Part one: KON TIKI
For most of us here in Tucson, Kon Tiki is that curious Polynesian lounge in some dilapidated strip mall around the corner of Broadway and Swan. It looks cool but, well, the parking probably sucks and I bet it's filled with all sorts of characters from some beat lore drunken rejects from a Hemmingway or Bukowski novel, so I best not bother the regulars and just go to Appleby's for a Bud Light. For the rest of us, it is a curious piece of tiki themed Americana that does cater to a swill tank of bumbling rummys and aging red nosed Jimmy Buffet fans who want to “let loose” all too often in rotten loud printed shirts and sing 'Margaritaville' extremely off key and inventing words as the infusion of booze-a-hol makes one tend to forget that its actually “a woman to blame” not “a worm on my name.” And what the heck does that mean anyway? Having a male ponytail at 60 must make ones brain stretch and pull all pertinent residual information now hovering in a reek sack of bong resin and much too many scorpion bowls.
Kon Tiki, is, indeed, all of the aforementioned bliss: It's dark, it's retro, it's in a bad neighborhood, it's kind of sticky, the fishtank needs a cleaning and for gods sake would that lady please shut up about her cat being diabetic? I mean, for real, another gin fizz and she'll be weeping about Muffin and the fact that he's now on kitty insulin.
My first experience with Kon Tiki was questionable at best. Having recently moved here from San Francisco (which was 7 years ago) I thought going to a Polynesian tiki hut bar would be a great idea because back there, tiki bars were really cool and plentiful and we usually had a great time in them. The Tonga Room was probably the best, with amazing happy hour fare, huge drinks (that were also hugely expensive) and a tropical storm would crackle and rain over you every half hour. Trader Vic's on upper Geary street was a smaller and more tame version and the same one where we got in trouble for playing the first Spice Girls album on the jukebox in constant rotation from front to back. So, when the option to go hang out at Kon Tiki came my way I got kind of excited and promised myself to not drink the Hurricane because last time, I well...let's say I woke up across town next to somebody else with the words “poop here” written in sharpie next to my mouth.
The facade of Kon Tiki was interesting to me, although it felt a bit worn down and shabby. I liked the little bridge leading up to the big red door but the surrounding landscape was mossy, grown over and littered with urban debris. Upkeep here, I thought, must be at a minimum because the interior is the main priority as are the stiff and sweet drinks.
Nope. The interior, although decked out like an early 60's swinging bachelor pad, loomed in a haze of old drunks and yellowed from years of too much cigarette smoke clinging to decades old plastic tiki gods, bamboo screens and black velvet paintings of scantily clad island temptresses. We sat down near the back, in full observance of a huge and, yes, completely filthy aviary behind the squiggly bar, and I was pleased to find that an impromptu taco bar was set up for happy hour. After ordering my drink, I got up to sample the free fare but was not at all shocked to find that the food all but decimated with some sad shredded cheese mix looking up at me and begging me to put it out of its misery. No matter though, the locals were out for taco bar blood and they pushed me aside to devour the sloppily chopped iceburg lettuce, inhale the gray meat flavored from a dusty concoction in a easy to open packet and shove it all in taco shells that only school lunchrooms should deem appropriate and “edible”. There was one woman who actually got upset at me for standing there and deciding if I should indeed grab a small paper plate and join the masses in their free taco eating frenzy.
“Well what are you waiting for?” she grumbled. “Let's get going. I've been drinking since noon.”
Forget it, I thought, and went back to my seat and joined my friends. Luckily, they too were hungry and had already started ordering off the menu. They wanted something called “Monkeys on a Stick”, some bbq ribs and crab puffs (although the c in crab was replaced by a k...clever). I felt nervous and hesitant to try anything cooked out of sight in a place like this. Sure, the drinks were big and strong like a Samoan warrior, and hit just as hard, but by the looks of the place, I'm sure the kitchen was twice as bad and filled with sketchy characters that haunted the bar, all trying to sing along to Bob Marley but only barely knew the chorus to “No Woman, No Cry.”
When the food arrived I was pleasantly surprised to find the potions just as plentiful as the booze, with decent presentation, and it didn't look like cockroaches stuck on skewers. Monkeys on a Stick are cubed pieces of sirloin, marinated and jabbed onto wooden mini-stakes. I tried one. It was good. Really good. Perfect medium rare with a very pleasant and tangy flavor. The bbq ribs actually fell off the bone and were just as flavorful and cooked with precision just as the steak skewers had been. I'm always hesitant to try seafood from places that are far away from any body of water, but, I have to be honest here, those crab puffs, sorry...”krab puffs” were really good, all combined in cream cheese and some spices. Now, I thought, as always, I should never judge a book, or at least a kitchen, by the look of its cover, meaning the outside and interior. Some of my favorite eateries were usually known as “shit holes” by others, only because the central focus was the food and having to weave your way through back alleys, or walk though low ceiling dark dungeon-like dining areas only to come out the other end experiencing some of the greatest food you've ever had felt like an initiation, weeding out the naysayers and the fearful and introducing the brave and always up for anything clan to flavors you really didn't know existed.
