Carla Meyer

You have to try the mai tai at this midtown Tiki bar. But should you stay for dinner?

The pu pu platter for two at the Jungle Bird in Sacramento holds plenty of food.
The pu pu platter for two at the Jungle Bird in Sacramento holds plenty of food. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

The Jungle Bird, a 6-month-old Tiki bar/restaurant in midtown Sacramento, immediately transports you.

Review

It’s already dark inside the establishment – its presence on J Street signaled only by a small, wordless neon sign depicting a bird – when it opens at 4 p.m. on weekdays. Fake greenery crawls up the front windows and helps block out the sun, with most of the faint light inside the place emitted from lamps that dangle from nautical ropes attached to the thatch-roofed bar.

Loud, jungle-print wallpaper, oodles of bamboo and shelves lined with various rum bottles and pineapple- and coconut-shaped cocktail vessels help complete the picture as one settles on to a bench made out of rock to sip mai tais and sample coconut shrimp from a pu pu platter.

Jungle Bird does not so much evoke island life as mid-20th-century American kitsch. It returns us to the first wave of Tiki bars, and their attempts to bring the “aloha” spirit back from Hawaii, then becoming more accessible by airplane. The Rodgers & Hammerstein stage and movie musical “South Pacific,” along with memories of World War II GIs who had served in that region, helped propel Tiki culture. So did a TV show about a three-hour tour gone awry. (Jungle Bird sells a $100 “Three Hour Tour” cocktail, with vodka, two types of rum, and Champagne, to parties of six or more).

Open since October in the space that held Kru Contemporary Cuisine, before it moved to East Sacramento, Jungle Bird at moments brings to mind aspects of the Trader Vic’s chain and San Francisco’s Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar. There also are bits of the Disneyland Hotel’s Tiki bar, and at moments, of the park’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride as well, especially when the sound system erupts in “storm” effects and the furniture feels like it might have come from a stage set.

We had to move tables on three of our visits because the first tables at which we sat wobbled so much. But other parts of the playful decor are undeniably solid, like the concrete-secured rock bench and stone wall behind it. And at least Jungle Bird does not charge a lot for the food and drink served on its wobbly tables. Appetizers top out at $7, and most cocktails are $10 or less.

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Jungle Bird’s bartenders deserve credit regardless for their execution of the 1944 mai tai. Paul Kitagaki Jr. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

It all, ultimately, adds up to unpretentious fun for newcomers and a nostalgia trip for people who recall beloved Sacramento Tiki places such as the Coral Reef and Zombie Hut. Former patrons of those places visit the midtown spot, said Jungle Bird co-owner Buddy Newby, sharing stories with Newby and fellow owners Tyler and Melissa Williams, all of whom are in their mid-30s and thus too young for Tiki’s heyday.

Crowds at Jungle Bird can skew young, drawing pairs of hip young women to its bar and groups of people in their 20s and early 30s, clad in Hawaiian shirts, celebrating birthdays in its two dining rooms. We also have seen more than a smattering of gray-haired gentlemen who look as if they have visited Key West more than once and would not flinch were parrots to land on their shoulders.

The Williamses also run the midtown barbecue restaurant Tank House, where then-employee Newby started a weekly event called “Tiki Tuesday.” By opening Jungle Bird, the trio are riding a reawakening, within the past 15 years or so, of the Tiki restaurant/bar culture that began in the 1930s with Don the Beachcomber in Los Angeles and the original Trader Vic’s in Oakland. Newer lounges such as Alameda’s Forbidden Island and San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove are leading Tiki 2.0, with the latter having just won a James Beard Award for its book of cocktail recipes and Tiki lore.

A Tiki lounge called RumRok opened in 2015 in Sacramento but closed soon after. Jungle Bird, by contrast, caught on from the moment it opened, and remains packed many nights.

Jungle Bird continues the Tiki tradition of pastiche with a cocktail menu that includes historical drinks such as Trader Vic’s “1944 Mai Tai” and the piña colada, strawberry daiquiri and their swirly merger, the “lava flow,” with new creations from Newby and his bar staff. The limited food menu, by chef Matt Brown (formerly of 58 Degrees) reflects Chinese flavors key to the original Tiki restaurants while incorporating cuisines popular within and outside Hawaii, including native-Hawaiian, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, Thai and Mexican. Brown is thus following the “fusion” road map laid out by Trader Vic’s when it put cream cheese and seafood in a wonton wrapper and called it “crab Rangoon.”

