When the Earth and I were young, Trader Vic’s was among the most magical places in Los Angeles, a wonderland of teak and thatch in the hot corner of the Beverly Hilton, a paradise of pupu platters, Crab Rangoon and Meats From Our Chinese Oven. I yearned for its flaming desserts, which I was, for some reason, never allowed to order, and it’s where I took the lovely Elena for supper after the high school prom. I built up a small collection of the books written by Trader Vic Bergeron, the restaurant’s founder, and when I was finally old enough to drink, I worked my way through as much of the tropical drink menu — Trader Vic’s is credited with inventing the mai tai — as I could afford, at least until I discovered the Tiki Ti. So it was exciting to walk into the new Trader Vic’s, set next to the Yard House in the L.A. Live complex, wander past the tiki bar, and be led through bamboo chambers, past acres of tapa cloth, to a table right by the wood oven.
Still, a childhood-era craving for that pupu platter, as always served on a porcelain plate perched over a wan Sterno flame, is probably better experienced as nostalgia than as a meat-space collection of tepid spareribs, limp roast pork, cream cheese–filled wontons (Crab Rangoon) and board-stiff fried shrimp. The syrup-glazed wood oven–cooked pork chop was sweet as Count Chocula — so sweet that the potato-pineapple hash served next to it seemed almost savory in context. The crispy duck — shredded with two forks tableside and served with bean sauce, scallions and thin pancakes to wrap it all up in — would probably be more impressive in cities without a reliable place to purchase Peking duck. And as far as I can tell, they don’t set anything on fire.
But the mai tai, backbone stiffened with a barely perceptible dose of orgeat syrup, is just about perfect. The plate of crisp, molten banana fritters, moistened with rum syrup, is a delicious souvenir of the 1960s. And I can think of worse places to fall into after a Sparks game — many of them right here in L.A. Live.
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Trader Vic’s: L.A. Live complex, 800 W. Olympic Blvd., dwntwn. (213) 785-3330 or tradervicsla.com. Lunch Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner Sun.-Thurs., 4 p.m.-mid., Fri.-Sat., 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Full bar. Partially validated lot parking. All major credit cards accepted. Appetizers $8-$18; main courses $16-$36.