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A zombie, two Mikes, many shrunken heads

September 23, 2004|Valli Herman | Times Staff Writer

It started innocently, my affair in the tropics. I wanted only to stroll down Sunset to redeem a fraction of good health -- an attack of conscience after a lard bomb of a Mexican meal.

A few paces into the walk, it was all over, and all it took was an open door. The teeny-tiny hut radiated Polynesian charm like a sun setting along the beach.

Oh, the Tiki-Ti, you say. Those killer drinks, those shrunken heads, the day-after curse of tropical concoctions that go down like liquid sugar. It's not much more than a shack, really, an unimpressive brown building near Sunset and Virgil. And yet....

Carded at the door by a baby of the Truman administration, age became a meaningless notion the moment I hit the barstool. Everyone exists in Tiki Time. The place is stuffed with tiki-tacky fishing nets, island vacation postcards, puffer-fish lamps and dozens of plaques signed by the regulars who have slurped through the giant menu, livers intact.

You can't just order a pina colada and call it a night. Go with a classic Zombie, or perhaps a Pain Killer. No, make that a Dark and Stormy. How to choose a tropical drink among the hundred covering the menu? Ask the bartenders, they're pros and they own the place.

There's Mike Buhen, and his look-alike son, Mike Buhen, descendants of the Tiki-Ti's founder, Ray "Master Mixer" Buhen, who opened the bamboo bar back in 1961. They're still using his secret recipes (try the Ray's Mistake, or have the Mikes clue you in on the rest.)

I started with the Uga Booga. Gray Hair Mike started shaking up the rum and who-knows-what, and the whole place erupted as if coached by some omniscient Commander of Cocktails. Everyone was wildly chanting "Uga Booga! Uga Booga! Uga Booga!!" I haven't heard this much excitement over a cocktail since I smuggled a bottle of Cold Duck into a slumber party.

My very own eyes saw the rum go in the glass, but the fruit juice, the chant, the group enthusiasm made the drink seem so innocent and so not-at-all alcoholic. Proud that I survived the initiation, I boldly ordered a Blood and Sand. Black Hair Mike poured a waterfall of rum from a bull's-head bottle stopper. In frat-party unison, the whole place chanted, "Toro! Toro! Toro! Ole!" (There was a movie, you know, about bullfighting called "Blood and Sand," with Rita Hayworth, Tyrone Power and Anthony Quinn.)

It helps to be full of historical details at the Tiki-Ti. It impresses the twentysomethings who wear trucker caps and '80s jackets and roll their own cigarettes and -- trouble in paradise! -- light up in plain sight. It's legal because the place has no employees, other than the owners.

Yes, Demon Tobacco is awful. But the stale, smoky haze felt so right for a retro bar.

Healthy living in L.A.? Not on this corner.



Where: 4427 Sunset Blvd., L.A.

When: 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Wednesday through Saturday

Cost: Tropical drinks $9 to $15.

Info: (323) 669-9381

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