By Margo Greenman
The 1930s was a decade of many milestones for the United States. The country endured and recovered from the Great Depression, Amelia Earheart flew solo across the Pacific, and two wanderlust entrepreneurs from California created the cocktailing culture best known as “tiki.”
Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gnatt was just 24-years-old when he arrived in Los Angeles and introduced Hollywood to his Polynesian-themed, rum-heavy bar and restaurant, Don the Beachcomber. Just three years later in 1937, Victor Bergeron brought a similarly-themed bar, Trader Vic’s, to California’s Bay Area.
Both bars boasted exotic drinks infused with one, two, three (or more) types of rum, like the still-popular mai tai, which both the Beachcomber and Vic claim to have invented. By the 1950s and ‘60s, tiki culture and the cocktails associated with it reached its climax, making appearances across the country and establishing itself well in the United States’ own Aloha state, the Paradise of the Pacific: Hawaii.
Today, many bars still give a boozy nod to the tiki culture of yore with menu offerings of a modern day mai tai or the occasional zombie, but by and large, the once vibrant tiki culture that was so prominent during the mid-20th century has more or less fizzled out, with, of course, the exception a few bars that make it their mission to keep the culture alive.
The Tacoma Cabana in downtown Tacoma is one such bar. The undeniably authentic tiki bar has made it its business to resurrect not only the colorful cocktails once made popular by Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic, but also the kitschy, South Pacific atmosphere and Polynesian foods the trend was also known for.
Tacoma Cabana owner and bartender, Jason Alexander, and his wife, Robyn Murphy, have only been in the tiki business a few years, but in this short amount of time, the two have cultivated a restaurant and bar that would make the tiki masters of yesteryear proud.
After years swinging a hammer at various construction sites around the region, Jason decided to hang up his toolbelt and trade it in for a tumbler. At the time, Robyn owned and operated the once popular Villa Cafe — where Jason first tried his hand at bartending — but the two were ready to take on a new endeavor. “We wanted to do something different,” Jason says.
The idea for a tiki bar didn’t strike the pair until a vacation in Hawaii led them to a cocktail lounge that served intoxicating drinks of the traditional tiki variety. “I had my first real zombie, Don the Beachcomber-style,” Jason reminisces. “When we got home I was on a mission. I was like, ‘I have to learn how to make a proper Trader Vic’s mai tai and zombie.”
In the months that followed, Jason worked tirelessly researching classic recipes and tiki history to curate his own versions of the once famed drinks. When Jason and Robyn found a vacant storefront on Pacific Avenue in downtown Tacoma, the two decided to set up shop.
The Tacoma Cabana opened strong with an ambitious menu boasting 30 drinks — a selection that has since grown to 70. “We didn’t know how busy we would be or how much people would like it,” Jason says. But, the Tacoma Cabana has since proved itself a local favorite. In the nearly three years that the Tacoma Cabana has been open, it has won the prestigious title of “Best Cocktails” in King 5’s Best of Western Washington, and Jason has also taken home the award for “Best Bartender” in the Weekly Volcano’s Best of Tacoma contest, as well as the title as the 2014 Iron TikiTender Champion.
“It’s really a tremendous honor,” Jason says. “I’m happy just plugging away at a little hole in the wall. I never thought it would be at this level.”
On any given weekend, the Tacoma Cabana is crowded with regulars and first-time customers all eager to try the exotic, thoughtfully concocted cocktails served at the Tacoma watering hole and eatery. Jason says honestly that his favorite drink to serve is the one his customers are going to enjoy the most, but he also finds pleasure in making people their first proper mai tai or zombie, made from housemade mixers you can’t buy at the store. “I get a kick seeing someone’s face when they realize, ‘Wow! This is what that’s supposed to taste like?’”
Of course, after having a properly made mai tai, Tacoma Cabana-goers move on to lesser-known concoctions like the Painkiller, a combination of Barbados rum, pineapple, orange, coconut and a dusting of fresh-ground nutmeg, promised to “help ease the pain.” Or the Jet Pilot, which comes served with a bit of actual fire — watch the eyebrows.
As for the food, Jason says the Tacoma Cabana’s Vacation Fusion Menu features eats inspired from Jason and Robyn’s own dining experiences. For dinner, you’ll find everything from traditional Loco Moco — a gut buster complete with rice, a hamburger patty, two eggs over easy and a generous helping of brown gravy — and the sweet and savory Moai burger, which is served with a slathering of the bar’s signature Cabana BBQ Sauce.
Whether you’ve been jonesing for an authentic mai tai or just feel like perusing the bar’s impressive r(h)um list, the Tacoma Cabana — with its top notch food and drinks and subdued, South Pacific island-feel — is worth the trip.
The Tacoma Cabana is open Wednesday through Saturday, 5:00 p.m. to midnight. For more information or to view the Tacoma Cabana’s menu, visit the Tacoma Cabana online.