Portland’s Tiki Kon 2018: Dipping our toes into the rum-soaked tropical fantasy-land of the Tiki revival community
Both Paddy and I have always been fans of mid-century pop culture. I’m also a big fan of Polynesia and spent some time living in Hawaii and learning about Pacific Island cultures in college. Since then, I had always fantasized about having a basement Tiki bar in my house.
In 2015, we bought a house with a basement and I convinced Paddy that a Tiki bar was of utmost necessity. We found vintage bar at an estate sale, put up some grass matting and bamboo, a grass thatch overhang and invested in a Tiki mug collection. We’ve realized since the initial build-out of our Tiki bar that adding to a Tiki bar can easily become an obsession. I began reading up on Polynesian Pop and Tiki cocktails, and we formed a hobby of scouring antique stores for mid-century treasures and Polynesian art. When we read that Portland, Oregon hosts an annual Tiki Kon every summer, we figured it might be time to check out this cult that we may have inadvertently joined.
Tiki Kon started as a small bar crawl of home Tiki bars in the Portland area in 2003, and has since become a fairly large production. It is run by a couple with the help of volunteers, in addition to their full time jobs. This is no small undertaking and I am very impressed with what they have managed to pull off. It seems that the Tiki revival is growing, which was confirmed when the Tiki Kon website crashed within minutes of tickets going on sale this year.
The site crash was a bit of a mess, and I really felt for the producers as they scrambled to go through transactions by time stamp and sort out over-sold VIP tickets. We had opted to just purchase a la carte tickets to the Friday and Saturday night events, and our ticket purchase made it through and was not part of the oversold ticket group.
The hot item was the VIP ticket, which included all events, a private VIP cocktail lounge, and a Sunday home Tiki bar tour. The home bar tour had a hard limit on the number of guests that could be accommodated on the buses and in the home Tiki bars, so unfortunately there were some folks who were disappointed by having their ticket downgraded or refunded. All in all, it was well handled and the Tiki Kon producers upgraded their website to handle more traffic and ticket sales.
*Tip: Ticket sales happen in March, and they go FAST. If you want to attend Tiki Kon, make your ticket selection before the go-live time and get your purchase in online ASAP. Also, make sure you have a PayPal account. I’m not sure if they plan on taking credit cards in the future, but this year PayPal was the only payment option.
Each year has a theme, and this year’s theme was Fantasy Island.
Custom souvenir Tiki mugs are produced for each year, but in limited quantities of 100. You can go online before the event and try to buy one for $100 when they go on sale, and invites to buy are sent to ticket holders only. They sell out within 5 minutes of going on sale. The Tiki mugs were really cool, and I understand the whole limited-edition collector mentality, but I’m not so keen on only allowing a small fraction of guests to acquire a souvenir Tiki mug for Tiki Kon. Yes, this makes them more valuable and more coveted, but it makes them nearly impossible to get and extremely exclusive. All in all, we didn’t really want to spend $100 on a Tiki mug regardless–but they were really cool.
We opted to take Friday off of work and left Seattle around 8:30 AM, and made record time down to Portland with no traffic. I would recommend not trying to drive to Portland on a Friday afternoon from Seattle. We did this once and hit Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia, and Portland rush hours and it took 5+ hours to get there. Not worth it. Take the day off if you are driving from Seattle and trying to get to Portland on a Friday night, or take the Bolt Bus in the early afternoon.
After arrival in Portland, we went straight to the Hawthorne neighborhood to get lunch and do a little vintage shopping. We opted for sandwiches at Lardo, partly because it looked amazing, and partly because they had frosty cold AC and house-made Arnold Palmers.
I had the Italian Tuna sandwich, which was delicious but a little salty with the olive tapenade. I scraped it off and the sandwich was perfect without the tapenade.
Paddy had the Second Hand Smoke brisket sandwich with pickled serrano peppers, American cheese and smokey mayo, which he loved. He also had a side of their potato salad which tasted just like a baked potato. We would definitely come back here.
