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The Man Who Came to Dinner 

Tiki News

Wednesday, Dec 15 1999
Ah, the American dream. Here at the turn of the millennium, our collective goal of a chicken in every pot and a white picket fence has evolved into pre-IPO options and a comparatively less corrupt lawyer. It seems nine out of 10 American workers now hope to retire early to Tahiti, where they can day-trade over their cell phones while sipping gooey blender drinks in the sun.

Against this rising tide of cynicism one man stands alone, a beacon in the night. Otto von Stroheim, editor in chief of the internationally acclaimed zine Tiki News, spends virtually every day of his life listening to the waves of the South Seas, basking in tropical sunshine, and tossing back the mai tais -- right here in San Francisco.

Otto's Mission District apartment, which he shares with his tiki girlfriend, Baby Doe, is a full-fledged tropical paradise. The couple greeted me at the door wearing elaborate floral patterns before leading me down the long tiki-torch-lit hallway to the warm red glow of their living room. "Welcome to Otto and I's humble abode," said Doe.

An ornate tiki bar took up a full third of the space. The rest of the room was a shrine to all things tiki. Little shelves lined with hundreds of ceramic and wooden tiki-idol mugs covered most of the walls. The harmonic vibes of island music played softly in the background. Hanging on the wall next to the bar was a large portrait of an Island Otto with clean-shaven head and long, angular sideburns. "I found that in a thrift shop," he said, "and altered my persona to match it."

While Baby Doe headed to the kitchen Otto resumed his place behind the tiki bar. I eased onto one of the leopard skin stools and flipped through the illustrated tiki bar menu. "How about the Wai-ki-kian?" I asked, and Otto hit the juicer.

An avowed tiki purist, Otto explained, "A real tiki drink is like a good sandwich. You need to have the best ingredients. Fresh ice, fresh juices."

Doe placed a dish of faux-chicken nuggets on the bar beside the big bowl of macadamia nuts. "We're vegetarians," explained Otto, "so we have to modify the pupu platter and the tiki menu to fit our tastes."

"So how old is Tiki News?" I asked, double-dipping the soy nuggets into the little ketchup and mustard dishes.

"Tiki News is sort of the mushroom cloud of my tiki adventure," replied Otto. "It all started with a party in my back yard, around '86 or so. My roommate said, "Let's make it a tiki party,' and I said, "OK. What is that?' The first year I bought some bamboo and coconuts, and eventually I had a full tiki bar, like this, in the back yard, and hundreds of people started showing up in Hawaiian shirts and shorts."

Otto completed his masterpiece, passing me a molded Hawaiian glass filled with fresh juices and rums and a dark liquid on top. "That's a floater," he explained. "You can use a straw, but it's more fun to sip through it."

Baby Doe rejoined us to lift our Wai-ki-kians in a toast. "Okole maluna," said Otto. "That means "bottoms up.'

"I didn't get my first tiki mug until the second year," he continued. "And I started really collecting several years later. I thought, "Oh my God, that's cool. That's sculpture. That's art.' After I had three or four mugs someone brought me one at a party. They said, "Here you go. You've got a collection going, man.' Then I started really combing the thrift shops."

Baby Doe emerged from the kitchen again with several enormous pupu platters of vegetarian-Polynesian delights. We all took pillows on the floor around the coffee table and got down to business.

"This is supposed to be, I guess, a re- creation of our favorite Trader Vic's dinner," explained Doe. The main dish was vegetable curry over rice. "It's really cool," she said, "because they give you all these little dishes with different stuff you can put on the curry, so I kind of tried to re-create that. We have apples, and cranberries, and coconut, sesames, raisins, parsley, tomatoes, mango, avocado. And here we have a bunch of different chutneys: banana, mint, and mango." Other sections of the platter contained spiced cauliflower and mashed yams. I loaded up my plate and went to town on all the different toppings.

Tiki News, which just published its 15th issue, was born out of Otto's mug hunting, but quickly grew into a vehicle to help bring the love of tiki to the masses. "The intent of the magazine, in the beginning, was twofold," explained Otto. "It was an attempt for me to meet other tiki collectors. And ..."

