Saturday, October 27, 2007
A Trip to Forbidden Island
In my recent interview with tiki drink expert Jeff Berry, he mentioned three places in the U.S. where you can sample the original concoctions conjured up by Donn Beach of Don the Beachcomber's. As one was in L.A., one in Ft. Lauderdale and one in Alameda, CA, I figured my chances of getting to any of them soon will next to nothing. (I'm not a warm climate guy, preferring the gloomy, intemperate East Coast.)
But life's full of surprises. Last weekend, I went out to visit my brother in San Francisco after he proffered an unexpected invitation. I mentioned Berry and the tiki drink world and Forbidden Island, the authentic place located in Alameda, and he grew intrigued. "Do you want to go there?" he asked. Turns out Alameda was less than a half hour drive away from where we were staying. And so on Saturday night we journeyed on the long, low-lying Richmond-San Rafael Bridge across San Pablo Bay, skirted Berkeley and Oakland and went through the Webster Street tunnel to Alameda, a large island community east of San Francisco and known primarily for it Naval Base.
Alameda is an interesting place. It looks like a slice of middle-class California, circa 1940, held in time. Americana. Forbidden Island is located on Lincoln Avenue, the island's main drag. It's not a big place, but it looks like you expect it to—basically, a faux hut, colored dark brown.
The interior is dimly lit. The long room has a bar stretching along the left side and a series of thatched-roof booths on the right. Further back are some tables and chairs. A jukebox is stuffed with tropical-themed music; nothing from after 1960 that I heard. There are tikis here and there, and various posters and album covers on the wall of artists in Hawaiian or the like. The walls are made to look like dark wooden beams and thatch is everywhere. The lamps about the booths are made up like tiki versions of jack o'lanterns. No question, they've got the mood right.
The menu was a pleasure to peruse. It was divided in a series of categories: house specialties, grogs, bowls and Don the Beachcomber specialties. Mr. Berry was listed among the "thanks yous" at the bottom. I was hard to decide. There are so many classic tiki drinks that I have never tried. The drinks have anywhere from one X to fives Xs next to them to indicate their potency. I concluded I should start with a classic, and ordered a Navy Grog, supposedly Frank Sinatra's favorite drink. Strangely, the grogs were the only drinks on the menu where the ingredients weren't listed. I talked my brother into ordering a lost Donn Beach classic called Missionary's Downfall, made of fresh mint, lime, pineapple, and a dash of peach.
A young, cheerful waitress took our order. Interestingly, the bar staff was populated only by women that night, including the bartenders mixing the drinks (which they did expertly and more speedily than I had expected). I asked if the owner, Martin Cate, was in. Sadly, he was not there that night. I would have liked to have spoken to him.
The Navy Grog was excellent, a more mature drink than I expected, balanced with just a touch of fruit. The Missionary's Downfall was a surprise. The mint and lime dominated, making for a slightly bitter beverage, though not in a bad way. It put the lie to the idea that tiki drinks are all about strong rum and sweet fruit. Everything was served in clear glasses, not tiki mugs or coconuts, so you could enjoy the color of the drinks. The waitress said people can bring in their own tiki mugs, which the bar will keep and bring out whenever that patron comes in. But, she said, they may discontinue the practice as they've already got a shelf of mugs and are running out of room to keep them.
For the second round, I ordered a Painkiller, which the waitress said was the bar's most popular drink. According to the menu, it was invented at the Soggy Dollar Bar on the tiny island of Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands. It's made of a "creamy blend of pineapple, orange and coconut with a hint of spice. Made the authentic way with Pusser’s Navy Rum!" Creamy it was, and frothy and delightful. Like a tiki milk shake. And it came with an paper umbrella! I thought those things were verboten in today's tiki world.
My brother ordered the Classic Mai Tai, and I know it must sound boring to say that the most famous tropical drink in the world is the best one we had, but, well, it was. It was fantastically delicious! I beautifully integrated mix of fruit flavors and fine rum. A masterpiece.
That was all we could handle, leaving so many tempting drinks on the menu left untried. Forbidden Island was a completely satisfying experience from every point of view: taste, aesthetics, service, professionalism, atmosphere. I recommend it. We went early in the evening. I guess it gets crowded later on and there are lines. I recommend arriving at 6 or 7 PM.
Now, how do I manage a trip to Ft. Lauderdale?