One hundred and twenty dollars. Not a vast sum of money in the grand scheme of things, but not a small amount either. You can buy a lot with $120. A couple of premium steaks. An Apple Pencil or Texas Instruments’ always-popular TI-84 graphing calculator. A car you need to tow home. One bottle of quite nice wine, or 30 bottles of less nice wine.
Or you can go to a local landmark and buy a gallon of Mai Tai.
The Mai Tai is, of course, the great tiki bar cocktail. There are a few recipes out there, but the main thing you’ll always need are some tropical fruit flavors and no small amount of rum. And in Fort Lauderdale, few places are better known for their Mai Tais than the restaurant whose name rhymes with the drink. For years, people have been going to the Mai-Kai to get their food and drink with a portion of tiki flair. In the past several months, customers have also started getting their tiki to go.
The Federal Highway landmark, which has been feeding and entertaining locals since the Eisenhower administration, has, like all other restaurants, learned and adapted in the last half year or so. But for a place like the Mai-Kai where so much of the visit rests on the sensory experience – the elaborate décor, the tropical gardens, the tiki-kitsch cocktail glasses, the famous Hawaiian floor show – how are things supposed to work in COVID times?
There are a few answers to that but broadly, the best one might be: a bit differently, but still uniquely Mai-Kai.
“It’s new,” general manager Kern Mattei says of the changes. ‘We’ve gone through trials – what’s the best way to do this?
“People want to be comfortable; they want to follow the rules. They see the effort we’re putting in and they give it right back.”
Many of the changes involve how people can access their Mai-Kai favorites. The restaurant started those takeout drinks fairly early on in the pandemic; takeout food came later, when they were sure they could do it in a way that made sense for them. They’ve also diversified their drinks offer size-wise – a gallon of potent rum drinks is not necessarily for everybody, so they found some Mason jar-style containers that offer more subdued amounts.
“If you don’t want to be stuck with a gallon, you can have a quart,” Mattei says.
For in-person dining, the changes are apparent before you even get into the restaurant. Gone is the first part of the Mai-Kai experience diners get – the white-pants-and-Hawaiian-shirt valet who parks your car. Instead, diners proceed to a place they might have never seen before, the Mai-Kai parking lot, where they wait to be paged by the restaurant’s reservation system when their table is ready.
Inside, the darkened, Pacific-flavor-everywhere vibe is still the same, just with more spaced-out seating. As South Florida moves into the pleasant outdoor-dining months, the restaurant’s large outdoor seating area and tropical garden is a huge advantage, Mattei says. Likewise, they can drop down below half capacity in their large, labyrinthine series of dining rooms and still have room for a good number of patrons. Like many other restaurants, they’ve instituted changes such as QR codes for menus so diners can order on their phone rather than handling a menu if they prefer.
Some things have simply not been able to continue. This summer, they were forced to cancel the Hukilau, the annual celebration of tiki culture that draws visitors from around the world to Fort Lauderdale and the Mai-Kai. They also had to cancel live events with The Real McCoy, a Barbadian rum distiller that has bottled beers specifically for the Mai-Kai.
But some things live on in modified form. They reinstituted a popular favorite, the complimentary Wednesday-evening Molokai Bar sushi buffet. Only now it’s done a bit differently, namely in that a server gives you your sushi from the bar after you point and say what you want. And of course, it’s different in other ways. There’s the strict cap on capacity and nobody sits at the bar. But it still brings a crowd.
Then there are the live Hawaiian floor shows. They now accommodate about 130, down from the usual 300, in the main show room. One dining room, the Samoan Room, is closed to give the dancers more backstage space. It’s different, but it’s still the Mai-Kai.
The Mai-Kai was built in 1956 and is now on the National Register of Historic Places; for longtime employees such as director of sales and marketing Pia Dahlquist, it’s a point of pride to continue doing things the Mai-Kai way in this time.
“I think we are doing this as good as we can be doing this,” she says, “for our employees and our customers.”
The Dish: Teriyaki Glazed Salmon
- 4 salmon filets (4–6 oz. each)
- ½ tbsp ginger
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tbsp white wine
- 3 oz pineapple juice
- 3 oz orange juice
- ⅓ cup soy sauce
- 1 tbsp oyster sauce
- ¼ cup brown sugar
- ½ oz mirin
For the sauce
In a saucepan, bring all sauce ingredients to a boil over high heat, then lower the heat and simmer until sauce is reduced by 50%.
For the salmon
Preheat oven to 400 degrees, and have a foil-lined cookie sheet set aside.
Next, heat a large pan or skillet on medium-high heat and add a small amount of oil. Pat the salmon dry and lightly brush the flesh side with some of the sauce. Sear for 1–2 minutes. Lightly brush the skin side with the sauce before flipping and searing for another 1–2 minutes.
Transfer salmon to the cookie sheet and spoon teriyaki sauce generously over the salmon filets. Finish cooking the salmon in the upper half of the oven for 5-7 minutes.
Transfer salmon to plates and drizzle with more teriyaki sauce if desired. Serve with steamed rice and your choice of vegetables.