To host a tiki party is to create the unbridled primitive escapism of an imagined Polynesian paradise.
That's according to Michael Thanos, who is, by all accounts, a scholar of tiki culture. He also knows how to throw one heck of a party.
Thanos is the tropical mastermind behind Oakland's Conga Lounge and Alameda's Forbidden Island, neo-tiki bars that whisk you away to the land of leis and mai tais. All elements of his bars -- from the bamboo walls and coconut shrimp appetizers to the fruity cocktails and groovy tunes -- unite to evoke that iconic, nostalgic, midcentury vibe. Follow his party tips and you'll practically hear the rumbling volcanos.
Q What are your three must-serve tiki cocktails?
A Tiki drinks are not, by nature, easy to make. But two things come to mind because they're classic and easy. The piña colada, with rum, coconut cream and pineapple juice, is Puerto Rican by creation but certainly tiki terrific. And the Island Mai Tai, made with gold amber rum, orgeat syrup, pineapple juice and a dark rum float, encapsulates the essence of tiki culture. Lastly, one of our most popular cocktails at Forbidden Island is the Chambordlada. It's a piña colada with Chambord -- vacation in a glass.
Q Speaking of glasses, what stemware do you recommend?:
A Tiki has its own drink vessel, the tiki mug. That's it. You can get these hefty ceramic glasses on Amazon or eBay, and there are always plenty at flea markets. For garnish, the cocktail umbrella is quintessential. So are carved pineapple and cherries. But my favorite garnish is slapped mint leaves. Just before serving your cocktail, slap a leaf in your palm. It releases the mint's oil and is so aromatic with that first sip.
Q What dishes always make an appearance on your pupu platter?
A Pork and lots of it. There's nothing more Hawaiian than Kalua pork roasted in an underground pit. You can use liquid smoke to get that effect. Coconut shrimp is the very essence of a tropical experience, because it's not only seafood but also coconut. I also like to serve fried rice in carved wooden bowls. It's essential to have a mix of traditional Hawaiian foods and the kitschy, Asian-influenced dishes on the pu-pu platter.
Q Any cookbooks you recommend?
A I like the Beachbum Berry books.
Q What kind of music sets the mood?
A There are so many ways to go. You can get tribal drumming or environmental recordings like bird calls and ocean waves. Tiki culture also has its own soundtrack and that's exotica. It's basically jazz augmented with Polynesian, Asian and Latin instruments. I'd pick up a used turntable at a thrift shop and buy some exotica LPs. They're $1 at most record stores.
Q Decorating for a tiki party can be overwhelming. What are the essentials?
A You absolutely need leis, tiki torches and aloha shirts for your guests. You can flesh out the look with fisherman's netting, coconut shells, and tons of plants and flowers. There's nothing more tiki than a jungle. You can get the torches, real or battery-operated, from Cost Plus World Market or rent them from Event Magic in Oakland. They also have amazing painted backdrops of the beach and tropical settings. For $50 to $100, you could get a nice assortment of decor for a single night.
Another must-have is bamboo. Home Depot has a wide variety, and it's affordable. Use it to dress up a fence or wall. Woven grass mats and hula skirts can really make over a bar, too. I also love the idea of the moving image as decor. There are countless movies and TV shows filmed on location in the tropics that use lavish Technicolor and scenic views. You can screen "South Pacific," "Blue Hawaii" or "Paradise, Hawaiian style." I also love "Gilligan's Island" and "The Brady Brunch" episodes filmed in Hawaii. "I Dream of Jeannie" filmed in Honolulu for a few episodes and featured Don Ho.
Nothing says tiki like Don Ho.