Tiki culture has made a recent resurgence in San Diego, where the weather is always temperate and the beach is always steps away, creating a demand for rum cocktails with colorful mini umbrellas. With the recent opening of The Grass Skirt tiki lounge in Pacific Beach, San Diegans can get creative Asian-inspired dishes paired with tiki cocktails in a playful environment for a full vacation-mode experience. When coming up with this new concept, Matt Spencer, owner of San Diego Creative Media (SDCM), wanted to be at the forefront of building a new, more elevated dining scene in the San Diego neighborhood known for being a popular college hangout.
“We believe that vintage tiki is making a comeback and San Diego is the perfect city for it,” Spencer said. “Tiki is such a fun escape from the real world, and it’s really exciting to see some of the most talented bartenders in the country who understand balance, fresh ingredients and great spirits take on a fun cocktail culture.”
The tiki décor and hidden, speakeasy-type entrance add to The Grass Skirt’s mystique and allure.
“We love the element of surprise that the secret entrance offers,” Spencer said. “Guests enter a rather minimal space at Good Time Poké [adjoining grab-and-go poké shop], and then once they arrive at The Grass Skirt, it’s a bit like Dorothy entering the Land of Oz—life is suddenly in full color.”
“We’ve worked to create a complete tiki experience with lighting, sound and experimental audio/visual,” he said. “We want our guests to feel transported—to be immersed enough to spend an evening with us.”
“We have a few tricks up our sleeve,” added Beverage Director Steven Tuttle. Think unexpected volcanic eruptions.
The creativity of the ambiance is matched in the presentation of dishes, especially the bigeye tuna ribbons, hanger steak lettuce wraps and Skuna Bay salmon cones. Executive Chef Brian Redzikowski says it’s tough to choose just one favorite, but that he especially likes the salmon cones because they utilize all of the salmon and present it in a fun, celebratory way. The salmon cones are served with ginger, avocado, bonito flakes, sesame seeds, hoisin sauce and spicy mayonnaise.
“With tiki restaurants you can get away with a more playful, whimsical sort of presentation, unlike other restaurants,” Redzikowski said. “The drinks and ambiance are so unique and fun, so our thought is, ‘why shouldn’t the food be as well?’”
Other standout dishes include the okonomiyaki fries that are topped with traditional sushi ingredients like bonito flakes, spicy mayonnaise, hoisin sauce and scallions; the kimchi fried rice made with spicy seasonings, house-made Chinese sausage, scallions, cilantro and hoisin sauce; and the Laughing Bird shrimp yakisoba noodles that come with cabbage, shiitake mushrooms, scallions and house-made kewpie mayonnaise.
“At the heart of my cooking is Asian flavors and ingredients,” Redzikowski said. “I’ve spent so much time traveling through East Asia and cooking in incredible kitchens with mentors across the country, including Nobu Matsuhisa, so those flavors and techniques really are the backbone of the menu at The Grass Skirt.”
Redzikowski aimed to create dishes that complement tiki cocktails, different from the typical heavy, fried dishes often found in pupu platters.
Tiki cocktails are usually associated with rum, and The Grass Skirt’s cocktail menu has no shortage of the sweet spirit. Tuttle is excited to see a growing interest in rum drinks.
“Rum is very sweet since it’s a byproduct of sugar cane, so blending is important,” Tuttle said. “If you use the right styles and proofs in your blends, you can balance out the cocktail with your tropical ingredients more easily.”
“Rum pairs incredibly well with the menu Brian has created,” he said. “We also feature a lot of drinks with other spirits outside of rum, like a scotch tiki cocktail [Coco Grove cooler] that came out really well.”
Some of Tuttle’s favorite cocktails on the menu are the tiki iniki (white rum, Trinidad rum, Demerara 151, lemon, pineapple, passionfruit, pomegranate and mango) and the Grass Skirt daiquiri (pineapple infused-rum, Demerara and lime). Tuttle even named one of the cocktails, the boozin’ Susan’s world famous chi chi, after his mother. For an exclusive sip, try a cocktail from their secret menu, like a mudslide or the haole mai tai.
The SDCM team is constantly traveling to other major cities for inspiration, and were influenced by Lost Lake tiki bar in Chicago when coming up with the concept for The Grass Skirt. So what’s next for them?
“You can expect great design, an amazing view, and local fare in our next project,” Spencer said. “More to come!”
Serving tiki cocktails has become a hot new trend in San Diego, with The Grass Skirt joining other local tiki bars including Cat Eye Club, Fairweather, False Idol and Miss B’s Coconut Club, among others.
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