Step past the industrial park-like façade of 4 Kahunas in Arlington and you’ll find yourself in the likes of something the Dallas-Fort Worth area hasn’t had in some time: A real live tiki joint, one that even the most ardent tikiphile can enjoy.
“I never thought I’d work in a place where patrons were battling with little pirate ships and shark mouths,” said bar manager Brad Bowden of one evening’s crowd. “They were like little kids.“
With a four-page tiki drink menu backed by a thatched-roof bar, island-inspired wall art and a soundtrack infused with surf and exotica, 4 Kahunas embraces the tiki aesthetic with a fervor not seen in DFW since the days of Trader Vic’s.
Tiki-philes know that its culture extends far beyond cocktails, but ever since Vic’s sailed off into the horizon, those who’ve carry a torch for tiki have only marginally seen their daiquiri dreams fulfilled, from Proper’s ongoing three-month “tiki pop-up” in Fort Worth to, in Dallas, a short-lived tiki reboot of Sunset Lounge in 2013 and the confused clubbiness of Pilikia.
Otherwise, tiki has been relegated to a random once-a-week or off-menu exercise, with its fruity coconut libations periodically surfacing at places like Lower Greenville’s Rapscallion, East Dallas’ Lounge Here and The People’s Last Stand in Mockingbird Station.
Now, in a budding commercial complex behind a stretch of Division Street car dealerships in Arlington, 4 Kahunas – which marked its grand opening on Sunday – has planted its tiki flag, with a modest but lovingly appointed space with a half-dozen or so stools at the bar, a couple of high-tops and several large booths.
“I’ve had more people ask for Singapore Slings here in Arlington than I ever did in Dallas,” Bowden says – and the tiki classic isn’t even on the menu. “I had no idea there was so much interest in the Mid Cities.”
Among the drink’s fans is Marc Davis, a Hawaiian-born Filipino/Pacific-Islander who runs a local food truck called Smoke and Pickle. Having stumbled onto 4 Kahunas while seeking a parking spot at Arlington’s 4thof July celebration, he was suddenly gripped by memories of his island upbringing and his dad’s love for Singapore Slings and Marlboros. “I like the low-key vibe,” he says.
Tiki’s laid-back Polynesian flavor flourished in the 1930s and 1940s, with Trader Vic’s and its Zombies and Mai Tais leading the way. Though the trend would fizzle within a few decades, the ongoing re-emergence of craft cocktails revived interest in its tropical tipples, with places like Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco and PKNY in New York among the first to resuscitate its rummy riches.
Several years ago, on a visit to Vegas,4 Kahunas co-owners J.P. Hunter and Chris Powell visited the venerable Frankie’s Tiki Room, and it was enough to revive Hunter’s California childhood memories – the L.A. beaches, the plastic monkey cocktail garnishes his mom would give him off her drinks.
Hunter, a University of Texas-Arlington grad nearing retirement in the construction business in Houston, was already eyeing a third act. Why not do something he really enjoyed? He and Powell recruited two other college friends as investors, their four caricatured faces now represented by large carved wooden tiki heads behind the bar.
“Our only missing link was a bar manager,” Hunter says. “And lo and behold, there’s Brad.”
Bowden, already spinning tiki classics and variations at Lounge Here in East Dallas, was more than ready to crank out Painkillers and Headhunters (as well as my personal tiki favorite, the flaming-lime-boat-topped Jet Pilot). With Bowden on board, 4 Kahunas quietly opened on June 9, but it wasn’t long before word spread among fanatical tikiphiles, never mind the out-of-the-way location.
“We’ve already had people coming in from Chicago, Atlanta, Florida,” Hunter says.
It’s a decidedly unchain-y place in a bar-and-grill-leaning city that Hunter says finally has greater ambitions – and affordable Arlington represented a chance to be part of a scene that’s just starting to grow. Says Hunter: “The train is just leaving the station.”
The Singapore Sling is the Rashomon of cocktails: Everyone remembers it differently. Like a rumor that starts at one side of the table and wildly mutates by the time it comes back round again, it’s a tasty tale whose twists and turns vary depending on who’s doing the telling.
How is it still considered a classic?
Because despite its many tweaks – “The Singapore Sling has taken a lot of abuse over the years,” wrote tiki master Jeff Berry in his book Beachbum Berry Remixed – it’s managed to stay delicious no matter how it’s interpreted. Even gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson considered it a favorite.
