve taken some flak about naming it for a chain of bars,” he says, adding that Heyerdahl’s expedition was “a perfect mirror of what happens in tiki culture.
“You have these people creating an idea of a culture based on their own idea and that’s what Thor was doing, I would argue,” Aivaliotis says. “He decided he knew better than the history. All tiki bars should be derivative. … I’m not trying to pretend to be a cultural ambassador to Polynesia, ’cause I think that’s shitty. It’s about referencing the tiki bars of the past, and I gave it a lot of thought.”
If there’s one thing a tiki bar should not do, he says, it’s refuse to stock enough rum. Noting that tiki’s origins owe themselves to the relative cheapness of excellent rum versus excellent versions of other spirits, Aivaliotis says the Kon-Tiki Grog is a riff on the Trader Vic’s version, made with Jamaican pot-stilled rum. He has something neither Trader Vic nor Don the Beachcomber had, however, which is passion fruit syrup made by local producer Small Hands.
“I really like what” Small Hands is doing, Aivalotis says. “I couldn’t make a better passion fruit syrup or pineapple gum or orgeat.”
With grilled trumpet mushrooms tossed in miso butter and furikake and a buttermilk fried chicken, this bar has more than grandma’s rumaki on the food menu, too.
“All the battered stuff is made with rice flour for better crunch,” he says. “There’s a papaya slaw that’s almost like a som tum salad. It’s my Hawker Fare roots.”
So is Hawker Fare basically a tiki bar bursting to get out?
“Exactly!” Aivaliotis says. “James would love that.”
The Kon-Tiki, 347 14th St., Oakland, 510-823-2332 or thekon-tikioakland.com