After lunch, we went swag lamp shopping at the Lounge Lizard up the street. Lounge Lizard is a great place to shop for mid-century modern furniture and lamps, and other antiques. They have a small amount of vintage clothing as well. They have two locations on Hawthorne Blvd, very close to each other. We found a blue vintage swag lamp at the Eastern location on Hawthorne, and Paddy found a very groovy 70’s polyester shirt. He doesn’t know where he will wear it, but there will be some occasion I’m sure.
We also made a last shopping stop at Fat Fancy, a used clothing store for plus size people. It’s my favorite store in Portland and has moved from downtown to the Hollywood area of East Portland. They have a parking lot now. I found a couple used Torrid tops and the sales lady was very friendly and helpful. If you are plus size, check this place out.
After lunch and shopping, we were ready to check into the hotel and relax for a bit. We had reserved a room at the historic Palms Motel in North Portland. We chose this hotel for the low price ($120/night), the location across from the Alibi Tiki Lounge and near the Mississippi neighborhood, and for the sign out front. The sign out front was a significant draw. I mean, it has a blue monkey.
The rooms were clean, and the beds were decent. It is a cheap motel, no frills. But the AC was nice and frosty and there was a fridge, both being a necessity on the 95-degree July weekend. There was even beer left in the fridge from the previous renters. I suppose that means that housekeeping wasn’t super thorough, but I won’t fault them for leaving free beer. There are worse things to overlook.
We checked in and relaxed a bit before getting changed into our Tiki Kon attire and heading across the street to the Alibi Tiki Lounge for food and drinks.
The Alibi is a classic Tiki bar, since 1947. It’s gone through some changes over the years, but the epic flashing neon sign and dark kitschy Tiki atmosphere remain and flourish. The Alibi is mostly known to locals as a karaoke dive bar, but no matter what time of day you go, it’s fun. Be prepared for crowds on weekend evenings.
We opted to eat here, although I can’t say I recommend coming here for the food. The food is alright, if you are drinking and need some fried food to soak up booze. However, we just wanted dinner to be cheap and easy and being able to eat some food along with our Tiki drinks was the ideal situation at the time. It was happy hour, and we had the garlic green beans, the potstickers, the chicken fingers, and the lumpia. It was all average.
They have alcoholic slushies at the Alibi, which on a hot day go down really easy. I had the strawberry daiquiri slushy and Paddy had the Alibi Old Fashioned cocktail. They were selling signature Tiki mugs for $20 with a drink in them, so I got my slushy in a souvenir mug.
After we had food and drinks, we caught a Lyft to Tiki Kon to check out our first a la carte evening show, which was a “surf and turf” show featuring surf rock bands and a “horror” theme.
We checked in at the Tiki Kon booth and acquired our “passports” with stamps for the events that we had paid for. To enter and exit the event, we needed to show our passports. They were pretty fun little souvenirs and very nicely done, with info inside about Tiki Kon and the events of the weekend.
A few vendors were selling artisan Tiki mugs and other items, and there was a bar with pre-mixed signature cocktails of the evening as well as beer and wine. There was a photo op area, which of course we took advantage of.
In the main event room, there was a dance floor, stage, and large tables with table clothes and small centerpieces. People-watching was pretty fun, everyone had put a lot of thoughts into their outfits.
The Red Lion event room setting sort of made it feel like we were at a wedding. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was hoping for a little more Tiki atmosphere, which is a big part of what Tiki is all about. However, I can see how challenging creating that atmosphere would be in this location and for an event this size. They did a good job with what they had to work with…but….we still felt like we were at a wedding. I suppose that is the nature of a convention.
We were trying to brainstorm on what they could do to create more Tiki atmosphere at future events that would be cost-effective and easy to put up and take down. I think if they had a large storage space and a lot of theatrically-minded volunteers, they could create some stage set walls on casters with fake lava rock (spray painted black styrofoam?) or jungle foliage or bamboo. These could be constructed and then wheeled in and out and stored somewhere the rest of the year. This would of course require ample volunteers, truck rentals, and a large storage space for the “sets.” But it would be an idea to take Tiki Kon to the next level. Some paper lanterns strung across the space overhead could really add a lot of atmosphere too. Again, this would require a lot of set up and take-down volunteers. Looking at the enthusiasm for the event around us at the event, I think there would be a lot of people willing to volunteer time in exchange for free or discounted tickets.
