Tiki's and Cacti, A Journey of Tiki Discovery in the Desert!

By Jeff Ballard

Tiki's and Cacti, A Journey of Tiki Discovery in the Desert!

Under Tow, Phoenix, Tiki Trail, Hal Brown ArtIt’s not a mirage. There’s not just one oasis of tiki in Phoenix. This desert town has a few tiki outposts, as well as several cocktail bars fitting into the tiki theme. I discovered this as I tossed out a note onto that whole interweb thing-a-ma-bob asking about Tiki in Phoenix. The responses led me to 7 bars for my three night trip. Seven bars, three nights?  Challenge accepted! And here is what I experienced on my sojourn into the land of tiki’s and cacti...


Clever Koi, Gilbert

Clever Koi on the Tiki TrailFirst stop was a craft cocktail place with a few tiki drinks on the menu. As far as tiki goes, I can’t really hold them to the 6 points as their only real tie to tiki is on the drinks. Although, I must say the food was excellent so they’d score high there, too! As for the drinks, what impressed me was their commitment to good tiki ingredients! Clement Rhum Agricole , Plantation Dark Rum, Hamiltonn Rum, Demerara Rum, orgeat. They are fully committed to the tiki scene! And while today they only have three drinks - Face Planter Punch, Almost Always Bad News, and the 2 person Scorpion - they are working to grow their tiki cocktail list. They have a downtown location in addition to the Gilbert spot so easy to hit one or the other! definitely a place to hit!


So the next stop was another highly recommended place, the Ostrich. This is a

The Ostrich, Chandler, AZ, on the Tiki Trailprohibition-era style speakeasy dedicated to craft cocktails with a tiki menu and a Tiki Tuesday night. As with craft cocktail bars, they tend to focus on the drinks more so than the decor. And on this night when I visited, their tiki decor was rather minimalist as they were in between tiki events so most of their stuff was elsewhere. Didn’t matter, though, as this one had a special magic of its own, complete with a rich history or bootleggers, ghosts and a sordid past that would get Geraldo Rivera salivating! And for tiki, they had some traditional drinks - Blue Hawaiian, a Nui Nui,for example - as well as their own special tiki takes - Bermuda Yacht Club, Army Navy, and the Blood & Cane. The Blood & Cane was quite a drink. Very tart and strong, yet very, very tasty! And when you order up a tiki drink, they have tiki mugs. Unfortunately, though, they didn't have their own mug. Hopefully that will change! Had a chance to talk to the guys creating the magic - William and Maxton - and it was clear that these guys were on the ball with regard to craft cocktails and especially tiki. This is a great place to visit any night of the week. Make sure to tell them you read about them on the Tiki Trail!


Now I was forewarned that this tiki bar was well decorated, but not really tiki beyond that. I would have to agree. Great sign, great decor, but it ends there. At least on this night, the music was … I have no idea. I've heard all kinds of music but this was just weird, loud and decidedly untiki-like. Now, the place was packed and people were dancing. But, again, it had nothing - I mean N-O-T-H-I-N-G to do with tiki. Moving past that I thought I’d a cocktail. Got the list of drinks and saw one that actually had “tiki" in the name so figured let’s go with that one. You know, when people ask me what ever happened to tiki - "why did it disappear after being so popular?" I alwBikini, Phoenix, on the Tiki Trailays tell people it was the slushy, sloshy, syrupy, sickeningly sweet drinks bars started passing off as ‘tiki drinks’. The kind where the umbrella was more important than ingredients. Well, that's what Bikini served up - only without the umbrella. So, yeah, it was that bad. And that’s unfortunate since the place has a great name, a great decor, and a long history. I am hoping I was just there on bad music and shitty drink night. So, let’s move past this one ...


Rum Bar, Phoenix
Night two started off the same - by visiting another craft cocktail bar. This one, though, The Rum Bar, Phoenix Tiki Trailwas specifically a craft rum bar. Of course with the name, you probably already figured that, right! So while this was definitely not a tiki bar, they had some amazing rums and definitely served up some great drinks that I’d happily have in my own bar. As for rum, they have Arizona’s largest commercial collection - 135 rums! They have some of the usual tiki rums, as well as a wide range of other varieties. If you are up for it, they even have a bottle of Appleton 50! That is a blend of 50-62 year old rums and is very, very rare. You can get a 1.5 ounce shot for $2500! Now, I hear you can get that same shot for $350 at Smuggler’s Cove, but that's in San Francisco. Sure, theoretically, you could pay for the flight to San Fran and their shot cheaper than the Rum Bar’s shot, but hey, live it up! Haha! If you do get that shot make sure to invite me! I’d be happy just getting a sniff of that 50+ year old rum blend! And as with any craft bar, it's also about having a learning experience. These guys know their rums and they can tell you all about them - and their history. Who knew learning history could be so much fun!