But somewhere along the line, the century-old drink attributed to bartender Ngiam Tong Boon of Singapore’s Raffles Hotel lost sight of its simpler beginnings, becoming a tropical mishmash of seven ingredients or more – and a headache for bartenders, which may be why you rarely see it on bar menus. “I remember Sasha (Petraske, founder of the classic New York City bar Milk and Honey) was not a fan,” says Chad Solomon of Dallas’ Midnight Rambler, who worked with the late cocktail legend. “But people loved drinking it. He was, like, ‘It’s got too many damn ingredients!’ ”
It’s a misfit of a drink, a gin-powered cocktail that muscled its way into the tiki canon through luck and guile, disguising itself in pineapple and grenadine. But while its more dignified origins faded in the process, two Dallas bars – Industry Alley and Midnight Rambler – are breathing new life into the Sleeping Beauty that’s been there all along.
Imagine two actor brothers born in close succession. They look just enough alike, and their names are similar enough, that they’re often confused with each other. The older brother teaches the younger one all he knows, but the younger brother’s easier disposition makes him more likable than his rugged, reserved sibling. And when the younger’s career veers from drama into comedy, making him a star, the family name rises to fame with him.
That seems to be the story of the Singapore Sling, whose sweeter flavors and catchier name propelled it through the thick and thin of cocktail lineage rather than its older brother, the Straits Sling. A sling is a type of drink, at its base a simple mix of spirit, sweetener and water. As cocktails historian David Wondrich observed in his book Imbibe!, it’s “a simple drink in the same way a tripod is a simple device: Remove one leg and it cannot stand, set it up properly and it will hold the whole weight of the world.”
The Straits Sling, born sometime in the late 1800s, was just that: A mix of gin (spirit), sweetener (Benedictine, a honey-sweet herbal liqueuer) and carbonated soda (water), plus lemon and bitters. But its defining flavor was cherry – in the form of kirsch, a dry cherry brandy.
The original Singapore Sling – at least as well as anyone can figure out – was basically the same drink, except that it used sweet cherry brandy instead of dry and subbed lime as the citrus. That’s the Singapore Sling you’ll get if you order the classic drink at Midnight Rambler in downtown Dallas, and a few dashes of Angostura make all the difference, giving depth to what would otherwise taste like an off-kilter black cherry soda.
Adam McDowell includes the mix in his entertaining and recently published Drinks: A User’s Guide, whose characterization is hard to argue with: “Here’s the correct recipe; ignore all other versions like the meaningless static they are.”
1 oz London dry gin
1 oz cherry brandy
1 oz Benedictine
1 oz lime
3 d Angostura bitters
Stir in a Collins glass. Garnish w/Maraschino cherries
You’ll also find the drink on the inaugural menu at Industry Alley just south of downtown, where owner Charlie Papaceno digs its less-is-more simplicity. “It’s like with French cooking: Here’s the mother sauce,” he says. “Here’s what we work from.”
But of course Papaceno had to tweak his version just a little. Rather than using equal parts, his recipe boosts the gin and tones down the liqueurs, with just a squeeze of lime. The drink is tart and a bit Scotchy thanks to its signature ingredient, Cherry Heering – not the summery cool pineapple drink the name usually calls to mind, but a leathery, autumn-ready gin-and-tonic.
“So, it’s like, to take it back,” Papaceno says. “Somehow it’s just gotten so tricked up.”
Until Wondrich tracked down the recipe above in a 1913 Singapore newspaper, no one really knew what the standard was for sure. By the late 1920s and early 1930s the rumor was a good ways down the table and already starting to morph; even the Raffles Hotel itself touted an “original” recipe in the 1930s with pineapple and grenadine, flowery additions that nonetheless endeared it to the wave of tiki that was just starting to emerge.
Before long the drink with the catchy name became a game of eeny meeny miny mo, something everyone did but felt free to put their own spin on. “Of all the recipes published for this drink, I have never seen any two that were alike,” wrote David Embury in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (1948).
Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide (1947) included two versions; so did Gary Regan’s The Joy of Mixology (2003), listing the neglected Straits Sling recipe as “Singapore Sling #1” and offering a second that included triple sec.
“The Singapore Sling is a perfect example of the kind of drinks that came from outside the world of tiki establishments and took up residence on tiki menus everywhere,” wrote San Francisco bar owners Martin and Rebecca Cate in Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum and the Cult of Tiki (2016). The legendary Trader Vic, they wrote, included it on his first menu under the category, “Drinks I Have Gathered from the Four Corners of the Globe.”
Here’s a typically involved recipe, the one I favored for a while, from The PDT Cocktail Book: The Complete Bartender’s Guide from the Celebrated Speakeasy (2011):
2 oz. pineapple
1 ½ oz gin
½ oz Cherry Heering
½ oz grenadine (I use pomegranate molasses)
¼ oz Cointreau
¼ oz Benedictine
¼ oz lime
Shake with ice and strain into a chilled Collins glass filled with ice. Garnish with a cherry and a slice of pineapple.
Yep, that’s a lot of moving parts for one drink. No wonder Wondrich once wrote: “The Singapore Sling is one of those complicated drinks that taste better when you don’t have to make them.”
But, you might be saying, what about the Straits Sling? Isn’t it being neglected all over again?