Kon Tiki was sort of like that.
Now, we'd go back to Kon Tiki, now and then, but really, if ever, ate off the menu. It was usually a stopping point for visiting friends or a meeting place before we went out to a “respectable” eating establishment. Then we just kind of stopped going there. I mean, it is kind of out of the way for us and, well, after a bit we kind of forgot about Kon Tiki.
Then, quite recently, the place got a facelift. The torches outside of Kon Tiki hadn't been lit in years. In it's heyday, Kon Tiki had those big savage fire torches lit and you could see them from blocks away. Through the years though, with money and the times being an issue, they just stopped lighting them which gave an extra sad element to it's already fading glory. When I arrived for the first time I had to hear tales of long time residents spinning about how glorious and cool those torches were. But, with some new money coming in and some interested parties and investors, the torches outside of Kon Tiki are lit once again making the new coat of paint shine even brighter.
Then, we got an email from Groupon. “$10 for $20 worth of food at Kon Tiki” it said. If you're not familiar with Groupon, you should be. All you have to do is go to their website (www.groupon.com), sign up and you'll soon start getting emails about deals around your town. We have discovered so many badass restaurants because of it, which is the reason behind this series of Homeskillet blogs. So when we got one for Kon Tiki, we were all “Oh yeah. The food really was good there.” Except for that taco bar mess. I mean, was that salsa or...?
So on a pleasant afternoon, one that we both had off together (a Tuesday, another benefit of working in the restaurant industry, weekdays off) after running some errands we decided to give Kon Tiki another shot.
The front entrance was now clean and very un-mossy, the grounds were kept and free of debris and the big red front door looked brand new. When we stepped inside we were now met with a clean fishtank, shined up tiki gods and happy to see that old crappy aviary was gone and replaced by a real patio. Note to all bar and restaurant owners in Tucson: If you do not have a patio in your establishment you are fxxked. Install one now. Have you seen the weather out there? Yeah. Beautiful. And where are your patrons supposed to smoke? By the dumpster? Get the hint here people. Tucson is definitely patio territory.
The old terrarium, now a patio...thank the tiki gods!
Of course there were the expected smatterings of some drooling barflys but, that's a given in any dimly lit bar in any town near a methadone clinic. We sat near the back and were warmly greeted by the bartender. The menus were new, our table was clean and it seemed to have a much more open and friendly vibe. Maybe it was because it was a Tuesday afternoon and not Friday night in the middle of the pineapple soaked rum rage puke holocaust that I was so used to in places like this. Still, it smelled a lot better.
She-Ra, of course, got the Monkeys on a Stick and a large house salad while I got the Hawaiian bbq chicken with steamed rice. Our salads came out first accompanied by fresh made banana bread, which literally melted in your mouth. The salads were fresh, the dressing was tangy and so far we were pretty impressed.
Then came the entrees. The Monkeys on a Stick were a lot bigger than I had remembered from trying them so long ago. Huge chunks of marinated sirloin clung to those skewers. She-Ra tried one and her eyes closed. “These literally,” she mewed “are melting in my mouth.” I had to try one. It was true, that meat was so tender and cooked to medium rare perfection. Who's back in the kitchen, I wondered. I was envisioned a large dark skinned man hailing from an island that I had never heard of somewhere in the bright blue pools off of Polynesia. My chicken was amazing. That Hawaiian bbq sauce was packed with flavor, doused over a large pineapple ring and my chicken breast, which was generous, juicy and perfectly cooked. We basically ate in silence. Were we that impressed with the food or were we happy that a Tucson staple had gotten a much needed facelift and planned to come back as soon as possible? It was both. It had to be. Not to mention my side veggies were steamed just enough and seasoned just as well, a perfect accompaniment to a perfect lunch.
We left Kon Tiki satisfied, walking out into the late afternoon sun with smiles on our faces and in our tummies. Not just pleased with our meal but happy to know that people who give a crap and want to maintain a tradition in our city made the effort and gave a quirky institution the attention it deserves. I highly recommend eating at Kon Tiki, now that they have revamped and, obviously, hired a new chef. Let's all hope he looks like that image I hold in my imagination: Grinning a toothy grin as he sharpens curved knives over an open flame of ribs and steak, his ample Maori form a testament to all things great about eating good island inspired fare.
Of course, they still do happy hour and that taco bar is featured on Fridays. And you just read about my experience in tiki lounges on Fridays right? So, yeah, good luck with that one.
Thank you Groupon for re-introducing us to a place we had lost faith in. It's good to know that when you're in the hub of Broadway and Swan, and are craving a tall fruity well hooched drink, such as a (gulp!) Hurricane, Zombie, the famous Scorpion Bowl and something called The Suffering Buster, before the heady death swagger of one sip over the line hits your system, you can order something off the menu that will soak it up and stick to your ribs to boot. You just gotta love Kon Tiki and now that we've been back after all these years, we love it too.
But I will love it less if that crazy cat lady comes back and tells me Muffin has died because of some diabetic coma. C'mon lady. I'm only on my first drink and the surf and turf is to die for.