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Lettuce? That ain’t no mai tai.
Alexa Schirtzinger

California Dreamin’

Jinja offers a much-needed escape to the tropics

August 13, 2013, 12:00 am
The mai tai, according to cocktail blogger “Beach Bum” Jeff Berry, was invented in 1944 at Trader Vic’s, the Oakland, Calif.-based tiki bar founded by cocktail pioneer Victor Bergeron. In a blog post exploring the history of the drink, Berry (who devoted several pages of one of his books to the mai tai) writes that it was originally crafted “to showcase a 17-year-old rum imported by J. Wray & Nephew.” Thus, Berry explains, the original mai tai wasn’t a saccharine, neon-hued affair. Rather, it was—like all serious drinks—dark-colored and liquory. It tasted, in short, like rum.

“A Mai Tai should not be red. A Mai Tai should not be blue,” Berry writes. Yet, he adds, “bar owners and tenders…have transformed Vic’s signature drink into crayon-colored liquid candy.”

I fell in love with mai tais at a young age. Growing up in southern California, my family spent every weekend at the beach. My brothers and I would play in the cold Pacific Ocean all day, and as the sun would dip low in the sky, we’d race back up the beach for happy hour: we lived for the little plastic cups filled with goldfish and salted peanuts. For me, happy hour also offered another unique delight. After our parents finished their drinks—and they always, invariably, ordered mai tais—they would give us the rum-soaked maraschino cherries left at the bottom with the ice. As a child (ignorant to the harmful effects of Red No. 5), I loved maraschino cherries, but I loved them even more when the sharp taste of rum cut their sweetness with a cold, boozy bite. (I’m sure a few alcohol-soaked cherries also allowed my parents to drive home in sweet silence, with all three of us kids passed out in the back seat of our station wagon.)

Years later, with a nostalgic sense of familial history, I realized that I was old enough to graduate from the cherry to the actual drink.

But—as many cocktail bloggers can attest—finding a good mai tai is an exercise in frustration. I had one, maybe five years ago, at one of the modern iterations of Trader Vic’s, in Dallas. On a family trip to Hawaii a couple years ago, I searched far and wide for good mai tais, but most were overly sweet and cost $14. San Francisco’s Tonga Room, famed tiki bar though it may be, offered a pale, overpriced shadow of the drink. Santa Fe, I reasoned, wasn’t worth the effort—I’d already asked enough bartenders to be convinced that, like Latin, mai tais were a dead language.

That was before Jinja Bar & Bistro (510 N Guadalupe St., 982-4321).

Recently, in a moment of panic about everything we have to accomplish in the next few weeks (plan a wedding, move out of our house, find a job and an apartment in a city thousands of miles away, and move there without going broke), my fiancé and I decided we needed a brief escape. We live close to Jinja, but we’d never been there. As soon as we walked in, we were shocked at just how escape-to-Polynesia the atmosphere was.

We ordered tiki drinks: a Zombie for him (Bacardi light rum, Mount Gay Eclipse gold rum, Myers’ dark rum, apricot brandy and fresh fruit juices, $9.25) and, of course, a mai tai for me (Myers’ dark rum, Mount Gay Eclipse gold rum, Grand Marnier and fresh juices, $9.25).

The original mai tai recipe (according to extensive googling) featured that 17-year-old rum, along with lime juice, orange curaçao and orgeat (almond) syrup, and came garnished with a lime and a sprig of mint. Contemporary versions blend aged Martinique rum with premium dark Jamaican rum to achieve a similar effect.

Jinja’s version was, quite frankly, a bit too sweet, and the juices took center stage, relegating the rum to a back seat. But that didn’t stop us from thoroughly enjoying our escape to paradise. The service was friendly, the food (we ate lettuce wraps, orange chicken and Thai curry) generously portioned and tasty. Best of all, the lighting is low, and the walls are papered with retro-inspired tourism posters promoting Tahiti, Hawaii and other exotic destinations. It was the perfect getaway—so much so that by the end of the evening, we had nearly convinced each other that real life was for the birds.

“We should really just go live on an island,” my fiancé murmured. I sipped my mai tai and nodded in agreement.


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