Jan Norris: Food and Florida

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EatBeat: Hukilau – Polynesia and Mai-Kai Memories in Fort Lauderdale

June 12th, 2009 · 5 Comments


Hukilau, a weekend-long event in Fort Lauderdale, will celebrate all things tiki culture and Polynesia. The hub is at the Bahia Cabana hotel across from the Yankee Clipper on the beach where there’s an art display and several events poolside.  But food events and drink seminars will take place appropriately at the still-thumping Mai-Kai. (Get info and tickets here.)

Mai-Kai a landmark that’s aging well

Since 1956, the Mai-Kai has been a fixture on U.S. 1 — tiki torches blazing, lights illuminating the palm-frond and bamboo pole-bedecked restaurant. For its 50th anniversary, it got a makeover and saw improvements to the structure that has weathered more hurricanes than most residents down here.

I well remember this restaurant as a girl — I grew up in Wilton Manors, a little burg of a town then when everyone knew everyone — and their business. The Mai-Kai was an exotic landmark nearby — there was little else along U.S. 1 except for a string of motels that all had huge pools and a steady stream of winter guests.

Duck, the first

I had my first taste of duck at the Mai-Kai. My best friend Lisa Black (now, Cory) got a lovely night out on her birthdays with her parents. For her 14th birthday, I was invited. She chose the Mai-Kai. Her birthday is in December, so my mother suggested a red velvet blouse with a winter-white wool skirt as an appropriate choice of attire. (Funny that I remember that outfit, as I’m not anywhere close to fashion-forward.)

Lisa’s dad was a jazz pianist and her step-mom was a surgical nurse. Both often worked nights or odd hours — so different  from my much more traditional family, so being out with them was always a new experience. They ordered exotic foods and drinks, which Lisa would have no part of (still doesn’t), but that I loved. Even then, I was intrigued by foods.

Polynesian menu exotic

Alaska and Hawaii hadn’t been states so long when the Mai-Kai opened. The country was enthralled by all things Polynesian and tiki-oriented; the surf culture was soon to be on its heels.

But my exposure  to it was limited to watching Hawaiian Eye on TV, and driving past the Mai-Kai at night. So the menu I was offered that night could easily have been written in Urdu – I had no idea what a pu-pu platter was or even fried rice.  We didn’t eat Oriental food at our Southern house — though the “fried” part I had down pat.

There was duck on the menu, and Mrs. Black asked if I would like to try it. We had ducks in the neighborhood that I fed; they all had names. This was akin to eating my cat. I politely declined and ordered the one thing I knew on the menu: steak. I did end up tasting a bite of the duck, but wasn’t impressed enough to order it again for some time.

Oh, those drinks

The adults had intriguing drinks — in huge bowl-like glasses with not only umbrellas but flowers and fruits and all kinds of colorful garnishes. They are definitely a Mai-Kai signature. You’ll learn more about the Mai-Tai that’s poured there when I report back from the seminar about its origin, courtesy Hukilau.

We girls got virgin copies that had a ton of cherries in them and tasted like fruit punch on steriods. Knock-out beautiful servers wore sarongs and leis. The whole thing was pretty wild – then came the show.

Grass-skirted dancers with fire, huge bamboo poles clacking against the floor and drums thumping — it’s quite the production, and one of the oldest in our area still running and open to the public. Disney’s got nothing on them.

Every restaurant like this is kitschy and over-the-top in many ways. Maybe we outgrow our need for kitsch. Or maybe not — can you remember every meal you’ve eaten at the nondescript places — even ones you like? Dubious. But you never forget event meals like these, so you owe it to yourself to go once for the experience.

Mai-Kai Polynesian Restaurant

  • 3599 N. Federal Highway (US 1), Fort Lauderdale 33308
  • 954-563-32.72; www.maikai.com
  • Open daily, 5 to 11 p.m.; two dinner shows daily. Reservations required for shows.

Tags: Florida! · Old Florida

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Bev Snow // Jun 14, 2009 at 2:18 am

    I first learned to dive in the pool at the Yankee Clipper, way back in 1954 when I was a wee lass. It’s amazing to think there were only one or two restaurants or hotels along the strip in Ft Lauderdale back then. The restaurant that had portholes looking into the pool was outstanding. We spent a second winter in FtL in 1956, and the Mai-Kai was a favorite of my family’s too. Awesome memories! Thanks for them, Jan.

  • 2 Charles Keefer // Jun 14, 2009 at 11:24 am

    Well done.

    My sister and I were talking the other day and the meal we can remember having out together as children was at a pancake house in Gatlinburg.

    I had Hawaiian pancakes with pineapple and whipped cream. We both remember it.

    The waitress looked like my mom and definitely did not sport a grass skirt, but hey, the mountains of Tennessee were exotic to us.

    I’ll be back up that way at the end of the month. Check my blog at http://charleskeefer.wordpress.com/

  • 3 EatBeat: Hukilau - Polynesia and Tiki in Fort Lauderdale | Jan … | Polynesia Today // Jun 15, 2009 at 12:52 am

    […] The rest is here: EatBeat: Hukilau – Polynesia and Tiki in Fort Lauderdale | Jan … […]

  • 4 EatBeat: Hukilau – Polynesia and Mai-Kai Memories in Fort Lauderdale | Polynesia Today // Jul 5, 2009 at 11:07 am

    […] See more here: EatBeat: Hukilau – Polynesia and Mai-Kai Memories in Fort Lauderdale […]

  • 5 Don Prince // Feb 13, 2011 at 8:51 am

    I took my parents out to dinner at the Mai-Kai when they came down from Michigan to visit back in the late 70’s. It was a special place to visit and they never forgot the expierence.

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