When I was a child, it seemed impossibly exotic. When I was an adolescent, it seemed impossibly tacky: Trader Vic’s in St. Louis.
I never ate there, though. For my family, dining in St. Louis meant going to Ruggieri’s, a defunct restaurant on the Hill, or, for extra special occasions, Tony’s. But whenever we drove past Trader Vic’s I’d stare wistfully at the steeply pitched entrance framed by massive Tiki torches and statues.
My best friend’s family went to Trader Vic’s, though, and I’d listen in awe as she described the décor — Polynesian symbols inscribed on tapa cloth (coconut matting), an outrigger, fishnets — and the kiddie cocktails, which were basically miniature toys on sticks stuck into a glass of fizz. I don’t think she ever talked about the food.
My childhood and adolescent impressions were pretty much on target. Trader Vic’s was both impossibly exotic and impossibly tacky. Most ethnic restaurants of
the mid-20th century were owned and operated by immigrants who modified their
native cuisines for American tastes. But Trader Vic’s was, from the beginning, an American’s fantasy of a South Seas paradise — the original theme restaurant. As the former editor of Saveur magazine, Coleman Andrews, wrote, “The décor was corny and the food was mostly made up — largely fantasy — but it was [and is] also delicious — and fun.”
The first Trader Vic’s was opened in the 1930s in Oakland, Calif., by a colorful character with a wooden leg, Victor Bergeron. Bergeron loved to barter, hence the name Trader Vic’s. He also loved to create elaborate “tropical” cocktails. Food was initially typical “pub grub,” but soon took on a Chinese/Polynesian/ Indonesian/etc. flare, especially after Bergeron installed what he called a Chinese oven — a huge, cylindrical, wood-burning barbeque pit that was eventually installed in all Trader Vic’s restaurants.
By the end of the ’40s, the Trader’s had become hugely popular, at least in part because the South Pacific was a big deal in those days. World War II brought an awareness of those tropical isles from returning soldiers of the Pacific front. Books such as James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific (the basis for the musical South Pacific) and Thor Heyerdahl’s The Kon-Tiki Expedition were best sellers.
The Trader’s menu might have been faux, but it was good. A Bay area food writer quipped that the “best restaurant in San Francisco is in Oakland.” Appetizers such as Cheese Bings (essentially cheese and ham croquettes) and Bongo Bongo Soup (the main ingredients were spinach, oysters and cream, which sounds more French than Polynesian) sat side by side on the menu with Javanese lamb sates and curries.
The food was also fun, as was that atmosphere. One of the most famous gourmands
of the day, Lucius Beebe, wrote that its influence is “as wide as the Pacific and as deep as a Myrtle Bank punch. It is possible for
the ambitious patron with a talent for chaos to get into more trouble with
obsolete anchors, coiled hausers of boa-constrictor dimensions, fish nets,
stuffed sharks….Hawaiian ceremonial costumes, tribal drums, boathooks and small bore cannon
than the waiters can drag out of him in a week.”
Trader Vic’s influence can still be found. It created the Mai Tai cocktail and Crab
Rangoon, and popularized Pu Pu Platters.
St. Louis’ Trader Vic’s closed years ago, and I assumed the franchise was lost to a bygone era. Boy, was I wrong. Bergeron began expanding his empire in the ’50s and it’s still going strong. Trader Vic’s has 25 restaurants around the world, with places from Vegas, to London to Dubai. Chicago’s Trader Vic’s was one of the earliest outposts (1957) and was situated at the Palmer House until it closed in 2005. But a new Trader Vic’s opened at 1030 N. State a few months ago. It still features some of the old favorites, but now there’s a sushi bar, and more contemporary menu items as well. And, according to the Chicago Reader “it’s got a seriously swanky tiki vibe: the U-shaped restaurant curves around a courtyard garden with a gazebo and a couple of mammoth stone Polynesian deities who look like they’re freezing their tropical butts off in the middle of Chicago winter.”
Looks like I’ll get to experience Trader Vic’s after all.
Contact Julianne Glatz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I stumbled across Trader Vic’s recipe for Crab Rangoon a few years ago, but by then I’d developed my own. Asian restaurants routinely offer Crab Rangoon, which, of course isn’t really even Polynesian, let alone Asian. Popular it may be, but any restaurant versions I had were bland and made with imitation crabmeat. They were much more about the textural contrast of the cream cheese filling and the crispy wonton wrapper than flavor — essentially a creamy/crunchy vehicle for the sweet and sour sauce. I wanted to create flavorful filling that could stand alone, and came up with the recipe below.
It’s similar to the original: it uses real crabmeat, and in equal proportion to the
cream cheese, but the Trader’s is flavored with steak sauce and garlic powder. That original creation can be
found on several Web sites by Googling Trader Vic’s Crab Rangoon. I have to say, though, that I prefer my version. The water
chestnuts provide still another textural dimension. Using scallions instead of
garlic powder lets the crab taste shine through, which is even more highlighted
by the touch of fish sauce.
For the filling:
8 oz. package cream cheese, at room temperature
½ c. drained and minced water chestnuts
¼ c. minced scallions
½ tsp. freshly ground pepper, preferably white
1 T. Asian fish sauce
1 T. light brown sugar
½ tsp. kosher or sea salt
8 oz. crabmeat, fresh or from a refrigerated tin
approximately 32 wonton wrappers
beaten egg for sealing the wrappers
vegetable oil for deep frying
In a medium bowl, combine all the filling ingredients except the crabmeat and mix thoroughly. Add the crab and combine gently, keeping the crab in as large pieces as possible. Check for seasoning.
Place a wonton wrapper on a flat surface with one of the points facing you. Cover the remaining wrappers so that they do not dry out. Brush the bottom two adjacent edges very lightly with the beaten egg. If the edges are too wet, they won’t seal. Place a tablespoon of filling in the center of the wrapper; then bring up the bottom point to meet the top point and press to seal. Press the edges of the wrapper together to form a triangle, squishing out any air pockets. Now fold the two points at the bottom of the triangle toward the center and pinch together, using a little more egg wash if needed. Lay the finished wrapper on a tray lined with parchment or waxed paper and cover. Repeat with the remaining wrappers and filling.
Heat oil in a large deep pan or skillet to at least 1” depth until hot but not smoking. (350° – 375°.) Add as many of the crab rangoons as will fit comfortably in the pan. Do not crowd them. Fry until golden brown, 5-10 minutes. Drain on paper towels and serve immediately with sweet sour sauce or other Asian dipping sauce. They may be held briefly in a single layer on paper towels in a low oven.
To freeze crab rangoons: Line a tray with parchment or waxed paper. Dust the paper lightly with cornstarch or flour. Place the filled wrappers on the paper in a single layer, making sure that they do not touch each other. Place in the freezer until completely frozen; then put in a container that will protect them from getting jostled and broken. It is OK at this point that they touch, but a good idea to separate layers with paper or plastic wrap. Unthaw the rangoons in a single layer before frying as above.