Lei Low in Houston serves a Tumbleweed Tonic made with sotol, mezcal, prickly pear, and ginger beer. Photo courtesy Lei Low.

Texans love tiki—because what’s not to love? No hospitality category emphasizes fun and relaxation quite like the tiki bar. And its invention has a Lone Star State connection.

The American tiki culture’s founding father was Ernest Gantt, who spent his childhood in Limestone County near Waco. He opened the Polynesian-inspired Don’s Beachcomber (later, Don the Beachcomber) in Los Angeles around 1933, blending rum (a native Caribbean spirit), spices, and fruit juices for his potent cocktails with such novel names as the Painkiller and Pearl Diver.

The tiki concept really took off following World War II, when American soldiers stationed throughout the South Pacific returned home with tales of their downtime on the islands. Midcentury tiki bars like Dallas’ Ports O’Call, which was located on the 37th floor of the Sheraton Dallas Hotel, dutifully included transpacific cuisine (Hawaiian barbecue ribs, lobster chungking), bamboo and rattan furniture, and nautical tchotchkes (fishing nets, anchors, wooden ships’ wheels) based on Hollywood-influenced notions of tropical escapism.

“For the time you’re in a tiki bar, you can immerse yourself in the décor and craft cocktails and let the rest of the world fade away,” says Gabriel Sims, owner of LaniKai Lounge and Tiki Room in San Marcos. “We focus on the quality and freshness of our juices and other ingredients, which make better drinks and is authentic to the early spirit of tiki.”

Because there’s no such place as tiki (the word “Tiki” denotes important cultural beliefs and sacred wooden images carved by the indigenous Maori culture of New Zealand), today’s tiki bars are vibrantly colored mashups of dreamlike island getaways, surf culture, and various pop references including Elvis (think Blue Hawaii) along with classic and original cocktail creations. Like the following examples, Texas tiki bars remain fun destinations for beachy—and sometimes kitschy—geniality.

 

Lei Low

Houston
This dark, intimate Hawaii-inspired hangout features quintessential tiki drinks like the Blue Hawaiian, mai tai, and Singapore Sling. A variety of glassware—shaped like skulls, seashells, coconuts, even Santa Claus—emphasizes a lighthearted ambiance. 6412 N. Main St., Suite C; leilowbar.com

 

Toucan Jim’s

Center Point
There’s a large courtyard with plenty of whispering palm trees, thatched-roof palapas, and two stages for live entertainment at this private club (membership is free and serves as a workaround for the dry municipality laws) located southeast of Kerrville. Tropical drinks include strawberry daquiris, rum punch, and piña coladas. 5814 SH 27; toucanjims.com

 

LaniKai Lounge and Tiki Room

San Marcos
In addition to tiki favorites like the rum-and-apricot Tradewinds, Lanikai’s original drinks include the Cheeky Monkey (SelvaRey chocolate rum and fresh banana, passionfruit, and pineapple nectars) and a trio of “Aloha Shots,” including Blue Suede Shoes (rum, pineapple, fresh citrus nectar), which goes swimmingly with the groovy velvet Elvis paintings on the walls. 700 N. LBJ Drive, Suite 113; www.lanikailounge.com

 

Tiki Tatsu-Ya

Austin
Opened by the founders of Austin’s popular Ramen-Tatsuya restaurants, Tiki Tatsu-ya has a tropical jungle setting that feels like a Disney attraction. Rummy cocktails heavily garnished with fresh fruit can be enjoyed with a full menu of Hawaiian-, Polynesian-, and Asian-influenced dishes such as panko-crusted jackfruit, Spam musubi, and a party-size Pu Pu Platter with barbecue beef, mochiko-coated chicken wings, and Taro Tots. 1300 S. Lamar Blvd.; tiki-tatsuya.com

 

Coco’s on the Canal

Kemah
Just west of Galveston Bay, Coco’s on the Canal boasts a patio with views of a Jarbo Bayou waterway. There’s also frequent live entertainment. Cocktails pay tribute to tiki classics like the rum-soaked Navy Grog and the Scorpion Bowl, a rum, cognac, citrus, and orgeat punch that serves two to four guests. 624 Marina Bay Drive; cocostiki.com

 

Tarantula Tiki Lounge

Fort Worth
Not surprisingly, plenty of large, hairy arachnids hang around Tarantula’s bamboo furnishings. The spiders are fake, but tiki favorites like Planter’s Punch and Three Dots and a Dash, featuring international rums and house-made syrups, are the real deal. The Screaming Skull expands tiki’s reach to Mexico with mezcal, rum, habanero, demerara, and fruit juices. 117 S. Main St.; tarantulatikilounge.com

The June 2024 cover of Texas Highways: Treasures from the Coast

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