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Studying "Tiki 101" at Lei Low, Sunset Heights' Rum-Happy Oasis

"Try this! No, seriously...try this!"

That's how most conversations start at Lei Low, a traditional tiki bar in Sunset Heights, for good reason. This place makes some serious drinks.

I'm here on a hot Saturday night to get exotic and learn the ways of island life.

Bartender Stephen Caronna suggests a Mai Tai, which I've had here on several occasions; it's time to graduate from "Tiki 101" and start the next semester. He suggests a "Balinese Room #2," a boozy mix of lots of things I've never heard of: Barbados rum, Dimmi, Yellow Chartreuse and Peychaud Bitters.

Those seeking to drink for comfort or keep things casual with their taste buds might want to steer clear. This place is for the adventurous drinker, the risk-taker. Don't expect to find $2 beer here, because it ain't happening. A couple of bars less than a quarter of a mile away, C&F Drive Inn and Oriente Bar, are both great places on their own and cater to that fare. Lei Low, however, is a little more upscale -- the average drink costs $10.

My friend Arturo, whom I invited because he's a worldly fellow who frequents tiki bars around the country, shows up. He's intrigued by tiki culture and has a vast knowledge of tiki history. After a Singapore Sling years ago, he was hooked. He sits down and orders a Zombie, a tiki-bar standard. I expect him, Stephen, and the rest of Lei Low's attentive bar staff to be my sherpas through these rough and unfamiliar waters to a tropical paradise.

"I'm spending all this money, but it's on my Amazon card...so, at least, I get money back," the guy sitting beside us says. "I love Amazon Prime."

The crowd is a slightly weird, but refreshing mix of young professionals who may be looking to briefly escape the Midtown sports bar scene and in-the-know regulars who work in the bar and restaurant industry. Stephen says Lei Low has more than its fair share of regulars, but continues to get new people coming in all the time.

Barely open six months, the place has solidified itself as a new go-to spot for cool cocktails and an easy-come-easy-go vibe. It's cozy and inviting, with stools at the bar and booths and rattan thrones huddled around the perimeter. There's a nice back patio, while exotic sounds from Les Baxter, Martin Denny and some breezy surf guitar linger in the background.

"It takes me back to the islands..." says one patron; it's hard to tell if he's shitting us or not. With long hair, full beard and a beach-bum look, he appears as if he very well could have lived on an island at some point in his life.

A few friends I haven't seen in a while are here for a birthday party. I know of more than a handful of people who have met up for the birthday drinks here as I did back in April. Lei Low is the adult version of a kiddie wonderland with more sophisticated party favors.

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The handmade cocktails are adorned with fresh fruit, flowers, flames and such, and look much more enticing than the usual PBR I garnish with a lime at Boondocks. They look so good, in fact, that patrons often feel the need to bust out phones to take a photo or selfie with their drink -- especially the Lei Low Volcano, a flaming tiki bowl that serves four.

By night's end, my bartender guide has taken me on a rum tour all over the world. I've had rum-infused with real coconut (a Lei Low favorite), raisin rum that Arturo aptly suggests we chase with some ginger beer and a delicious rum from Puerto Rico by the name of Ron del Barrilito.

"Rum is frowned upon by connoisseurs, but rum came before whiskey," says Scott, Lei Low's barback, as he and bartender Stephen school me. In my mind, rum has always been relegated to something consumed by college kids on spring break at the Jersey Shore.

"Who just spent $3,000 buying something on Craigslist? This round's on me!" A fellow named Kyle shows up out of nowhere, referring to the clunky 1920s car he just bought from someone in Abilene. He shows us photos of a pile of rubble that looks like it belongs on the set of Boardwalk Empire.

But Kyle orders us Chihuahua Fizzes made with a fancy coconut egg foam and a nutmeg sprinkle made to look like the Lei Low logo floating on top.

About to head home, I realize I've just lived the "Girl Drink Drunk" sketch from Kids in the Hall, and am reminded why I can't do this all the time; my head hurts and my tab is large. Perhaps the only true paradise is paradise lost.

Send your after-dark tips to nightfly@houstonpress.com.

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