Monday, July 20, 2015


Interview by Margot Gerber
Daniel Djang of Thirsty in LA. Photographs by Andrea Macias-Jimenez
In anticipation of the American Cinematheque’s upcoming Tiki Night 2015 at the historic Egyptian Theatre, we decided to sit down with someone who could put the Tiki cocktail in perspective – Thirsty in LA blogger Daniel Djang. Daniel suggested that we meet him at one of his current favorite bars, General Lee’s, a 2-year old craft cocktail bar created by nightlife impresario J.B. Moresco (Smoke and Mirrors, The Writers Room), in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. Summing up his fondness for General Lee’s, Daniel says, “It combines history, great cocktails and a beautiful space.”

General Lee's Menu
The History

General Lee’s sits in the main pedestrian plaza at 475 Gin Lin Way and is named in homage to an historic Chinese eatery that was born as Man Jen Low – The House of 10,000 Treasures in 1878 in Los Angeles’ original Chinatown. When that Chinatown was razed in the late 1930s to build Union Station, Lee Woo Hoy's restaurant, was moved by his family to the new Chinatown between Hill Street and Broadway. By the 1940s the name changed to the easier to advertise General Lee’s and was popular with Hollywood entertainers looking for something more exotic than Chasen’s or The Brown Derby. In a 1985 Los Angeles Times article announcing the November closure of General Lee's, grandson David Lee (a Cantonese master chef), recalled, "We used to have Gary Cooper . . . Helen Hayes, Robert Goulet. Frank Sinatra, he's been here a couple times. Judy Garland used to come here all the time, and she brought her daughter, Liza Minnelli, when she was a kid. We used to cater to Spencer Tracy." Lee and his nephew Curtis Lee recognized that times were changing and the migration of Chinatown’s core population had gone eastward to areas such as Monterey Park.

General Lee's Bar

The Space

Tonight, 30 years on, the modern General Lee’s is not yet open for the Friday night crowd of youthful hipsters that populate the contemporary incarnation of Chinatown. General Lee’s is all ours, with the exception of the thin man carefully watering the potted plants that line the edge of the second floor balcony and bar manager Chris Day, bustling behind the bar in preparation for a thirsty Summer night, while our photographer for this story snapped some photos. Sporting an Aloha shirt splashed with large white hibiscus flowers, Daniel was sipping  a Chris Day daiquiri as we sat down on a grouping of bamboo framed furniture covered in Hawaiian print barkcloth (one of the Tiki touches in this William Edwards designed, Asian influenced interior). The late afternoon Summer sun filtered through the narrow windows striking sections of the liquor bottles on the back bar to create a dazzling display of gleaming rich hued liquids and sparkling glass.

The Dawn of Thirsty in L.A.

Daniel first got more than casually interested in cocktails at Comme Ca, in West Hollywood when he saw a gin-based drink called a Pegu Club on the menu. He learned from bartender Joel Black that this was the house drink at the Rangoon, Burma Pegu Officers Club in the 1920s.  After that, Daniel couldn’t get enough stories about where drink names came from. “I love the history combined with cocktails,” he says, unknowingly cozying up to my fondness for history combined with just about anything.

So, the next step for Daniel in his study of cocktails and history in L.A., was writing about local watering holes on Yelp, which eventually transitioned into launching in May 2009.  “The timing was good,” Daniel asserts, talking about starting his own cocktail blog. “The Varnish and Copa D’Oro had opened and craft cocktail culture was building.” Daniel cites the 2007 opening of Cedd Moses’ Seven Grand bar, as the dawn of a new age of cocktails in Los Angeles, saying that by 2009, “the craft cocktail movement had really started to take off” in tandem with social media which quickly spread the word about what was hot and who was doing what on the cocktail scene. This gave rise to the era we are in now, of celebrity bartenders like Julian Cox (Riviera), who went on to mentor bartenders all over Los Angeles, including General Lee's Chris Day.

Chris Day, mixologist and manager at General Lee's
Now it was time to specifically talk Tiki cocktails, particularly, craft Tiki cocktails. For the uninitiated, this means NO canned juices or sticky, fluorescent mixers. When Daniel rates a bar, he looks for fresh ingredients (like the forest of giant mint leaves poking out of the Mai Tai that bar manager Chris Day has just set down in front of him). This is no token mint sprig, this is a major bunch of robust mint. He invites me to take a sip and the aroma of mint is invigorating as it tickles my nose. The ingredients harmonize splendidly. Daniel goes on to say, that he looks to see if the back bar boasts an array of small batch artisinal spirits and a wide range of freshly made bitters and fresh herbs. And then – if that is all there – he still needs to see a display of creativity on the menu. He points out that General Lee’s Negroni cocktail uses a Szechwan tincture for that Asian influence. This creativity is what elevates certain contemporary mixologists above the hoi polloi of bartenders.

