Houston's finally has a dedicated tiki bar after decades without one. Lei Low, at 6412 N. Main, opened Friday with flaming tiki drinks, aloha shirts and healthy does of Houston's tiki history.
The bar is the brainchild of Russell and Elizabeth Theode, formerly of Downhouse, and Brad Moore and Ryan Rouse, owners of Grand Prize, Big Star Bar and Goro & Gun. The Theodes are avid tikiphiles whose personal collection makes up much of the bar's décor.
The intimate bar is located in a Sunset Heights strip mall, next to a tax office and convenience store. A neon-green sign above the entrance reads RUM. Inside, the bar is divided into several sections: one area is inspired by exotica and jungle rooms, another calls to mind Grandma's Florida room, with white bamboo furniture and tacky paint-by numbers. On the walls hangs vintage artwork by Witco and Tretchikoff, tiki-bar standards.
The tiki movement swept middle America after World War II, when soldiers brought home tales of alluring South Pacific islands. In those years, the need to "escape" mutated into an appreciation for anything deemed exotic -- which is why rum (from the Caribbean) got paired with pupu platters (Americanized Chinese food) and Hawaiian décor and music. If you were living in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1953, your local tiki bar blended all those cultures together to create a magical escape from the doldrums of normal life.
Lei Low pays homage to the history of tiki with a collection of menus, photos and other ephemera from Houston's own Trader Vic's, which was housed in the Shamrock Hilton and closed in the 1980s. The Theodes also found a bunch of green booths on Craigslist to mimic the green booths of the Houston Trader Vic's, a detail only a true urban archeologist could appreciate.
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Behind the bar, the Theodes are making their own syrups, carbonating coconut water in-house and brewing a kombucha-like fermented pineapple drink called tepache. The cocktail menu also pays homage to Houston with names like the Balinese Room #2.
If rum isn't your poison, they also serve bourbon drinks, gin drinks and of course, flaming coffee grogs. If the idea of a bright pink tiki drink turns you off, don't let it. This bar is doing some really interesting things with flavor combinations -- for example, mixing herbsaint and cocoa for a different twist on some of the old tiki classics.
Lei Low still has room to grow. The owners hope to have the patio ready for springtime and Elizabeth, who is a chef, eventually hopes to open a kitchen to serve light bites. For now, Lei Low is serving a little taste of paradise every day except Monday.
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