As Don Ho once famously quipped, I never met a Tiki bar I didn't like. Grungy holes-in-the-wall are of particular interest, because all the owners need to do is hit the Party Warehouse for some fake coconuts and palm fronds, get some cases of cheap rum, and mix up some Hawaiian Punch, and they've got themselves a party. It's especially egregious that high-end tropical bars like Smuggler's Cove have cropped up — the place does indeed have some good drinks, but you aren't going to walk out of there without spending your weight in puka shells. (I will leave The Tonga Room out of this discussion, for it is an immaculate concept that needn't be tainted by my words.)
The Bamboo Hut is junky-looking both inside and out, and you might miss it the first few times you pass it. It is surrounded by sex shops and titty bars and gives off an "Is this joint still open?" vibe. It displays a gigantic "ATM" sign as big as the bar's own sign, which is usually the mark of a classy establishment. Intrigued, I finally made my way past the Polynesian gates last week.
Just as I suspected, the inside was like the Dole-presented Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland, if it were sponsored by a Mexican beer company. It was packed, and everyone was either in college or had already dropped out.
Oh, there would be some projectile vomiting in my future. Yes indeedy.
What kind of a loser goes to a tiki bar by herself? This one. The good news was that there were so many drunk people that it only took me about three seconds to attach myself to a group hunched around a volcano bowl. I knew I was close enough when one of them said she smelled curry. I had just eaten some Indian food. That's right, gentle reader, the night was on.
Watching my new friends giggle and frolic (friends who really still had no idea I was part of their group ... yet) brought me back to my halcyon teenage years, when my pals and I would descend on the only bar in town that actively recruited underage drinkers, The House of Chen in Champaign, Ill. The owner, the now-deceased George Chen, was famous for saying "Money talk, bullshit walk." Well, no one's cash speaks as loudly as that of high-schoolers desperate for a buzz, and Mr. Chen was happy to oblige. He also played a pivotal role in my writing career when he inspired the following alliterative phrase from me at 17: "I'm feeling the effects of my fuzzy navel." The cops would routinely sweep the place, but we had an "in" with the cooks, who allowed us to hide in the walk-in cooler whenever we smelled bacon. It also probably had to do with Mr. Chen not wanting to lose his best customers for 48 hours (or until we made bail).
"OMG!!" yelled one of the girls. (OMG? People really say that?) A guy sitting with them had bogarted the entire punch bowl in one full slurp. I was one step closer to seeing someone puke.
"Whoa!" I added, all smiles, eager to become a part of the action.
"He's buying the next one!" she said, giving me an in — I could buy that next one. When I suggested it she looked at me like I was a creeper. I assured her that I was just waiting for my boyfriend and he was super late.
"You guys seem cool," I added, remembering that the word "cool" is not "cool" anymore, if you believe junior high kids.
"Cool!" she said. (Whew, she still thought "cool" was cool.) I lumbered up to the bar and ordered a volcano, motioning to my posse, who, if I were a paranoid sort, I might say were laughing at me. When I got back they had cleared a space for me. It was awkward, but that's why God created gigantic rum drinks.
They started into the sort of small talk you engage in when you are chatting with your friends in front of a stranger: Was so-and-so gonna show up? Did you hear that she got fired? I don't want to go to school tomorrow. I decided to sit with the discomfort. They would come around.
By this time even more people had forced themselves into the place, and they all looked sober and horny. Rest assured, both problems would soon be solved.
"So what do you do?" asked the one with manicured nails. I told her the truth, that I was a probation officer but was considering the U.S. Marshals after watching Dog the Bounty Hunter.
"Actually," I continued, "Timothy Olyphant is so hot in Justified; that influenced me as well." I was on a roll, and decided to make it sound like everything I did was precipitated by a TV show (which is actually sort of true). "Yep," I continued. "I was watching the Brady Bunch Hawaii episode and I got a hankering for a mai tai, so I came here."
"Never seen it," she said, clearly trying to change the subject.
"I usually watch reruns while cleaning my house after a particularly harrowing Hoarders."
"Huh," she said, turning to talk to her friends.
Well, at least I had somewhere to sit, although the Bamboo Hut was getting really raucous. I checked the time and announced that I had to get home to watch American Bible Challenge, figuring that would seal the deal. As expected, they couldn't wait to say goodbye to me.
Too bad, because the champion slurper looked a bit green. I guess that was one show I was going to have to miss.