Not anymore, thanks to Midnight Rambler, where mixmaster Solomon has revived his own version of the drink with a wry literary nod.
Even before he began learning the craft, Solomon had the Singapore Sling on his radar after reading Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in high school. “(Thompson) was describing sitting poolside at his hotel with a Singapore Sling, a side of mezcal and a beer chaser,” Solomon said. “I was, like — what’s a Singapore Sling?”
Then Solomon happened into the budding cocktail renaissance underway in New York City in the early years of the millennium, working at classic bars like Milk and Honey and the Pegu Club. In 2004, Ted Haigh gave a nod to the drier Straits Sling in his book, Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails – “but if you make it as Ted as written,” Solomon says, “it’s a terrible drink. Virtually undrinkable.”
Egged on by cocktails writer Martin Douderoff, one of his Pegu Club regulars, Solomon decided to see how he could improve on the drink while keeping its historical accuracy. By early 2006, he’d hit on a Benedictine-less version that used both dry and sweet cherry brandies – kirsch and Cherry Heering. It appeared on the Pegu Club menu later that year as the Solomon Sling.
Late this summer, as Solomon prepared Midnight Rambler’s fall menu, he knew he wanted to incorporate seasonal stone-fruit flavors, but not in an overly sweet way. When one of his bartenders suggested he reincarnate the Solomon Sling, he thought,“Okay. But let’s have some fun with it: Let’s serve it Hunter S. Thompson style and miniaturize it.’”
And that’s how you’ll find it on Rambler’s current menu – served “Gonzo-style” and slightly downsized with a side of mezcal and a Miller High Life pony. It’s a delicate drink, slightly sweet with a lush cherry finish – and did I mention it comes with a side of mezcal and a Miller High Life pony?
The sibling slings are finally having their day, and there’s little to fear or loathe about it.
Tiki drinks: Not traditionally my thing. I’ve often considered them the fruity equivalent of the tiki torch, a mid-20th-century novelty relegated to some musty backyard corner and occasionally dusted off for special occasions. (Though I must admit the Jet Pilot painstakingly constructed for me a few years ago at Seattle’s Tavern Law did rev up my yo-ho-ho.)
The California-born trend, popularized by Trader Vic’s, eventually fizzled. But with the last decade’s re-emergence of craft-cocktail culture, embers flickered in the ashes, and places like Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco and New York’s PKNY have breathed life back into a genre borne of rum, brandy, fruit juice and kitsch, giving tiki drinks a modest, if still mostly a niche, footing.
Sunset Lounge GM Nico Ponce picked these glasses especially for a hefty rum drink he calls the Captain’s Bumbo.
Last summer, Dallas’ The People’s Last Stand proudly carried the tiki torch on Sundays, whipping up flaming punch bowls and crushing ice like nobody’s business until the tradition flared out in December. And downtown, the Chesterfield has a handful of Polynesian tipples submerged in its menu’s oceanic depths.
But with this week’s lively grand opening of the resuscitated Sunset Lounge, on Ross Avenue just east of downtown, the local tiki revival is fully underway. Here’s a place daring to be all tiki, all the time, with classic drinks like the Rum Runner, Zombie and Bahama Mama dotting a menu of mostly house originals from general manager Nico Ponce.
Along with the showy glassware, this week’s grand opening party also featured showy footwear.
Tiki generally calls for rum, though brandy or even gin sometimes get involved. To that is added lemon or lime, possibly a flavored cordial and sweetener, often reflecting island nuts and/or spices.
The Sunset is a makeover of a defunct dance club of the same name. Owners Josh Sepkowitz and Kyle Noon describe the re-do as “a neighborhood bar with a 1960s Southern California vibe,” and it’s hard to disagree: The low-ceilinged atmosphere is both cozy and classy, a low-lit watering hole submerged in palm fronds and aquamarine.
Eddie “Lucky” Campbell, your Monday main man at the Sunset.
Eddie “Lucky” Campbell, Dallas’ itinerant and feisty barman, has been signed on to anchor the bar on Mondays, not to head the program as reported elsewhere. “It’s Nico’s program,” said Campbell, who spends the bulk of his time at Uptown’s Standard Pour. “I’m just going over there to back him up and give him a hand.”
Though Campbell’s influence portends great promise, the cocktail menu for now strikes me as small, probably because so many of the drinks are similar in profile. Among the highlights: the Texas Punch, a mix of house-made spiked horchata with red chile powder; and the Redrum, a rum-infused twist on the standard vodka/Red Bull. But if it be hidden treasure you seek, I’ve got one word for you, matey: guacamole.
Booze news and adventures in cocktailing, based In Dallas, Texas, USA. By Marc Ramirez, your humble scribe and boulevardier. All content and photos mine unless otherwise indicated. http://typewriterninja.com