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Foundation Tiki Bar
Year-round Mai Tais because this winter just won't leave.

Images courtesy of Foundation Tiki Bar.

When thinking of the islands, a landlocked section of Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood is pretty far down the list of places that springs to mind. While an understated bar three blocks from the banks of the Milwaukee River isn’t exactly akin to the sands of Hawaii, Foundation Tiki Bar (2718 N. Bremen St.) manages to echo the relaxed feel and fruity beverage mainstays of a beach side cantina in a city famous for its frigid temperatures and love of beer.

Foundation has been a Riverwest fixture and among the first tiki bars in town long before Lucky Joe’s Tiki Room’s great, but somewhat homogenized take on the theme late last year. I went to Foundation to do an interview last summer, but wasn’t feeling particularly adventurous and opted to stick to Riverwest Steins instead. In making my second pilgrimage, I realized the magnitude of my folly during my first visit.

Walking into a congested entrance before 7 p.m. on a Thursday, I squinted to see the happy hour specials, as well as names and descriptions of in-house specialties scrawled on the wall above behind the bar. Before my mind was made up, a barkeep approached to ask if I needed some assistance. Struggling, I relented to the bartender, my own private island guide, and enlisted him to make the house specialty. He recommended a Mai Tai ($7), saying it was a great way to start while I looked over the drink list for what I wanted next. Who was I to argue with using a famously boozy spirit to help make tough a decision? It’s gotten me this far.

Moments later, I was handed my Mai Tai and toted it through the dimly lit establishment past a forest of bamboo, more than a few tiki masks and statues, all below an array of brightly-colored lanterns and holiday lights. As I took my seat in a back booth and waited for my friend, I took my first sip and began to flip through the few-page-long drink list.

At first taste, I was taken aback by the strength of the Mai Tai. But once I read the description, I learned why. A shot and a half of light rum, a shot of dark rum and half shots of Orangeat and orange Curacao were co-mingling with the various citrus juices, and a shaved ice. As my belly began to warm, the initial surprise gave way to the delectable sour undertones of lime wedge, lemon, pineapple juices and orange liquors, as well as the subtle-but-appreciated touch added by the pineapple, cherry and mint garnish. And, of course, this would be no Mai Tai without the tiny umbrella. 

While Foundation is famous for its Mai Tai, it offers 35 more equally thorough, primarily rum-based drinks such as Cuba Viva, Blue Hawaiian (“Elvis’ favorite”) and a flaming two-person Volcano Bowl. Special glassware can be purchased — for keeps — with some drinks as well. In all, Foundation carries close to 75 rums, hailing from such standard locales as Jamaica, Trinidad, Costa Rica and Barbados to less-expected regions as Brazil, India and Thailand.

But with a drive back to Bay View ahead of me, I choose to chase my rummy starter with the standardized alcohol content of a Point Special (available all day, every day for a scant $2) as I chatted, relaxed and took in the airy atmosphere and breezy ukulele-laden island music. I’ll work my way down the menu next time. Aloha means hello and goodbye, right? Well, Aloha, Foundation… until our next Aloha.

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