Feeling Lucky

The cretins who don’t live here say the Valley isn’t cool. Now, I wouldn’t ordinarily place a lot of stock in such fish-in-a-barrel cheap shots. Unless, of course, they’ve spent time in Mission Hills.

Mission Hills has no hills. Then again, neither does North Hills, which is located just south of Mission Hills. But I digress. My point is this: Mission Hills may be the Valley’s least fun place. It’s a few supermarket-anchored shopping centers, a couple Christian bookstores, and a mediocre barbecue trough called The Bear Pit. Let’s put it this way: When Mission Hills Bowl opened in the mid-70s, it was a major, huge deal. Put the town on the map. In fact, the only quality time I’ve ever spent in Mission Hills was rolling gutter balls at that bowling alley.

And – God bless it -- it’s still there, though that “new bowling alley” smell of lane wax and shoe leather has been replaced by decades of stale cigarette smoke, hundreds of pounds of ingested fried food, spilt Budweiser, and the occasional post-frame upchuck. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. It’s a bowling alley. And time is rarely kind to bowling alleys.

Then the weirdest thing happened. Last week, Mission Hills suddenly became alive -- in a well-worn mini mall that houses a dry cleaner, karate studio, and doughnut shop whose familiarly shaped signage indicates it was formerly a member of the once-ubiquitous Winchell’s chain. Amid all this tattered Valleyness I found myself inexorably drawn toward the mall’s only bright light, a tropical, fish-out-of-water beacon called The Lucky Tiki.

Formerly the site of a dive bar called The Wild Cherry (does anyone miss it?), the new joint is a beauty, the real deal. The space is small, but it’s lovingly crafted with no detail left unattended: There’s hand-carved wooden tikis, lots of bamboo, puffer fish lights, a lava-rock fireplace and a digital jukebox stocked with the vintage exotica of Martin Denny, Les Baxter and Arthur Lyman. It’s totally groovy, a jungle cruise with booze. Somewhere from the great beyond, the ghost of the mighty Kelbo’s is grinning.

The crowd? Well, it isn’t your typical Friday night at the Northridge Claim Jumper. Actually, it seemed airlifted from another universe: loud Hawaiian shirts, Creepers, tattoos, polkadots, vintage dresses, sharp-edged bobs – you know, your basic tiki/lounge/swing/rockabilly/hotrodder/Bettie Pagers. And all those flavor savers. Damn. You’d have thought below-the-lip hair was a requirement for entry.

And there was Lucky Tiki owner Bobby Green, flittering about with an appropriately garishly printed smoking jacket and fedora, holding a bottomless drink in a ceramic tiki mug. He was the Cheshire Cat leaning against the bar -- as if he were totally oblivious to the fact he opened a hip watering hole in, um, Mission Hills. Truth is, he doesn’t care -- Green doesn’t know failure in the saloon business. His track record includes The Little Cave in Highland Park and the Bigfoot Lodges in Los Feliz and San Francisco.

For him, The Lucky Tiki is the culmination of a dream that started with his first business venture in the early 90s, a bohemian Santa Monica coffeehouse called Cacao. On a lark, he and his partner adorned the cafe with a tropical motif. Suddenly, the tiki freaks descended in droves, and the Tiki News gave its blessing. Green was hooked on the vibe, but there was little money to be made in java. He swung over to the hard staff, but as he gathered investors for his new venture, the Lava Lounge opened up. And when he got the money and a Los Feliz location, he was wary of doing tiki so close to Silver Lake’s venerable Tiki Ti, so he instead created the Bigfoot Lodge.

But when his backers came upon The Wild Cherry in an auction earlier this year, Green knew he’d finally found his tiki bar. “I didn’t care about the location,” he says. “I just needed to do it.”

When The Lucky Tiki opened, the dirty little secret came out. “People came up to me and said, ‘Dude, I live like one block away. I usually go to Hollywood, and now I don’t have to,’” Green laughs. “Everyone’s mother or grandmother lives out here.” Green himself knows his way around, having spent his formative years in Sherman Oaks and Woodland Hills.

Green got The Lucky Tiki up and running in three months. “I called in every favor,” to the Tiki Nation to get everything just right, down to the logo design from tiki artist/Disney animator Kevin Kidney, who also invented one of the bar’s signature beverages, the the Miehana (Anaheim spelled backwards) a yummy and powerful concoction with coconut rum, amber rum, pineapple juice, orange juice, and Contreau.

Be sure to fully embrace the make-believe land of exotica while you’re inside The Lucky Tiki. Because when you walk out those doors, the cold, cruel reality of life comes rushing back like a bad memory, cautions Don, the bar’s doorman: “We’ll always be two stoplights from Sylmar.”

Postscript: The Lucky Tiki was open only two years, from 2004-06. RIP.