Hula's Modern Tiki, Phoenix 

HUla's Modern Tiki Pheonix Tiki TrailSo, also in the suggestions of places to go, I found out that Hula’s Modern had a location downtown in addition to their Scottsdale location. So I wrapped up night two there. As I pulled up I was impressed with the structure! It was standalone place and was very much tiki style. The front featured a cool fire pit seating area and inside was filled with some impressive tiki art. Unfortunately for me, I got there AT last call and was only able to get one drink. Upon recommendations by the bartender and a couple at the bar I got their Mai Tai. It’s the house specialty and I can see why. Certainly one of the best Mai Tais I have had. I did notice, though, that the bar was abnormally stocked with traditional alcohols and mixers, more so than tiki ingredients. Even though it was a quick stop here I was able review the bar. Make sure to check that out, as well as the review on the Scottsdale location.

Hula's Modern Tiki, Scottsdale

HUla's Modern Tiki Scottsdale Tiki TrailThe last night of this three-night desert tiki binge was by far the best, truest tiki experience! And it started at Hula’s Modern Tiki in Scottsdale - by far the best experience on this trip. I had been here a year prior, but could see the changes and advances they've made to get more tiki. They are really taking their tiki game to the next level - especially the cocktails, liquors and mixers they are bringing in and/or making. I had the chance to sit down with Mike who is driving some of these new, tiki focused changes to get some insight into what the grand vision. I learned that they're using this location to prove out some concepts with the successful ones being translated to the Central Phoenix location, as well as their new locations opening later this year in Tempe and Gilbert.  The Hula Modern Tiki is a must visit! My overall experience has moved them into my short list of favorite tiki bars. If you want more details as to why, check out the review. You can get more details on the bar, what they're doing, and where they're going in our FB Live video we did that day and which is still available on the Tiki Trail Facebook page.


Under Tow, Phoenix
A-may-ZING! I Under Tow Phoenix Tiki Trailhave heard great things about Phoenix’s newest tiki bar, the Under Tow. Had several people tell me I needed to go there. And I saw why. First, let me set the scene, though. You are probably familiar with those quick oil change places that take care of swapping out the oil and other things that "keep your motor runnin’" as the song goes. Well, one of those was gutted and turned into an awesome coffee bar - complete with big bay doors and all. It really works. So, now in the middle of that coffee shop are stairs down to what used to be one of the bays where the workers would work on your car. But now it had been transformed … into the Under Tow! So, at once you marvel in both the amazing decor and the incredible smallness!

Once inside, it was an awesome experience and the drinks were absolutely phenomenal. Some of the best craft cocktails I have had. I had a smoke infused cocktail that was incredible! And the way they did it was with a special little contraption that infused the smoke into your drink. Have never seen that before, but man, it was good.

Also cool was that they had a local tiki artisan there at the bar showing off some of his art. Hal Brown, a metalsmith, makes the cocktail stirrers for the bar and he does great work! He had some amazing art on display, including one hell of a bitchin’ tiki bolo tie! His tikis are awesome! As Hal pointed out to me, they are hand crafted, weighty, and three dimensional right down to the tiki butt cheeks. Yeah, the "tiki butt cheeks" sold me. Had to get one!

This place is still relatively new, so no full review just yet. They didn’t have any swag - ran out of mugs and didn’t have anything else. The staff were pretty busy as the drinks take a lot of effort to craft. And I didn’t notice the music as I was too busy with Hal, the drinks, and harassing one of the bartenders about looking like Eli Manning! Haha! So, I'll be back to the Under Tow and will write something up then. But DO NOT wait for my review! Go NOW if you have the chance!!


Overall the Tiki in the Desert experience was great! I could really see putting together a tiki road trip from So Cal! (Hmmm, good idea! Of course we’ll have to do it before it gets too hot!!! Stay tuned!) In the meantime, there is more tiki coming to Phoenix and unfortunately I am going to miss it. Martin Cate of San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove and Georgi Radev of London’s Mahiki will be speaking during Arizona Cocktail Week. So, if you can, get there! Check out the details at: http://arizonacocktailweek.com/event/the-art-of-the-tiki/


See more pics from the Arizona portion of the Tiki Trail on our FB page here.



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