Houston may have thousands of places to get a drink, but, until about three weeks ago, none of them were tiki bars. Sure, a spot like Under the Volcano may have a somewhat tropical decor and Voodoo Queen offers the right form of booze-heavy, rum-oriented cocktails, but no place else brings tiki together like newly opened Lei Low. (CultureMap first previewed the bar's offerings last June.)
Located in a 1,200 square-foot strip mall space next to a tax preparer's office and a quickie mart along an under construction stretch of North Main, Lei Low probably doesn't strike passers-by as Houston's newest can't miss cocktail spot, but the full (admittedly small) parking lot offers some indication that good things are happening inside.
For Russell Thoede, who partnered with his wife Elizabeth to open the place, opening a tiki bar was a natural fit. Thoede grew up in a family that owned restaurants, and those restaurants served tiki drinks.
"(It) looks like a dentist’s office from the outside. Then when you walk in, you are taken away to a different time. We thought we could recreate that kind of feeling — the escapism."
"One day I found a Trader Vic cocktail book," Thoede says. "His writing was a lot different than most cocktail books . . . It was kind of like a pirate wrote the book. After that I started to get more and more of his books. While everyone else was making classic cocktails, I would offer people tiki drinks."
That interest led Thoede to collect tiki mugs and travel to tiki bars across the country like Smuggler's Cove in San Francisco and Bali Hai in San Diego. He began to imagine what a tiki bar of his own would look like.
"Smuggler’s Cove looks like a dentist’s office from the outside," Thoede says. "Then when you walk in, you are taken away to a different time. We thought we could recreate that kind of feeling — the escapism that’s so important to tiki."
Thankfully, Lei Low's decor skews classic rather than kitschy. "We want to be a modern tiki bar with artifacts from old tiki culture. We collected menus and other things that said tiki but weren’t too over the top," Thoede says.
When it came to developing the cocktail menu, Thoede mixed a few classics like the Mai Thai and Zombie with drinks inspired by his travels. Throughout, he hews to the conventions in Houston's best bars of using fresh ingredients. Lei Low goes through about a case of pineapple each day between garnishes, juice and blended drinks.
Thoede cites the new bar's Bally High drink as one example. Inspired by a cocktail from Bali Hai in San Diego, he explains how he updated the drink: "(The original is) 151, Kahlua and pineapple. It really catches up with you . . . I wanted to recreate that drink but I wanted to make it better.
"I took apart the coffee liqueur. Coffee liqueur has cocoa flavors, has a bit of a bitterness, and, of course, it tastes like coffee. We took Averna, added that for bitterness and cardamom. Put a tiny bit of Crème de Cacao just to kick up the cocoa flavor. Then we’re infusing rum with Boomtown coffee and floating that on top. That’s kind of the 151. It’s less alcoholic.
"It’s got guava paste in it to kick up the tropical flavor. It’s less alcoholic than the original drink and kind of shows the ingredients."
Real Culture — At the Bar
Lei Low highlights other aspects of Tiki culture with shareable drinks and theme nights. "Shared drinks are really important to us," Theode explains. Start with a Daily Grog for two or gather eight people together for a $120 Trader Vic, which is served in a giant, shell-shaped bowl.
Theme nights, which consist of Caribbean Tuesday, Hawaiian Wednesday, Zombie (the drink) Thursday and Daiquiri Friday, allow the bar to set a mood with drinks specials and music. "Come enjoy Hawaii the way mainland America imagined it," Thoede offers.
For her part, Elizabeth provides essential support to make this dream a reality. "I wouldn’t be able to do the syrups without someone who has culinary training. I’m a really bad cook," Russell says. "Without her help, without her knowledge of flavors and how to produce things everyday, we wouldn’t be able to do this."
Elizabeth, a professional cook who's worked for both the Houston Dairymaids and Down House, is biding her time. "We designed and built this bar together. It was a labor of love for eight months," she says. "I’m really here to help with the hope that I get my kitchen next door or somewhere eventually."
Yes, the couple are already thinking about what's next.
"We have a lot of ideas," Elizabeth says. "We thought this was a great place to start. It's small. It's manageable We're learning."
Lei Low is open from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 4 p.m. to 12 a.m. on Sundays.