We knew no one at this event, so we decided to sit at a central empty table and let people sit with us. It worked, we ended up with friendly company quickly. We met two other couples–one who had been to one Tiki Kon before, and another couple who were newbies like us. They had also opted to just do the a la carte Friday and Saturday events to check it out without going full throttle.
There was a dance performance by MeduSirena Marina, a professional mermaid, and then three surf bands: Jon and the Vons from France, The Boss Martians, and Satan’s Pilgrims. All had go-go dancers and put on a good show.
Our new friends both left before we did due to the fact that there was no food at the event. The lack of food is my main critique of Tiki Kon. If you plan on serving people copious amounts of booze, food is essential. I think there might have been some catering in the VIP suite parties, but for us lowly basic ticket holders, there was no food to be found. I think if Tiki Kon could convince the hosting hotel to put some food trucks in their parking lot from 8:00 PM on, it would keep people partying longer and the local food vendors would make a ton of money.
We really wanted to stick around and check out Satan’s Pilgrims, but even we eventually succumbed to the drunk munchies and left a bit early as well. We took a Lyft back over to the Mississippi neighborhood near our hotel and found a taco truck.
The next morning, we thought we’d head over to Mississippi Ave and get breakfast at Miss Delta, one of my favorite Portland restaurants. Unfortunately, there was a street fair being set up all along Mississippi Ave and Miss Delta was closed so that they could set up a street fair booth for lunch. There was only one restaurant open for breakfast across the street with a very long wait list.
Our new friends Tom and Sarah from Tiki Kon were local and had suggested the Cadillac Cafe in the Irvington neighborhood as a good spot for breakfast, so we got in the car and drove there.
There was no wait and the food was amazing. We were so happy we took their advice.
I had the smoked salmon hash with house-smoked salmon, green beans, leeks, potatoes, eggs, and lemon dill creme fraiche. Paddy had the eggs in purgatory with cheesy grits and a Cajun-Creole sauce. Everything was delicious and the service was great. There is even a real mint-condition 1950’s pink Cadillac on display in the restaurant.
After breakfast, we went back up to Tiki Kon for their Saturday Tiki Marketplace.
The Tiki Marketplace is open to the public and free to enter. It ended up being our favorite part of Tiki Kon, as it gave us an opportunity to look at the work of a lot of amazing artists and craftspeople we’d never heard of, and shop for items to add to our home Tiki Bar.
We were immediately drawn into the vintage Aloha shirt and dress racks that were front and center in the market. It was a little intense–people were furiously and aggressively flipping through racks of dresses, kaftans, and mumus. I didn’t see anything in my size and didn’t really expect to, so I quickly lost interest and exited the vintage clothing feeding frenzy while Paddy persisted.
At the next booth I found a fabulous vintage lamp for only $65, and we also bought several art prints at other vendor booths to decorate our home Tiki bar with.
Later that afternoon, we met up with our new Tiki Kon friends Tom and Sarah at Portland’s other Tiki bar, Hale Pele.
Hale Pele has been written up as one of the top 10 Tiki Bars in the world by Critiki.com, and we had not been there yet. Just for Tiki Kon weekend, they opened early at 2:00 PM (normally they open at 4:00 PM daily). Sarah and Tom were regulars at Hale Pele, and they had some great food and drink recommendations for us.
Hale Pele is easy to miss from the street, which is sort of a classic Tiki bar thing. The idea is to create a hidden, exotic, transporting environment that assaults your senses when you open the door. Tiki bars are also supposed to be fairly dark, so no windows to the outside world. As soon as we walked in, we knew why it was rated as one of the world’s best. It is small and intimate, with a ton of attention to detail. The owners clearly put a lot of love into this bar, and it shows.
If it is your first time at Hale Pele and you are not driving after you leave, order the Jet Pilot cocktail. It is quite a production and does not disappoint. It also tastes amazing and is super strong. I really liked that Hale Pale divides their drink menu up into sections according to how strong the drinks are, so you know what you are getting into. Paddy opted to be the designated driver, so he chose a cocktail off the weaker list. I ordered the Jet Pilot.
