The writer at Eater who declared last week that tiki is dead might want to get out of New York for a while. This weekend in Ft. Lauderdale, tikiphiles will be celebrating the 10th anniversary of The Hukilau at the historic Mai Kai (also celebrating it's 55th anniversary this year, the Polynesian restaurant with the longest-running and most impressive floor show in the continental US). Tiki Tuesdays at Anvil are still going strong, with a new menu each week, and now, Humble has its own little piece of paradise, an odd little restaurant called Hula Mama's.
Nestled in the strip mall wasteland of FM 1960, just north of Bush Intercontinental, Hula Mama's is kind of hard to find. That is, unless you're looking for a restaurant in a double-wide trailer that also goes by the name of Alisi's Hawaii.
Several months ago a friend sent me the link to their website, knowing how into tiki I am. It took a while for me to finally check the place out, in part because it's only on Fridays and Saturdays that they offer the full luau-style floor show. And what's the point of going to such a place if not for the performance, I thought. Little did I know how right I was. But more on that in a minute.
Hula Mama's website neglects to mention that the restaurant is in a trailer. Instead, it describes itself as :
an indoor/outdoor climate controlled tropical theme that has been vastly decorated with island decor throughout that creates the ultimate luau experience
Sounds charming, right? The restaurant also advertises itself as a Southern food/Polynesian cuisine hybrid. And if Houston can do anything right it's fusion.
I made my reservations for the Friday night show and buffet ($39.99 a person), packed a flask (they're BYOB but they also advertise fresh juice drinks) and headed north.
To describe Hula Mama's luau meal as a buffet is stretching it. Five or so chafing dishes does not a buffet make, from nondescript stir-fry to meatballs to overly sweet pulled pork. I was willing to forgive that transgression, though, knowing how much Polynesians love their spam and poi. What I am not willing to forgive are the "fresh juice" drinks I was given to pour my rum into. We're talking mango straight out of a can. We're talking Hawaiian punch. In fact, the best part of the meal was the quartered and sliced fresh pineapple served as an appetizer.
But the best part of the evening had nothing to do with the meal at all.
Given the first impression Hula Mama's had made on me, my expectations were low for the Polynesian revue and floor show. But when the lights were lowered and the very first dancer came out wielding a torch of fire, I knew I was in for a surprise.
It turns out, Hula Mama's is still going through some growing pains. But they've got the performance aspect down pat. Behind the fire dancer a guitar player and a large Polynesian man sat at the back of the stage, playing drums with such precision that during the first song I was convinced they were a recording.
The man behind the drum, known as Chief Tama, moved to Houston from Florida with his family to work for Continental. He's also a former dancer at the legendary Mai Kai, which makes him an alumni of the gold standard of tiki in America. Tama, who is Samoan, danced there for 10 years and dreamed of opening his own place. In 1986 he started the entertainment group Drums of the Pacific, where you can take hula or tamure lessons yourself. Now that he's retired form the airline industry, he has also opened Hula Mama's, which employs dancers from Samoa and Tonga.
Hula Mama's show is worth the $40 entry price even if the food isn't. The lounge-y MC, who grew up in Maui (and who most likely also doubles as Elvis on their "Blue Hawaii" nights), takes you through a whirlwind trip of the Polynesian islands, explaining the dances and traditions of each archipelago. The dancers are truly skilled, and there's really nothing else like this going on in Houston right now.
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Tama told me he's working on the food, and that he wants to expand, get a liquor license and eventually serve tiki drinks like the infamous Mystery Bowl. Even if that doesn't happen, the next time they have a Blue Hawaii night, I'm there.
See more photos from the luau in our slideshow.