"Come to this tiki bar in the Heights," implored my buddy Dan. I winced. I don’t like bright colors or saccharine or other Wonka-land motifs I associate with Disneyesque Pacific fetishization-cum-luxury. I’m not a very good brunch companion. "It’s new and it’s wonderful," Dan promised.
I balked; I am not designed for Tiki Time. I’ve ruined myself in what must be America’s worst tiki bar, a lovely little trashed-up garbage cave in far west San Francisco called Trad’r Sam’s. There, back when the Warriors were struggling to eke out a .300 season, I sucked up a lot of pride (and about as much rum) and watched an MMA goon with four liberty spikes, named "Chad" or "Todd" or something, blend night-pulverizing Scorpion Bowls while a Possible Teen (Trad’r Sam’s is pretty ratchet) tried—and failed—to spell "Metallica" on the digital jukebox behind the bar for what must’ve been five minutes. Trad’r Sam’s had been around since the '30s; part of the vanguard of Polynesia-fantasy tiki bars in California. It’s a wonderful place to bring a date if you both dig misery.
Lei Low is also a wonderful place to bring a date, just for a very different reason. But I didn’t have a date, so I made do with Dan. Not much light sneaks inside Lei Low, which is how it ought to be. What little light does shine peeks out from underneath the green-shaded accountant lamps which adorn the bar between not-quite-kitschy tiki god totems and statuettes. The walls are thatched, of course; the soundtrack is that sort of eye-rollingly smooth cruise soundtrack which always either features a saxophone or threatens to feature one at any moment.
We worked our way through the menu, which is expensive ($12 spent on a wonderful Mai Tai is still $12 not spent on cigarettes or sandwiches) but brilliant and brutal. I mentioned a preference for whiskey and received a Honi Honi, which combines rye whiskey with passionfruit—a risky but well-balanced combination. The Zombie proved itself the real standout and came with an optional add-on floater of (made in-house) coconut rum. It was sweet enough to soften its Yokozuna-like bodyslam strength, but didn’t push into cloying Candyland territory.
Eventually someone ordered the "Polynesian Rainbow," a five- or seven-layered shooter. The bartender revealed a handful of syringes, each filled with a different color of booze. We other patrons advanced toward the sight, crowding and cawing as she carefully spritzed the syringe-juice over a spoon’s back into a tall glass.
"You’ve gotta pull the stopper out a little bit before you push it. Makes it easier."
"What are you, a junkie?"
"No, I’m a nurse."
When the work was done the small crowd dispersed. I found myself talking to a man about different kinds of sparkly fabric; later, to a gal about her pursuit of a math Ph.D. Everyone can use a stiff drink with a big stupid frond or flaming crouton every now and again, I suppose.
An unexpected delight: I am in constant and feverish pursuit of Irish coffee (The Buddha advises, "Always mix uppers and downers."). Lei Low has a coffee cocktail on its menu, but I would have been allergic to it—my foolish body can’t handle praline syrup or other tree nut derivatives. Savannah, a contemporary saint and our bartender for much of the evening, improvised a tiki bar Irish coffee—one of the finest I’ve had in months, and probably the best I’ve had in Houston.
Lei Low grasps its future with both hands: a sign on the back exit indicates plans for an outdoor patio; I heard mumbling about live music nights; Savannah passed us a few drinks from an experimental menu. Some day Lei Low will fill up. And good for them; they deserve it. But selfishly I hope that future is just a little bit distant—this is a place best experienced hunched over at the bar proper, shooting the breeze with the periphery, lowlit and laid low in a strip mall in the Heights, drinking yourself toward the vibrant Polynesia inside your head.