Colman Andrews writes wonderfully about Trader Vic’sinSaveur Issue #80
Makes us want to don a hibiscus-print dress, stick a gardenia in our hair, pop in South Pacific, and knock back a mai tai or two. Pupus anyone?
“When I think back on my many dinners at what was once, without question, my favorite restaurant, I recall first and maybe most of all the seductive aromas: the faint hint of smoldering wood from the Chinese ovens; the perfume of gardenias garnishing drinks; the sweet fragrance of the hot towels presented after the finger-food appetizers; the meaty scent of the rum-and-sugar-glazed barbecued pork and the roasted Indonesian lamb, with its hint of curry. After the aromas, I remember the music: soft, slightly fuzzy, the sounds of slack-key guitar bands and Martin Denny– esque exotica, issuing from little speakers under palm-leaf ceiling panels above the replica tikis, giant conch shells, or amber glass fishnet floats. Then I remember the almost military orchestration of the service: the hostesses in their tailored hibiscus-print dresses, the captains in their jaunty crested blazers, the three (if not four) levels of waiters and busboys in uniforms of descending grandeur; the practiced presentations at the table of communal servings of stir-fried vegetables or crusty cottage-fried potatoes dished up with unobtrusive flair, and the deft carving of heroic slabs of glistening mahogany-hued meat. “…. My parents started taking me and my sister there for dinner. On my earliest visits, my favorite dish was a combination plate—I don’t remember what it was called—that involved a hamburger patty, a toasted english muffin, a fried banana, and a heap of crisp shoestring potatoes. I subsequently learned to love the Cosmo tidbits—an appetizer assortment that included crab Rangoon (fried crabmeat-filled wontons), sweet barbecued spareribs, slices of lacquered pork loin, and deep-fried shrimp. I also developed an affection for the mahimahi, which was scattered with shards of almond, and, later, macadamia nuts—and certainly for the snowball: a big scoop of coconut ice cream topped with chocolate sauce and coated in shredded coconut.”
TRADER VIC’S LORE found a happy/tacky/tiki place in our imagination, huddled up against the memory of Greg Brady’s disasterous surfing wipeout caused by Bobby’s cursed ancient tiki necklace.
It steered our maiden voyage to Trader Vic’s on the Vegas strip. We slipped inside to enjoy a guilty pleasure and had the place nearly all to ourself. The mai tai was mostly shaved ice, but stiff. The lobster dumplings were sad little dough pockets smeared with something resembling seafood. $23. Thanks for coming out.
Perhaps Trader Vic’s is better reimagined. We are perfectly capable of riffing off the fabled Cosmo tidbits — an appetizer assortment that included crab Rangoon, sweet barbecued spareribs, slices of lacquered pork loin, and deep- fried shrimp.
And we’re going to serve them all, including rumaki, on this platter.
Of all these Polynesian delights, we are most enchanted by crab Rangoon — a treat we did not grow up with. The beauty of the faux-Burmese triangle shaped deep fried dumplings is in the dipping sauce. Less is more for the dumpling filling.
Ming Tsai tarts his Rangoon up by adding a cup of cranberry chutney to a 1 lb of crabmeat, 1/4 lb cream cheese, chopped chives and salt and pepper.
A baked version of the typically deep fried snack persuades us to preheat our oven to 350, spray muffin cups with cooking spray, press wontons so edges extend above the cup, and fill with a mixture of crab and neufchatel, and bake up to 20 minutes.
This gal makes her mother’s crab cheese wontons with 8 oz of cream cheese, three sticks of imitation crab meat (finely diced) two chopped green onion, 1/2 cup frozen peas, 1 tsp Knorr chicken bouillon, and lots of ground black pepper. She wraps them like tortelli and freezes them.
We also recall a crazy crockpot rangoon dip that melded crab, condensed shrimp bisque, worchester, lemon, soy sauce and scallion, and added cream cheese at the last minute. Served with vegetable sticks and fried wonton chips, it was a calorie bomb to be sure. But the hot dish is a nostalgic twist of 1950s clam and oyster dips.
More twists: smoked salmon cream cheese, or crab Rangoon-stuffed chicken breasts.
We are secretly planning to suss out chive or herb and garlic cream cheese. But we are going to err on the lighter side and keep the ratio heavy on the crab, so it’s not as bland and gloopy. And let’s not lie to ourselves — we want to make these using lobster.
TRADER VIC’S CRAB RANGOON
(A newer version calls for 6 oz crab, 2 tbsp cream cheese, two scallions (green part only), 1 chopped garlic clove, 1 tsp worchestershire, 1 tsp soy, 1 tsp toasted sesame oil, kosher salt and black pepper. Fry in peanut oil. Makes a dozen.)
We also think that chilling or freezing these before hand is a good idea.
1/2 cup fresh cooked crabmeat, drained and chopped
½ pound cream cheese, room temperature
½ teaspoon A-1 Steak Sauce
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
3 dozen wonton wrappers
1 egg yolk, well beaten
Vegetable oil, for deep frying
Chinese red sauce
Combine crabmeat with cream cheese, steak sauce and garlic powder in a medium bowl and blend to a paste. Refrigerate if not using right away. Set out 6 wonton wrappers at a time and place a heaping teaspoon of filling on each. Moisten edges of wrapper with egg yolk and gather corners at the top. Pinch edges together gently to seal.
Heat oven to 200 degrees. Line a baking sheet with paper towels. Heat oil in wok, deep fryer or electric skillet to 375 degrees. Add wontons in batches and fry until golden brown, turning often, about 3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon to prepared baking sheet and place in warm oven while frying the remaining wontons. Serve hot with Chinese mustard and/or red sauce for dipping.
TRADER VIC’S MAI TAI
original version invented by Victor Bergeron, aka “Trader Vic”, in 1944.
2 ounces Jamaican rum (such as Appleton Rum Estate VX)
1/2 ounce orgeat syrup
1/2 ounce orange curacao
1/4 ounce simple syrup
Juice from one fresh lime
Sprig of mint (for garnish)
Pour rum, orgeat, orange curacao, simple syrup, and lime juice into a cocktail shaker with crushed ice. Shake well. Strain into an old-fashioned glass filled with crushed ice. Garnish with a slice of lime and a sprig of fresh mint on the edge of the glass.
TRADER VIC’S SCORPION
From “Trader Vic’s Tiki Party” by Steve Siegelman
2 ounces silver rum
1 ounce brandy
2 ounces orange juice
1 ½ ounces lemon juice
½ ounce orgeat syrup
1 cup crushed ice, plus additional ice cubes
1 gardenia, for garnish
Combine rum, brandy, orange juice, lemon juice, orgeat syrup and crushed ice in an electric blender and pulse for a few seconds, just until uniformly combined. Pour into a double old-fashioned glass and add ice cubes to fill. Garnish with the gardenia.