Mai Tais Drying Up
It's almost always a sad occasion when a neighborhood restaurant makes way for a chain drugstore, especially when it's somewhere as storied as Yenching Palace, which served its last plate of General Tso's chicken yesterday and will reopen as a Walgreen's later this year.
For five decades, Yenching Palace was a neighborhood fixture in Cleveland Park, and, as has been often reported, the place where Russian and American diplomats met when they were negotiating an end to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Yenching's decor -- heavy on the jade, vases and faux-leather booths -- were a throwback to its heyday in the '60s and '70s. Still, the old-school Chinese food has been in decline for years, and it never seemed busy when I'd stop by for a bite to eat.
What I'll really miss, though, are the tropical drinks.
A friend and I went in to pay our respects on Saturday night, starting our adventure by splitting the Flaming Volcano -- a giant ceramic bowl filled with 32 ounces of rum, brandy and fruit juices, and capped by a small well of high-alcohol rum that had been lit on fire. To drink the volcano, we had to use long, brightly colored straws. Dinner followed, and while the food was nothing special, we loved the Navy Grog, Mai Tai and Scorpion Bowl that arrived at our table. Wonderful rum drinks that seemed so exotic in the '50s, when Trader Vic and Don the Beachcomber fueled the craze for Polynesian cocktails.
The evening served as a reminder that outlets for tropical drinks have declined in recent years, even as the "martinis" at most lounges get sweeter and fruitier. Honolulu, run by former Trader Vic's head bartender David Chan, was leveled in 2004 to make room for a Beltway on-ramp. Island Jim's has closed for good, with the owners of the outdoor Brookland bar choosing to focus their attention on Colonel Brooks's Tavern instead. And now Yenching Palace.
In downtown D.C., the only place I can find a classic Mai Tai is in the decidedly un-tropical surroundings of Central Michel Richard, where the bartenders make a light, snappy version that's pretty darn close to Trader Vic's original recipe. Alexandria has Mango Mike's, where you can get a pina colada in a coconut husk and sip pretty decent grog under a palm tree on the patio, and I've made the trip out to Herndon to sample the old-fashioned tiki drinks at the Luau Garden. Meanwhile, the tiki-filled bar at Continental is too-frequently hit-or-miss. Maryland boaters love Vera's White Sands, where they can dock their yachts before sipping a Mai Tai.
But the question, readers, is where you go when you're looking for a perfect pina colada, a giant flaming bowl of rum, or mixed drinks served in ceramic glasses embossed with hula girls. Know of an otherwise unremarkable Asian restaurant with killer drinks? If you have suggestions, please add them in the comments field below. Thanks.
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