But the two must-order food items at Jungle Bird – the pork sisig tacos and coconut fried rice – taste better and fresher than anything I have tried at a Trader Vic’s or the Tonga Room. The tacos hold house-made kimchi, and alternate crispy and cushy textures and spicy, bright and comfortingly homey flavors. Though the coconut flavor is subtle in the fried rice, it is evident enough to tease out the brown-sugar sweetness within the dish’s otherwise salty/fatty Chinese sausage.

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The coconut rice at the Jungle Bird is a must-try. Paul Kitagaki Jr. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

The strong salty/fatty flavors – complementary to Jungle Bird’s sweet drinks – continue in the “moku beef noodles” entree, its Kalbi-style short rib addictively chewy but not tough, its buckwheat noodles tasting of soy sauce, ginger and garlic.

The $20 pu pu platter for two holds plenty of food, but we were disappointed to discover its crab Rangoon and veggie egg rolls start as frozen products. The disappointment arose partly because we had liked these items best on the platter, although Brown’s house-made coconut shrimp and banana-ketchup chicken skewers hit the right, slightly sweet spots.

The meat in the steamed pork buns was not distinctive, and the bun not especially fresh-tasting. The “mochi fried chicken,” made with a rice-flour batter, was bland of skin and flesh. The yucca fries served alongside it were seasoned and fried well but also inherently, inescapably gummy.

We liked the tropical drinks Jungle Bird re-creates from classic recipes better than its originals, but we also tried more of the former due to our affection for offerings from the pineapple-coconut family and our lack of knowledge about Tiki history. We never had a “painkiller” or “macadamia nut chi chi” before our Jungle Bird visits, so we assumed they were house creations until Newby advised us otherwise when we interviewed him after our visits.

Jungle Bird’s bartenders deserve credit regardless for their execution of the mai tai, which had that classic blend of plentiful rum and alcohol-masking tartness and sweetness, and for the crushed-ice, tinned-cupped bliss of the painkiller, made with Pusser’s Navy Rum, coconut cream, pineapple and orange juices and just enough wintry cinnamon and nutmeg to make it the perfect transitional springtime drink.

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The Painkiller at the Jungle Bird was a delight. Paul Kitagaki Jr. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

The allspice dram in the house-created “headhunter’s grog,” however, clashed with the drink’s grapefruit juice and Mezcal. A banana daiquiri made with Batiste Rhum and banana liqueur tasted too spirit-forward, without compensatory sweetness.

The winner among drinks we sampled comes in its own copper championship cup. It is shaped like a pineapple and holds the $20 “macadamia nut chi chi” for two. Earthy macadamia liqueur rounds out the striking sweetness of coconut cream and pineapple juice before Absolut Elyx vodka pushes through to remind you this is not Gunther’s.

The chi chi’s copper container apparently is valuable, as our servers explained when asking for a credit card to hold both times we ordered the drink. This led us to A) wonder what Jungle Bird clientele got up to in the wee hours, after our dinner visits; and B) visualize making a run for it ourselves.

But the great chi chi caper of 2017 was not to be. All that tropical-drink sloshing, we decided, would make for a messy getaway.

The Jungle Bird

2516 J St., Sacramento. 916-476-3280, www.thejunglebird.com

Hours: 4 p.m.-midnight Monday-Thursday; 4 p.m.-1 a.m. Friday; 10 a.m.-1 a.m. Saturday; 10 a.m.-midnight Sunday.

Beverage options: Tropical cocktails, rum by the glass. One white, one red wine. Beers on tap.

Vegetarian friendly: Yes

Gluten-free options: Yes

Ambiance: Step into mid-20th-century, island-inspired Tiki kitsch in this fully immersive midtown Sacramento bar and restaurant.

Overall 1/2

Everyone should visit this distinctive spot at least once, for the atmosphere. But the food menu still seems to be evolving (Jungle Bird just started a weekend brunch, which we did not try) and although we liked some cocktails, a few others were misses.

Food and drinks 1/2

The food menu contains two must-try items: pork sisig tacos and coconut fried rice. The salty/fatty “moku beef noodles” entree is a great companion for sweet drinks. But little else stood out. The “macadamia nut chi chi” and “painkiller” cocktails were delights, but flavors clashed in the “headhunter’s grog,” and the banana daiquiri lacked enough sweetness.

Service 1/2

Service is very engaged at the bar, where bartenders encourage a sense of bonhomie among patrons. Service at tables is efficient, but less warm and more workmanlike.

Value

The pork sisig taco plate, which comes with three mini-tacos for $6, and the moist, flavor-packed Kahlua cake dessert, for $7, are deals, and most cocktails run a reasonable $7-$10.

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