It's 9:27 on a Saturday night at the Conga Lounge and bold statements are already being made. "This is the best mai tai in the world," declares the man at the bar, and, actually, you'd be wise to believe him: Will served in the Coast Guard for seven years — in the Arctic and Antarctic circles, in New Orleans after Katrina and New York after 9/11, through the Panama Canal four times, past both the equator and the international dateline, in Southeast Asia for six months. His knowledge of both mai tais and the world is, it's safe to say, far above average. He's no longer in the Coast Guard, but for those seven years, the Conga Lounge would invariably be the first stop he and his buddies would make upon reaching dry land. "Listen to some Miles Davis on the way, come here, have a mai tai," he explains, which, yes, sounds pretty fantastic. Spike, one such buddy and still an active-duty member of the Guard, weighs in as well: "Six months in Asia, when we came back this was the very first bar, with better drinks than we had out there." Well, there you have it.
The mai tai in question is a subtle reinvention of the original — light and dark (rather than the traditional Jamaican) rum, cherry brandy, and pineapple juice instead of orgeat, mint, and lime (the orange curaçao remains, mercifully unchanged) — and it is, indeed, the kind of thing you might crave when marooned at sea: insidiously strong, coolly refreshing, sweet but not saccharine, and, at $8, significantly cheaper than a plane ticket (and, for that matter, easier than a tour of duty). It's the far-and-away bestseller, according to Michael Thanos, one of the bar's owners.
The way he tells it, Thanos first got into tiki in the late Nineties — he inflects the "got into" part with the kind of gravity one might otherwise use to describe the beginnings of a heroin habit— but almost immediately found most of the tiki bars in the Bay Area at the time to be pretty disappointing: "Nice decor, but the drinks just sucked. And tiki has this great tradition of really good tasting cocktails, so we" — meaning himself and his brother Mano, both of who also own Forbidden Island in Alameda — "wanted to prove that tiki drinks don't need to be all bottled syrups and sweet." By all accounts, they've succeeded: Other than the mai tai, I tried an island aphrodisiac (light rum, cranberry, coconut, pineapple, and passion fruit, $8), and while I was not, as I had sort of hoped, immediately overcome by desire, what the drink lacks in truth in advertising it more than makes up for in tropical goodness, the cranberry affording a little bit of welcome tartness while the coconut gives it a bit of heft, the juices fresh-squeezed and tasting like it, the whole thing certainly sweet but not at all insubstantial. This is a drink with the brain of the Bay Area and the soul of the South Pacific, probably worth a trip on its own.
The Conga Lounge is separated from the street by a flight of stairs and a complete attitude adjustment: Outside, everyone appears to be scurrying places; inside, they sink into their chairs, lie back, sip their cocktails out of the sides of their mouths. Not infrequently, they even put their feet up, on one of the coffee tables parked for apparently that very purpose at exactly average-person leg length from the couches. The space is small, just a single room with a tiny smoking deck outside — overlooking the scurrying on the street below, though always from far remove — and it's done up in standard tiki style: surfboards on the wall, thatching where possible, not a drop of natural light in the whole place. Later at night, it gets surprisingly clubby, what with the darkness and the live DJs the Thanoses bring in on Friday and Saturday nights. On this particular night, Mano himself appeared to be behind the turntable; a post-facto web search revealed that this was Latin Night. But earlier on in the evening, it's more clubhouse than club — just a few people sitting at the bar or standing out back and, on the stereo, downtempo songs heavy on the slack-key and island breeziness, punctuated by the occasional rev and rumble of the blender. It's not Miles Davis, but it's good enough.