Don the Beachcomber’s? Extinct. Kelbo’s? Gone to that little grass shack in the sky. Even that old dinosaur Trader Vic’s is rumored to have its days numbered. So where is a boozer .?.?. er, a wandering soul supposed to go for finely crafted tropical drinks like they used to make when Polynesian was all the rage? Same place that’s always served them up with finesse, the Tiki-Ti.
Opened in 1961 by Filipino immigrant Ray Buhen, Tiki-Ti is still going strong in its original location — twelve barstools and a handful of dark, cozy tables, nestled in a lot between KCET’s studios and El Chavo on Sunset Boulevard. Today, Ray’s son and grandson, Mike and Mike Jr., keep alive the traditional recipes, most of which are hardly authentic to the South Seas but were invented right here in Los Angeles (many by Ray Buhen himself). Those passionate about tiki culture as well as those who simply appreciate the Buhens’ dedication to craft have been coming in regularly for years; one die-hard, a chatty character called Rasta Jeff, even has a drink named after him. Here’s the skinny on some of Tiki-Ti’s storied history and continued tradition:
Most Popular/Stiffest Drink: Ordering can be daunting since there are more than 80 items on the menu and most of them, ostensibly, are doubles. But the Mikes will answer any questions about ingredients, sweetness or sourness, or what have you. One tasty concoction flavored with passion fruit and lime resulted from an error that papa Ray made one night while attempting to make another of his original creations, the Anting-Anting, for a regular. “He passed it down the bar and told all the other customers to try it,” Mike Sr. explains. “They asked what it was and he says, ‘I don’t know, it’s Ray’s mistake!’?” Today, Ray’s Mistake is one of the most popular drinks on the menu; another drink, called the Stealth — an all-in, multispirit number flavored with Kahlua — is one that Mike Sr. figures to be the most potent. One longtimer managed to put away 10 Stealths in one sitting and still walked out in a vertical position. “But he was feeling no pain,” Mike Sr. smiles.
Most Complex Drink: While prepping the bar for opening, Mike Jr. chimes in and offers the Bonnie & Clyde as one that requires real expert handling to make correctly. His father agrees: “It’s got several layers, and in the middle is where all the strength is; most tropical drinks have the stronger rums floated on top.” Also, a note of etiquette: When you order a layered rather than shaken drink, it’s best not to stir it. The flavors are meant to be tasted in that order.
Best Celebrity Customer: Over the years a number of famous faces have wandered in for a frosty grog, among them Marlon Brando, Jack Palance and Quentin Tarantino. But Nicolas Cage’s visit is one that Mike Sr. still finds amusing: “He was married to Patricia Arquette at that time. They came in and sat in the back table over there with another couple,” he explains. A couple of regulars began chatting them up and eventually bought Cage a Green Lizard shot (151 rum and green Chartreuse). “It’s a nasty drink; it tastes like gasoline, and actually gasoline probably tastes better,” Mike laughs. “He thanked them, they went on with their conversation, and it sat there on the table for a while. Then finally he finished his own drink, drank the shot, and his eyes bugged out.” Recently, one of the regulars responsible for the shot ran into Cage while out shopping and, naturally, ran back to tell Mike: “Cage says to him — ‘Wait, don’t I know you? Didn’t you buy me that f’ed up drink?!’?”
Tiki-Ti 4427 Sunset Blvd., L.A., (323) 669-9381 or www.tiki-ti.com