Taste of the Tropics

Food and service can both shine at Kon Tiki, but not necessarily at the same time

Kon Tiki has been serving up tropical mixes in classic tiki-lounge style since 1963. But when I told friends I'd be dining there, the unanimous reaction was: "They serve food?" Though Kon Tiki is famous for fruity but lethal libations, the food can be equally deserving of attention.

My first visit to Kon Tiki was with Ted for a weeknight dinner. We were promptly seated in the dining section, in the very back of the very dark restaurant, and we were the only people there for quite a while. The dinner menu is fairly extensive, featuring about 10 appetizers and 25 entrées. We finally settled on drinks: a Mystery ($7) and a Lunchbox ($6), along with a Kon Tiki combo plate ($9) as an appetizer.

Our friendly and attentive server brought out everything quickly, even before we had decided on entrées. The appetizer platter featured two Hawaiian fried shrimp, several "krab" puffs and Polynesian barbecue ribs, all on a thick bed of tiki chips (yummy squares of crunchy fried wontons sprinkled with sugar). The plump shrimp were hot and crispy, with just a hint of coconut. The crab puffs were tasty but not as impressive, and seemed to be lacking in the crab department. The sweet, fall-off-the-bone-tender ribs were the highlight; we gobbled them up.

After chowing down, we finally settled on some entrées. Ted chose the Wiki Wiki steak with a baked potato and a Caesar salad ($13 for the entrée; $1 extra for the upgrade to a Caesar salad), and I chose the Manuu with rice and a combination of shrimp, beef and chicken, and a Caesar salad ($16.50).

While waiting, we sipped our large, refreshing drinks and checked out the reptile enclosure behind the bar, home to Thor the Nile monitor.

Our entrées arrived quickly, but were mediocre. The salads were small and bland, with iceberg lettuce, a few stale croutons and powdered Parmesan cheese. The Wiki Wiki steak, although cooked medium-rare as ordered, was tough and chewy, and the pineapple and teriyaki sauce didn't bring much flavor to the party. The flaky, hot baked potato with butter and sour cream was the highlight, since the steamed vegetables were underseasoned, although thankfully not overcooked.

The Manuu was a huge portion of teriyaki stir-fry, and I can't imagine ordering it with a side other than rice—other options are a baked potato and french fries—because the teriyaki sauce overwhelmed the flavor of the vegetable medley, and was only edible after mixing in the rice. The shrimp were served generously, but the small portions of beef and chicken were cut up into such tiny pieces that they were lost.

Warm slices of banana bread are served with every entrée; they were fluffy and delicious. But overall, considering the price of the meal ($65 including tip), I was unimpressed, although I enjoyed the drinks, the banana bread and the appetizer combo.

I hoped that our Saturday lunch visit would be better—and I was pleasantly surprised. Well, at least with the food.

Service was inattentive and extremely slow—and we were at one of only three occupied tables in the entire place. We brought my mom along, and we seated ourselves in the bar area. After 10 minutes, our server brought water and menus and took our drink order. Ted and I shared a Scorpion for two ($14), Kon Tiki's famous drink, and my mom ordered a Kona Kai shell ($7), which is served "icy cold in a shell," according to the menu. The drinks arrived after another 10-minute wait, and our server took our appetizer order: three "monkeys on a stick" and three "birds on a stick" ($1 each; minimum order of six). The Scorpion was giant, fruity and strong, and the Kona Kai was light and refreshing, but it was not served in a shell as advertised.

The appetizers came out quickly and were delicious. The "monkeys on a stick" were skewered sirloin cubes, tender and cooked to order, and coated with teriyaki sauce. The "birds on a stick," skewered teriyaki chicken chunks, were also tender and juicy.

When our server finally returned, I ordered the big island shrimp salad ($7) with oil and vinegar; Ted ordered the Samoan BBQ pork sandwich with a house salad ($6.50); and Mom ordered the mahi-mahi with fries and the soup of the day, which was stuffed-pepper soup ($7.75). The salads were mediocre, but a vast improvement over the Caesar salad. Thankfully, the soup was delicious, though not very Polynesian; it was thick with rice and vegetables in a tomato base, and tasted just like a stuffed bell pepper.

Entrées arrived a while later—and we realized that the Kon Tiki kitchen staff was on the ball. The shrimp salad was large, with fresh, crisp lettuce, a generous amount of shrimp, crispy toasted almonds and sweet mandarin orange supremes. Ted declared the barbecue sandwich his new favorite, and I couldn't help but agree. The sandwich was served on a nice ciabatta-style sandwich roll, and was stuffed with tangy, tender shredded pork and crunchy pickle slices. It was simple and delicious. The mahi-mahi was flaky and moist, although just a tiny bit overcooked; it was saved by the light, tangy citrus herb and butter sauce and the crunchy toasted almonds. The table was quiet while we ate—always a good sign—and the food impressed everyone. Portions were generous, and the lunch menu prices were easier to stomach.

After finishing, we managed to flag down our server to order a fried tiki ice cream ($3.50) to share. She didn't let us know what the "exotic topping of the day" was, and 20 minutes later, our ice cream arrived after sitting in the kitchen for what I assume was about 15 minutes. The fried crust was no longer crispy, and the topping was an overwhelming amount of shredded coconut and pineapple chunks drowning in a caramel sauce. We took two or three bites and let the rest finish melting.

Kon Tiki's has a chance to ditch the drinks-only reputation. Both the food and service can truly shine—but consistency is needed.

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