Like many of the country’s big city’s New York was once a mecca for mid-century exotica, tiki bars, and places conceived entirely on the impressions of far away lands one could get from the album covers of Martin Denny or Alfred Lyman. Almost all of it is gone, though a few places still pay homage to American fantasies about Polynesia and the mysterious East. Nestled in a nondescript strip mall in Staten Island is New York City’s last remaining vestige of authentic tiki culture. Tiki establishments usually came in one of two flavors: the Trader Vic’s style cocktail lounge or the gussied up Chinese restaurant. Jade Island Restaurant, as you might guess from the name, is among the latter.
Our excursion to the remote hinterlands of Staten Island coincided with a torrential downpour the likes of which would make old Noah nervous, and so we ended up at Jade Island when it was mostly empty and lacking the festive crowd for which one might hope. Still, it’s hard to be upset by an empty restaurant when the interior of the place looks like it came straight off a Gen Rains album cover. Bamboo, palm fronds, tiki statues, fountains and signs promising you tropical cocktails greet you immediately. This is no half-hearted neo-retro sort of deal. Jade Island has been swimming in the warm waters of tiki culture since it opened in 1972, which means it’s going to be a bit threadbare in places but still pretty well maintained. Slightly out of place, however, is the bright sign letting you know you can buy lotto tickets there.
Through leaves and palm fronds and under the watchful gaze of giant Polynesian gods serving no doubt as bouncers, one enters the dining area. More tikis, bamboo hut booths, pufferfish hanging lamps, 3-D motion pictures of waterfalls, and an actual waterfall and misty fake volcano certainly fit the tiki joint bill. Waiters are naturally clad in aloha shirts and are both attentive and understanding of fools like me wandering around the dining room taking photos (probably helped that, because of the rain, it was just two of us and one other small group in the place). Because the weather was so dodgy, I was driving, and I don’t really know my way around Staten Island, I had to break my own heart by not ordering one of their many tiki drinks. Luckily, my traveling partner had no such restrictions about which to worry, so she went for the Pineapple Paradise — which was served in a hollowed-out pineapple. It was pretty delicious. Like any of the tiki cocktails I’ve had at restaurants, it mighty be a little syrupy for those who tend toward more complex and sophisticated cocktails, but I’ve never had a problem with anything I ever drank out of a pineapple, hula girl, coconut, or human skull.
The menu is pretty standard for this type of joint — think regular American Chinese food but with some additional pineapples and coconut shavings sprinkled on top. It’s not any sort of high dining– MSG, grease, deep fried crunchiness — but this is the sort of “exotic” food I would eat as a kid on special occasions (we only had one Chinese restaurant in my town — a town where Chef Boyardee cans were in the tiny “International Foods” section), so I am quite fond of it. The flaming pu-pu platter is sort of a tradition at these places, so it behooves you to order one. You won’t be unhappy. It’s pretty tasty. Entrees are typically large and covered in goo, which was also fine with me. All in all, if you’ve ever eaten at an American Chinese restaurant (frankly, I consider American Chinese the national cuisine of the United States), you know and will get exactly what you expect, but with some coconut shavings.
All in all, well worth the trip to Staten Island even though we had to deal with torrents of rain. The tiki aspect of Jade Island was up to snuff, and while the food is nothing mind-blowing, it’s still good. The drinks, limited though we were in our intake, also seemed well-made and adorned with all the pineapple chunks, swords, and tiny bamboo umbrellas you would desire.