An unquestionable LA institution, the kitschy, closet-sized Tiki-Ti has its own page in the contentious book of tiki history. Founded by Ray Buhen, a former employee of the original Don the Beachcomber, Tiki-Ti does its mai tais Ray’s way—and that’s about as much as they’re willing to disclose. Based on a vague description specifying that it contains “various rums and juices,” we can speculate that it may be a hybrid of Don the Beachcomber’s QB Cooler and the Royal Hawaiian-style mai tai. The bar is now run by Ray’s son and grandson, one of whom will either be making your mai tai, checking your ID or toasting to the Tiki-Ti founder at 9pm every Wednesday, when regulars practically run the place.
As synonymous with tropical holidays and weekend getaways as it is with hellish hangovers, the unapologetically strong and sweet mai tai first burst onto the LA bar scene with the explosion of tiki culture in the late 1950s. While the mai tai as we know it was invented in 1944 by Trader Vic, cocktail history nerds will point out that the recipe was inspired by (or stolen from, depending who you ask) Don the Beachcomber’s QB Cooler, a 1933 concoction made with two rums, lime juice, honey, falernum, bitters and ginger syrup. A later adaptation by the Royal Hawaiian hotel added pineapple juice, orange juice and lemon juice to the mix. Today, most bartenders use Trader Vic’s recipe as the classic standard: two types of rum, lime juice, orange curacao and orgeat syrup, though not all are willing to divulge their exact formula.
Despite their shared ingredients, however, no two bartenders’ mai tais are completely identical, and in LA, you don’t have to go to a tiki bar or a dive bar to find a good one. Whether you’re in the mood for an island rager or an understated imbibing experience, our list will help you find the mai tai that is your tai.
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