The Jet Pilot comes on fire, and just before it is served, the lights in the bar flicker and thunder sounds are played over the speakers. The bartender brings out the drink and sprinkles cinnamon onto the open flame, causing a large fiery flare. It was really quite exciting (Did you know cinnamon was flammable? Neither did we).
Tom and Sarah told us that we HAD to try the Hawaiian bread, which is grilled and buttered and sprinkled with sea salt, served with a guava jam. It was delicious and yes, you HAVE to order it.
We tried a few of their other small plates as well, and everything was outstanding. We spent some time talking to the friendly bartender/manager Sierra, who was a lot of fun and really seems to enjoy her job. We will be back to Hale Pele on our future trips to Portland for sure.
For dinner that evening we wanted to save a little money and go somewhere relatively inexpensive. Tom and Sarah recommended Tamale Boy for good inexpensive Mexican fare. I had the tacos de pescado and Paddy had a quesadilla. Both were excellent. Tamale Boy is attached to the LABrewatory brewery next door, and you are welcome to eat your food from Tamale Boy while sampling LABrewatory’s beers in their taproom.
The Tiki Kon event for Saturday evening was fairly similar to the night prior, with more bands and a cabaret act by the Starella Sisters. When we arrived they were just finishing the Iron TikiTender bar-tending competition, where bartenders from Tiki Bars around the country compete for the Iron TikiTender title and a grand prize trip. The winner was Jeanie Grant from San Francisco’s Pagan Idol Tiki Bar. After the competition, we were able to walk into the main event room and get a view of the three finalists’ over-the-top drink garnishes.
The evening was yet again another big Tiki fashion show and we enjoyed checking out everyone’s fun outfits and accessories. There was a charity raffle with proceeds supporting the people affected by the volcanic lava flows in Hawaii.
We had a few drinks and watched the music for a while (more awesome surf music by a band called Tikiyaki 5-0. It was fun, but we didn’t stay until the end.
On the way back to the hotel we stopped into The Alibi again for a late night snack and another drink. It was packed with karaoke revelers. The Alibi is a hoppin’ place on a Saturday night!
There were a lot of Tiki Kon events that we skipped, including a banquet dinner and Polynesian dance show, and several educational symposiums. The VIP package included a home Tiki bar tour on Sunday, which is extremely popular (a tour of Portland’s home Tiki bars including bus transportation). It seemed that the magic of Tiki Kon really is in knowing people in the Tiki revival community, and getting a VIP ticket that includes the VIP lounges and the home Tiki bar tour. We only dipped our toes in the lagoon for this event.
Would we go again? Well…it was fun, but I think the people who have the most fun are the hardcore loyal returnees, who know each other and look forward to celebrating with each other at this event every year. There were a lot of events we opted not to pay for or participate in, so we can’t give an accurate review of the entire weekend. The highlights of the weekend for us were visiting Portland’s Tiki bars the Alibi and Hale Pele, and the Tiki Kon Saturday Marketplace. I think that if we go again, we may just get a la carte tickets to only one of the evening events and hit the Saturday Marketplace and the local Tiki Bars.
I did just see an announcement that Tiki Kon is moving to the DoubleTree Hilton Lloyd Center, closer to one of my favorite Portland neighborhoods (Buckman) and downtown. It is clear that the interest in Tiki Kon is growing, and I’m curious to see what next year brings. The fact that a couple with full time regular jobs put this event together in their spare time is really impressive, and I think the event will continue to grow.
Other Tiki events that happen annually around the country are Tiki Caliente in Palm Springs, CA, The Hukilau in Fort Lauderdale, FL, and Tiki Oasis in San Diego, CA. Of the three Tiki Oasis seems to be the largest event. I’m curious about checking out Tiki Oasis, but it would be a splurge between airfare, hotel, and the event tickets. If we combine it into a vacation to San Diego it might be pretty fun. I also saw something about a second Tiki Oasis going on in Arizona starting in 2019. The Tiki revival continues to expand.