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Trader Vic’s

When Trader Vic's opened to much fanfare a few months ago, the complaints almost immediately began flowing into my mailboxes. The sentiments were sincere, the opinions crestfallen. It's boring, they said. There's no selection. The food's all wrong.

So with a sense of duty punctuated by a deep sigh, I fought holiday crowds to make my way to a table in the half-empty place -- which, I guessed, only figured, considering its widely reported failings. But looking over the decor, I found it pretty attractive; looking over the menu, I thought it reflective of nearly any self-respecting Pan-Asian/Pacific Rim/Fusion/Whatever-We'll-Be-Calling-It-Next restaurant. And that's when it hit me:

This is not your father's Trader Vic's.

To some, that comes as a horrible disappointment; to others, not so much. We've been hearing for a few years that the tiki bar is returning, and if it does, it'll be without its most prominent icon.

Heresy? Well, let's think about that. The last of the original Trader Vic's opened in the '70s if my research is accurate, and somewhere close to that even if it's not. So we're talking a good 30 years ago, the era of leisure suits and shag carpet.

Are Americans eating the same kinds of food we were 30 years ago? In the same kinds of places?

This new permutation of tiki-bar ground zero comes without sheets of woven bamboo, without torches, without servers clad in floral sarongs. Which is not to say it's boring. The rooms are decorated in neutral tones with lots of wood and other natural elements, such as bamboo fronds and bamboo slices encased in glass. The main dining room is centered with soaring wooden tiki-esque features, and the stairways to the second and third levels are absolute works of art, their exposed bottoms resembling Gulliver-sized banana leaves crafted of dark wood.

And then there's the menu, which comes to us without, by God, the notorious bongo-bongo soup (oyster-based and a squeamish green color) and dishes whose most notable ingredients were lots of pineapple and brown sugar.

It's true that some of the recent complaints referenced things that were inexcusable -- such as a bartender who reportedly said he didn't know how to make a Mai-Tai, here in that cocktail's self-proclaimed birthplace. Just to test it I ordered one ($9.50), and it's the only Mai-Tai I've actually liked, thanks to a surfeit of lime juice (as in Victor Bergeron's original, although that has changed slightly over the years) and absence of the cloying pineapple often added today. And there's even a vodka Mai-Tai alternative, if rum is too sweet for you.

I was a kid in Trader Vic's heyday and so the menu specifics are thoroughly faded, but I'm pretty sure there was no tofu Thai red curry ($17.95; chicken, beef or lobster also are available) with crispy cubes of bean curd, lots of crisp-tender red bell pepper and onion and sauteed eggplant. And I doubt old-timers would recall a nine-spice roasted half chicken ($18.95), its crisp skin coated with a complex, vibrant, thoroughly enjoyable mix of flavors, its meat moist and juicy. The chicken was accompanied by a char siu-potato hash (char siu being Chinese barbecued pork), a study in contrasts.

Kalua (I think that's what they mean, although the menu said "Kalula") pork sliders ($9.50) had mounds of long-braised shredded meat, its smoky undertones met by the sweetness of the Hawaiian-style rolls. And, finally, the Hawaiian poke ($11.50) -- and it goes without saying that raw fish wasn't big on the mainland 30 years ago -- with its largish chunks of ahi and hamachi providing substance, the darker color of the ahi some color variation, the velvety avocado paste and crunchy taro chips plenty of contrast.

A side dish of Trader Vic's fried rice ($7) -- which may be an original but, if so, no doubt tweaked over the years as well -- was based on a well varied melange of lobster, prawns, chicken and char siu.

Service throughout was solid, our waitress if anything a little too eager, although the lapse between the appetizers and the entrees was a little too long.

There's no doubt about it: This is not the same Trader Vic's of 30, 40, 50 years ago. We've moved on, folks. It's only fair to let Trader Vic's do the same.

Las Vegas Review-Journal reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at 383-0474 or e-mail her at hrinella@ reviewjournal.com.

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