"A Tiki cocktail should transport you," remarks Daniel. It is supposed to conjure "the islands, the beach, the tropics. It is transformative.Describing the recipe for this transformation, he offers, “Something rum-based is a good start…and fresh tropical juices. Then there is the layering of light and dark rum and an extra layer…” An extra layer?!  Apparently the General Lee’s Mai Tai’s extra layer is Orgeat, but Cognac and Cointreau can also build layering into a fine Tiki cocktail. “The garnish is really important,” explains Daniel, “but the drink doesn’t have to be in a crazy Tiki mug or have an umbrella in it.” What? But isn’t that the fun of Tiki? The ostentatious garnish, the outlandish grinning mug, the occasional flame and the outsized proportions? Is craft cocktail crushing Tiki?

Although Don Beach opened his first Los Angeles Tiki bar Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood (on McCadden across the street from none other, than the landmark Egyptian Theatre) in the 1930s, the period most closely associated with Tiki culture today, is the mid-20th century – the decades where processed foods reached lethal heights (think red dye #2 and then think the amount in a maraschino cherry!). It was an era when canned juice was considered fresh out of the orchard and housewives in middle-America, were encouraged to treat the family to a luau, with a gloriously decorated canned ham pinned with canned pineapple rings encircling those cancerous maraschino cherries. It was the era of science over substance. Food was fast, cheap, well preserved and of questionable origin. The farm to table, or in this case, the farm to glass movement was half a century away. So, the question is, how do we reconcile our tongue in cheek love of Tiki kitsch with the sophistication of the craft cocktail movement?

Then Daniel mentions Lost Lake, a very good Tiki bar in the unlikely locale of Chicago. “They make this drink with a banana dolphin garnish,” says a smiling Daniel. Due to that whole celebrity bartender trend (flying in to mix for a night here or there, not unlike a DJ), Daniel got to try some of Chicago's finest last Summer at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel's bar, The Spare Room, at this special Tiki night event. Bartender Paul McGee (formerly from Three Dots and A Dash, currently with Lost Lake) is enough of a celebrity, that The Spare Room flew him in for the night to mix Tiki drinks. McGee served up his famous banana daiquiri garnished with a banana styled to look like a dolphin in a Three Dots and A Dash branded glass, that Daniel excitedly mentions, "you got to keep." Incidentally, on a visit to Chicago, Daniel once found himself in a line on a snowy November evening just to get in to experience Three Dots and a Dash! Whew, the souvenir Tiki glass trend is NOT dead! It seems the craft cocktailers are only trying to make our Tiki drinks better, but not necessarily more serious.

Eventually our cocktail hour ends and I exit General Lee’s onto the Chinatown Plaza. Just around the corner, I bump into Elina Shatkin, a Los Angeles food, beverage and culture writer friend. I mention I’ve just come from interviewing Daniel and of course she wants to go say hello to him. On the few steps back to the bar, I ask her how her recent trip to Chicago was, and by the time we get into General Lee’s she’s already whipped out her phone to show us all a photo of the banana disguised as a dolphin, with a cherry in his mouth and a paper umbrella over his head, swimming in her Lost Lake banana daiquiri.

Banana Daiquiri from Lost Lake Tiki Bar Chicago. More>

For more Tiki drinking in Los Angeles, Daniel recommends the Tonga Hut in North Hollywood (now also in Palm Springs), the oldest Tiki bar in the city with a terrific menu engineered by Marie King. He also highly recommends taking advantage of the trend of importing celebrity bartenders from around the country for cocktail events.The Roosevelt Hotel’s The Spare Room bar in Hollywood has a monthly Tiki night with guest bartenders and music from May through September - and you can bowl a game in a vintage lane while you’re sipping your Mai Tai). Further south, 320 Main in Seal Beach hosts Tiki Tuesdays and apparently a Spam sandwich is on the menu if you also want to dine. If you aren’t already encouraged to check out General Lee’s, the bar will host a Bruce Lee 75th Birthday event in November where the cocktail menu will include Bruce Lee theme cocktails and Daniel will be DJ’ing.

General Lee's DJ booth
If you happen to be in Chicago, the Tiki bar Three Dots and A Dash is another must-visit for their menu with a wicked sense of humor. The bar name derives from the Morse Code for Victory and Don Beach’s drink honoring American Servicemen. The garnish is three cherries on a pick with a rectangular chunk of pineapple on the end, symbolizing three dots and a dash!

The American Cinematheque's Tiki Night in Hollywood takes place on Saturday, July 25, 2015. Vendors open at noon. Live music and cocktails start at 5 PM and the 1958 Cinerama travelogue SOUTH SEAS ADVENTURE goes on at 7:30 PM.

-- Margot Gerber

Photographs by Andrea Macias-Jimenez