"Girls," finished Doe.

"Oh, right," said Otto. "Girls in general, whether they were tiki collectors or not. Because you know how girls flock to guys that put out zines. You know how every zine guy has chicks just all around him."

We all laughed.

"No, my goal was to, as nerdy as it sounds, create a network for mug collectors. Because at the time I had maybe 50 to 75 mugs and I thought I was getting close to having them all. Now I realize that there's actually about 3,000 different [commercially manufactured] tiki mugs out there." Since moving Tiki News from L.A. to San Francisco, Otto has taken to promoting his tiki parties on a larger scale, and also DJs island music each week at the Beauty Bar and the Lilo Lounge. The magazine, he told me, has a circulation of 2,500 and is distributed through Tower Records stores across the country.

"I had submitted Tiki News to be carried by them, and they declined," he explained. "But I would go to my local Tower and just put a few of them on their shelf. And then people would buy them. So one day Tower's national zine buyer called me and said, "My employees are requesting I carry your magazine.' So now they take 300 copies."

As we cleared our plates, Baby Doe headed to the bar to whip us up a round of Castaways.

"So how do you feel about all this?" I asked Otto. "It sounds like it was kind of an accident. Your roommate said, "Let's make it a tiki party.' Before that you weren't Tiki Man, right? You were just a normal person. Now you're the king of all tiki."

"I guess so," said Otto. "I mean, I only wear Hawaiian shirts. You know -- all the time. Even at work."

Doe presented us with our fresh Castaways and disappeared into the kitchen for a second to retrieve her incredible dessert, a huge, glistening brown pineapple upside-down cake.

"Mmm ... wow," I said with a mouth full of upside-down cake, "that's, like, a Duncan Hines mix, isn't it?"

They both laughed. "It is Duncan Hines, isn't it?" said Otto.

"But it's great," I assured Doe. "Who doesn't love Duncan Hines mix?"

"The secret," she explained proudly, "is in the brown sugar and the pineapple rings."

"So what do you think, Barry?" asked Otto. "Do you want to go on a little tiki tour of San Francisco? Our original plan was to have dinner at the Tonga Room, but they wouldn't give us a free meal. I called them up and they said, "Well, we'll give you 50 percent off.' I thought, "Oh, that's cheesy.' Isn't that cheesy? I mean, I publish the Tiki News, you know? They're like, "Well, what's that?'"

"I don't think I've been to the Tonga Room in about five years," I said.

"Well, you know," said Otto, "for most people, once every five years is enough. Of course for us, when I first moved here we started going at least once a month. If it got to the end of the month and we hadn't been, we'd be like, "Uh, we haven't been to the Tonga Room this month. Oh God, we better go tonight.' Since I moved here, we've went at least 20 or 30 times."

HEY, TONGA ROOM: How about throwing Tiki News a bone, huh?

"Maybe we should just go to the Lilo," he suggested. "It's up to you. We could do tiki all night. We could tiki for, like, a week straight without sleeping."

A hop, skip, and a car pool later we were rolling into the Lilo Lounge on Potrero Hill. The bamboo fans twirled slowly overhead as DJ Mike, Otto's buddy (and publisher of Gearhead), spun exotica tunes on the turntables.

We ordered another round of drinks. A mai tai for Otto. Blue Hawaiian for Doe. And make mine a Tropical Storm. "The thing about tiki," Otto concluded, "is that it's just a great aesthetic, that nobody can really hate, because it's kitschy, but not cheesy. It's just all about fun. And it's not offensive to Islanders because it's so inauthentic, it's so poorly done, that it's not really offending anything about them. It's just total escapism."

When my second Tropical Storm arrived, I did what most pre-2K American men would do: I eased back in my rattan chair, pictured myself escaping to some island paradise, and secretly fell in love with the waitress.

Ah, the tropics.

Want to host The Man Who Came to Dinner? E-mail and tell us what's cookin'.

About The Author

Barry Levine


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