There's a place that I've been wanting to try that's located not too far from the hotel I stay at near O'Hare Airport when I'm in Chicago. I've tried to get in a couple times before, but on the first visit the place was packed - there was some fund-raising event going on one evening - and then I tried to get into the place on a Friday night where they had a luau going on that included dinner and a show. On a cool winter evening on a trip to Chicago recently, I was finally able to get in and see what the Tiki Terrace was all about.
The Zuziak brothers - Scott, Jim and Phil - learned the art of juggling as they were growing up in the far west suburbs of Chicago. Eventually, the brothers started to learn the art of Polynesian drum and dance, as well as the art of Samoan fire knife dancing. The brothers entered - and won - several fire knife competitions before they joined The Barefoot Hawaiian, a local Hawaiian-centric troupe that entertained at corporate parties and celebrations around the Chicagoland area.
The brothers went deep into the Hawaiian culture as they designed and built their own Hawaiian-style wooden tikis and even made their own volcanoes for the performances. They learned about Hawaiian foods and realized that there weren't a lot of places around the Chicago area that served Hawaiian food. They set out to bring the people of Chicagoland a taste of Polynesia.
The brothers were told by a local restaurateur that a Hawaiian-themed restaurant would be a horrible idea, but that only gave them more of an impetus to succeed. Designing and making most of the Polynesian decor for the restaurant in their sister company A Custom Productions, they opened the Tiki Terrace in the far northwestern suburb of Prospect Heights in November of 2005. Jim ran the kitchen, Scott was the business manager and Phil ran the bar.
In June of 2007, Jim Zuziak suffered a debilitating stroke. Jim was only 28 and in good shape when he was stricken and the prognosis for recovery was not good when he was first admitted to the hospital. Given only four days to live, the family prepared for his untimely passing. However, after three days in the hospital, Jim's condition stabilized and he began to show signs of improvement. He did survive, but he couldn't be involved with the restaurant any longer. The Zuziak's sister Kelly was drafted to work in the kitchen in Jim's absence.
The Zuziak family realized after a couple of years that their location was sort of detrimental to those in the city who would like to experience a little bit of Hawaii in the Chicago area. They found a new location in strip mall at the corner of E. Oakton St. and Mannheim Road in Des Plaines (see map) and reopened the new and larger Tiki Terrace in April of 2008. Jim is still involved in the Tiki Terrace while Scott Zuziak is running Lazy River Studio, a company that makes custom wooden signs.
The entrance to the Tiki Terrace doesn't give any indication that it's a Polynesian/Hawaiian-themed restaurant, but upon entering the restaurant you're immediately transported to the South Pacific.
The intricate woodwork, the thatch walls, the Japanese lanterns, and the tiki wood columns in the restaurants gave it an authentic Polynesian vibe. Two 12-foot high Easter Island Moai statues loom in the background of the stage area along one of the walls.
The bar area is just to the right as you walk in the door. It had a thatch room over the bar with bamboo accents behind the bar area. I thought about taking a seat at the bar, but it was pretty small and there was only one seat available.
Nearly every evening, the Tiki Terrace offers some sort of live music. On Friday and Saturday night, they have a luau dinner and show they call Echoes of Polynesia complete with hula dancers and chanting Moari warriors. Through the week, they have a revolving number of Hawaiian-style musicians that are based in the greater Chicagoland area. The evening I was there, the Tiki Cowboys were playing their style of island music and they were pretty good and fun to listen to. The Tiki Terrace has also hosted a number of slack-key guitar and ukulele musicians from Hawaii over the years.
I was greeted by a young lady who came out from behind the bar and offered me a booth across from the stage area. She dropped off a menu and asked if I would like something to drink. They had Kona Brewing Company products there and even though I love Big Wave Golden Ale, I decided to try their mai tai. It was called the Tiki Mai Tai and it was made with almond orgeat syrup, fruit juices and, of course, rum. It was sort of sweet in taste, but pretty good. However, when I looking through the menu I saw that they had something called the Original Mai Tai. I ordered one of those for my second drink and all I have to say is "Wow!" It was packed - and I mean PACKED - with rum. It was all I could do to finish that drink it was so full of liquor.
For food, the Tiki Terrace has some Hawaiian staples such as Kalua Pork and Loco Moco, but they also feature fresh seafood such as mahi mahi that is dusted with Asian bread crumbs, ahi tuna that is marinated in sesame oil and soy sauce, and coconut shrimp curry. They also have Korean Kalbi short beef ribs; a chicken breast marinated in a coconut cream sauce; and a beef, chicken or shrimp stir fry entree. They also had sandwiches, salads and a number of pupu's - the Hawaiian word for appetizers. Taro chips, Bora Bora egg rolls, and Kalua pork nachos were the more prominent items on the menu.
Now here is where the problems started. It turned out that the only person working the floor that night was the young lady who was also the bartender. It wasn't all that busy, but she had her hands full with making drinks, taking food orders, getting food to tables, etc., etc. I had fully finished my first mai tai and was wanting a second one - as well as wanting to order some food. It took her nearly 20 minutes to get back to me to take my food order.
I thought I'd start off with one of the appetizers to start out - the seared ahi poke. The ahi tuna is marinated, then seared and served with marinated sweet onions and tomatoes. I'd never had poke before that had been seared and I would have to say that it was more than seared. The tuna was a little dry on the outside and nearly fully cooked.
I had long finished my seared ahi poke and was having trouble finishing my second - and more potent - mai tai. I was considering getting the grilled mahi mahi tacos, but the young lady just never came back to check on me. After struggling to finish the second mai tai, I thought it would just be best to cut my losses and get out of there. She must have known, as well, as she just brought me my ticket and didn't ask if I wanted anything else.
Given the level of service - the lack of it, that is - that I experience that evening, I can't really give the Tiki Terrace any glowing reviews. The seared ahi poke was just all right in my book - I would have liked it better had it not been seared, I think. The mai tais were good - especially the rum-packed Original Mai Tai they have at the Tiki Terrace. I was sort of bummed that I wasn't able to try the mahi mahi fish tacos, but I was in the place for over an hour having just two drinks and the ahi tuna pupu. That was way too long to be in there and not have a full dinner. I'm hoping for the Tiki Terrace's sake that this evening was just an anomaly in terms of the level of service they provide in the place. I'm just not certain I want to try my luck that the service will be better if I go back at some point.