I have the Book of Food and Drink at hand as we speak, and Trader Vic's Kitchen Kibitzer too. My corner grocery store features in its aisles tubs of Trader Vic's Hot Buttered Rum Batter and Trader Vic's Tom and Jerry Batter and, for all I know, Trader Vic's Navy Grog Mix. And in home kitchens across the continents, blenders are buzzing with the base ingredients to the Trader's most reverberative concoction, the Mai Tai, far from its birthplace in Oakland, Calif.
It was in Oakland in 1932 that Victor Bergeron Jr. opened a pub across San Pablo Avenue from his father's grocery store and started serving his clientele goofy tropical cocktails and Americanized island grub, aided and abetted by South Pacific paraphernalia he had obtained over the years. By 1936 young Herb Caen was writing that "the best restaurant in San Francisco is in Oakland," and the rest is history: a veneer of refinement (a startling development, given the rambunctious machismo that leaps from the pages of the Kitchen Kibitzer), an expanding empire of chain restaurants (18 at last count, including locations in Bangkok, Singapore, and Düsseldorf) and food products (the aforementioned batters have been selling like hot cakes for 62 years), the inevitable imitations (Trad'r Sam's, Don the Beachcomber, the Tonga Room), and even a few contemporary-fusion descendants (checked out Ponzu yet?), all of them aglimmer with that Jungle Cruise amalgam of Polynesian kitsch and gleaming napery.
The San Francisco Vic's has been closed for nearly a decade but the flagship restaurant is still in the East Bay, though it's moved from its San Pablo Avenue birthplace to large and comfortable quarters at the Emeryville Marina. The water views provide an appropriate backdrop as you're bellying up to the bar, which is the best part of going to Trader Vic's. Here you can survey the surrounding tiki and antique firearms and angrified alligators and other Gilligan-esque icons while congenial, expert bartenders in tropical shirts mix up one technicolor cocktail after another. Primary among them is the aforementioned Mai Tai, a concoction of rum, lime juice, curaçao, orgeat, shaved ice, and fresh mint that was invented a few miles from here in 1944. On that fabled night, Vic served the first one to a Tahitian-American buddy who called it mai tai-roa ae ("outta this world -- the best" in his native tongue). The drink itself is beautifully balanced, disarmingly uncloying, and very tasty.
Another classic, the Piña Colada, is as delicious as a scoop of sherbet, a tall icy snowball tasting of coconut and pineapple with white rum sneaking in at the fringes. The Doctor Funk of Tahiti, which was allegedly invented in Papeete as a cure for heat prostration, combines two kinds of dark rum with lime, lemon, seltzer, and the licoriced aroma of Herbsaint, with truly medicinal results. The Pogo Stick is a different story altogether: no rum, just gin, pineapple, and grapefruit, and as a result it's the most refreshing cocktail on the menu.
My favorite offering, though, is the Scorpion. It encapsulates, in potable form, the entire Trader Vic's ethos: The brew (a couple of light rums tinged with orange, lemon, almond liqueur, and brandy) is served ice cold in what can only be described as a soup bowl with a fresh gardenia floating on top. The drink sneaks up on you (it's like sipping a good agua fresca, and before you know it you're really, really happy), and every time I lifted the bowl to my mouth (a two-handed job) I got a whiff of the gardenia, which added an undefinable something to the flavor combinations and reminded me of my senior prom at the same time.
The second best thing about Trader Vic's is the appetizers. The Beef Cho-Cho is simplicity itself -- strips of beef served satay-style on skewers -- but the meat is tender and juicy and the presentation is pure Vic's: You get to sizzle the steak yourself over a flaming, bright-purple hibachi. The Cheese Bings are like tiny grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, crunchy and golden brown on the outside, volcanically cheesy within. The Cosmo Tidbits are a (rather minuscule) compendium of the Trader's greatest hits: Crab Rangoon, an irresistible combination of crab meat, cream cheese, and crisp wonton skin; big, juicy deep-fried prawns; moist little spareribs; and slices of rich, smoky barbecued pork from the venue's once-revolutionary wood-fired Chinese ovens. All can be ordered at the bar to accompany your cocktails: one of the Bay Area's more pleasurable dining options.
A good thing, too, since there isn't much worth mentioning about the venue's entrees and desserts. Back in 1946, the Trader wrote that in his restaurant "Chinese, Javanese, or Tahitian dishes have been changed to suit American tastes for the simple reason that my customers, for the most part, like good food, well cooked and seasoned, but their taste buds aren't educated enough to take foreign dishes first hand with appreciation." (Example: the aforementioned Crab Rangoon.)
We the customers have progressed in our culinary education since then, at least somewhat, but Trader Vic's is still largely marooned in the Truman era. The Bongo Bongo Soup, a piping-hot, satiny-smooth purée of oysters and spinach, is still delicious, but the lamb curry is heavy and perfunctory and barely spicy, despite its fetching array of seven condiments; the seafood taro nest of lobster, scallops, prawns, and whitefish tastes like second-rate chop suey, and the barbecued quails, moist and succulent though they are, are almost devoid of taste despite their foray into those smoky Chinese ovens. The macadamia-crusted mahi-mahi, spiky and buttery at once, is the menu's only entree with an exciting flavor, and even it was overcooked and dry. The chocolate macadamia tart, meanwhile, is a dense, chalky mess; the Kona ice cream flambé, despite the Sturm und Drang, is merely so-so ice cream with rudimentary chunks of pineapple and banana; and the Polynesian snowball ain't nothin' but a scoop of ice cream with chocolate sauce.
Still, I'm glad I wore the tie: The Trader certainly did add something to the collective culinary ozone.Belly up to the bar and survey the Gilligan-esque décor at Trader Vic's.