The Global Barfly’s Companion #17 by John King
Bar: Aku Aku
Location: 431 E Central Boulevard, Orlando, FL 32801
While Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto may be a boozy, whimsical pocket of tropical goodness in the theme park meccas twenty or so miles west of Orlando, the city beautiful’s best tiki bar is Aku Aku.
Located off Lake Eola and Thornton Parks, Aku Aku is far enough from the epicenter of mob alcoholism downtown to foster a sense of calm, letting those who are serious about their drinking to focus on the task at hand.
Once again, I brought my brother with me as my drinking proxy (doctor’s orders).
Now the term “tiki bar” is often a misnomer, especially in Florida where a thatched roof, Jimmy Buffet music, and Coronas seem all the requirements needed for the term. A true tiki bar is devoted to the touristy sense of the exotic that Hawaii held in the American imagination in the 1950s and early 1960s. Aku Aku is a true tiki bar that will make tikiphiles dreamy.
This modestly sized establishment is lined with dark bamboo, and features abundance of oversized Hawaiian images, not the least of which is a giant version of the drink menu.
An Easter Island idol looms dourly at the door. (Aku Aku was the name of the archeologist Thor Heyerdal’s startling book about the history and culture of Easter Island, first published in 1958.) There are hula girl lamps and sculptures. There are glowingly ethereal puffer fish lanterns. And the cool darkness and the retro music of the place seem to banish the crush of downtown from one’s senses.
Behind the bar is a matrix of asymmetric shelves covered with sculpted mugs, outré tchotchkes, and bizarre artifacts such as Robert Mitchum’s calypso album. Also among the shelves is over 70 different rums.
According to our bartender, Eric Soloman, their most popular rum is the Tiger Fucker, but they were out of vodka, which my brother wouldn’t have allowed to pass his lips anyway. James started with a mai tai (a recipe based on Trader Vic’s), and found it “Sweet and cool, from palate to gullet.” It was less minty than the Hippopota-mai-tai at Trader Sam’s, but equal in caliber.
Next my brother tried the signature drink, the Aku Aku, which was even better than the mai tai. When I tried a sip, the sensation was gently sweet, like falling onto a giant, satin pillow. I get the feeling one could sip those through an afternoon or evening without the sugar getting too weird in one’s system.
Eric is quite the mixologist. The bar was piled with oranges and pineapples that would later be juiced, and Eric proudly told us that Aku Aku makes its own simple syrup and grenadine. Such attention to fresh detail is a delight, and is discernible in the drinks themselves.
Like most tiki bars, there was a whiff of heady sweetness in the very air. While Louis Armstrong sang, “Ma Vie En Rose,” Eric helped my brother sample some sipping rums, and even concocted something with pineapple, rum, and peanut butter powder—a drink that as yet has no name, but was miraculously delicious, according to my brother.
Aku Aku is the sister bar to the wonderful Stardust Lounge, which resides at the bottom of the stairs just a few feet from Aku Aku’s entrance. This is a deep inside joke. The Stardust Casino has a Polynesian restaurant and tiki bar from 1960 to 1980, and it was called Aku Aku. Todd Ulmer, the owner of both bars, knows how to create an immersive theme that imagines so much more than a place to yammer while watching sports while imbibing predictable drinks.
But Stardust Lounge will have to wait another day.
John King (Episode, well, all of them) is a podcaster, writer, and ferret wrangler.