Road Trips: A Drinker's Guide to Omaha, part two


AS YOU MIGHT EXPECT from a city that retains so much of the architecture of the 50s and 60s, Omaha has a tiki bar, a remainder of America's obsession with Polynesian culture. One day we at the Bottle Gang will tackle the enormous legacy of tiki culture, but it is a vast topic, and we shall limit our comments here to one point: There was almost nothing Polynesian about the way Americans expressed their interest in Polynesia. The word "tiki" is Maori. The tropical drinks served in tiki bars were generally inspired by drinks from the Caribbean. The style of music most associated with tiki culture, such as the lush exotica of Les Baxter, borrowed heavily from South American music. And tiki bars were often nestled in the back or the basement of Chinese or Japanese restaurants -- if you are looking for a well-made tropical drink nowadays, there is still a very good chance of finding one at a Chinese restaurant.

And so Omaha's tiki bar, the Mai Tai Lounge, is found in the basement of a Japanese restaurant, the Mt. Fuji Inn on Blondo street. It is a late-era tiki bar, dating back to the late 60s, and, at first, is unimpressive. The bar is a dark cavern of a place, smallish, with bamboo walls, a jukebox that plays contemporary music, a half-dozen portraits of comely Polynesian lasses painted on what looks to be velvet, and unfortunately, a television that plays sports events. Early tiki bars were enormous tropical fantasias, Disney-like monuments to faux-South Seas culture. This is not that. If it were, it might not have survived: As the popularity of tiki culture faded, most of the tiki palaces went out of business.

Unimpressive though it may seem, the Mai Tai Lounge does have two things to recommend it. Firstly, it has a terrific drink menu, which contains almost every classic, if kitschy, tropical cocktail, ranked like you would rank a movie. Their zombie, for example, is rated Triple-X, as is their Mai Tai and Fogcutter, while less alcoholic drinks, such as the Singapore Sling, get more family friendly ratings.

These are not fancy tropical cocktails. They have nowhere near the variety nor complexity of ingredients of a well-made version of the drinks, instead tending to consist of a mix of rums and one or two fruit juices. The Mai Tai's cocktails are stripped-down versions of tastier originals, but the bar uses middle-shelf alcohol and good fruit juice, and the resulting drinks are quite palatable. They also tend to be enormous.

The other thing the Mai Tai Lounge offers is Hawaiians. Not always, mind you: Sometimes the bar will be empty, and sometimes it will be filled with pasty skinned locals. But every so often, you'll walk in, and every customer will be Hawaiian. There is an unaccountably large population of Hawaiian students in Omaha, mostly at Creighton, and every so often they collectively decide to get drinks at the Mai Tai Lounge. The result is the rarest of experiences in Middle American tiki lounges: Finding a parking lot filled with cars with Hawaiian license plates, and walking into the bar to find yourself surrounded by dark skinned, brown-eyed drinkers who bandy about Hawaiian slang and chat idly about gossip from the Big Island. Out of the blue, one of America's least authentic Polynesian bars becomes absolutely, unmistakably Hawaiian.

Bohemian Cafe signAcross town, on 13th Street just south of downtown, is another ethnic restaurant, one that has always been indisputably authentic. The Bohemian Cafe was started by a Czech family all the way back in 1924, and still features employees dressed in traditional Czech outfits. Their menu consists of Eastern European dishes such as jaeger schnitzel, or veal steaks in wine sauce and mushrooms, and the food tends to be meaty and heavy: We once ordered plum dumplings that came in a bowl filled with butter and cream, and took close to three weeks to eat.

They also have a small cocktail lounge, the Bohemian Girl, decorated, like the rest of the building, with hand-painted folk-art pictures of girls in native costumes and with little signs that read "We accept Czechs, not checks." They serve Pilsner Urquell and a Czech beer called Czechvar, which calls itself "The Czech Budweiser," and apparently was actually calling itself Budweiser long before the American beer of that name. It's a bland pilsner, tasting much like the American brand that they claim stole its name; stick with the Pilsner Urquell. Incidentally, you can also purchase bottles of these beers to take with you from the Bohemian Cafe.

Recently, they have introduced a few specialty cocktails, including one called Bohemian Shepherd Pie, made of plum brandy, Limoncello, Blue Caraco, and pineapple juice. This one frightened us, so we did not try it. We did order something called the Bohemian Sidecar, which drew gales of laughter from a rather asinine drunk at the bar, a stupid looking young man in a baseball cap and a bluetooth headset. This fellow was drinking himself into oblivion, bullying everyone nearby. When we discovered that he was the husband of one of the bartenders, a sweet-faced and recently pregnant young woman, we realized we were watching the makings of an American tragedy. Take the advice of some strangers in a bar, young bartender, should you read these words: A drunk who is belligerent to other drinkers, to bartenders, and to his own wife, is not worth the effort. Any man who must be taken aside and warned that his drinking will have to stop when the baby is born, and who responds by loudly proclaiming that he must get a new wife, and says this in a cocktail lounge in front of strangers, is a man to be avoided.

Folk art Czech girlAs to the drink that this young boor mocked, well, it was actually rather good. It is a sidecar, of sorts, but made with slivovitz, which is a Balkan plum brandy. It's a scorcher of a liquor, as anyone who has tried it can tell you. It's the sort of drink that grows hair on your chest, and then sets fire to those hairs. But the harshness of the brandy is undercut in this drink by Limoncello, Triple Sec, and lemon juice, and the resulting drink is actually quite satisfying. Fools may laugh at us for ordering it, and laugh harder that we like it. But fools will be fools, and, at the end of the day, as happened on this occasion, will have a second bartender, the mother of the first, threaten them with a baseball bat. (SPARBER)


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