If there’s a stretch of Portland that feels its age no matter how much new construction comes in, it’s North Interstate. Part of the road’s charm is a collection of glorious neon signage like that at the Palms Hotel, the Nite Hawk Cafe & Lounge, and the Alibi. Even if we didn’t live through the ’50s, neon like that glows with both hot gas and ambient nostalgia. It reminds us of being reminded of things, which makes us happy.
That feeling lends itself to drunken sing-a-longs, and with karaoke every night from 9 pm til close, the Alibi has always been among the best options in Portland for dive bar karaoke. The lease recently changed hands, resulting in an impressive cleanup effort and a menu revamp. The result? The Alibi remains among the best options in Portland for dive bar karaoke.
If you’ve been to the Alibi, I don’t have to tell you why it excels: In contrast to its enormous neon sign, its windowless interior is so dark, dated, and idiosyncratically decorated that you’re never sure what year it will be when you leave. The booths are deep; the bartop is edged with a padded elbow rest; it’s lit by video lottery screens, stage lights, a fireplace, more neon; there’s both a fishtank and a koi pond, but no fish; there’s no TV; there’s karaoke.
All of this was true before the remodel.What’s different now is what’s gone: It feels brighter, but it’s not clear if the lights are turned slightly up or if a dull layer of grime has simply been buffed off every surface. The half-inch of standing let’s-hope-it’s-water in the men’s room is reduced to a patchy sheen. We’ll see how long any of this lasts, but for now, it’s heartening to see the place cleaned, but not cleaned up.
The old Alibi was proof that a compelling atmosphere and a thriving karaoke scene could overcome lackluster cocktails and flavorless food. Still, the biggest and most welcome change under its latest stewardship is the Alibi’s new menu. The secret weapon was Emily Mistell (of Rum Club fame), who was a no-brainer to re-Tiki-fy what should always have been an iconic cocktail menu.
For those of us with light to moderate stage fright and a hopefully non-addictive personality, drinking and karaoke go hand in hand: There’s nothing quite like a shot of tequila to convince you that you can and should tackle an Adele or Busta Rhymes song.
Tiki culture and karaoke both simultaneously have a bad reputation and can be intimidating. To help ease you into one or the other, I’ve compiled a list of songs to pair with most of the Alibi’s new cocktail menu (and some you’d better not sing).
Mai Tai ($10): The Mai Tai is a classic of rum, orange curacao, orgeat, and lime, and I’m happy to say the Alibi’s is among the best—but it achieves that status with the inclusion of rawer, rougher Jamaican rum. So some funkier, weirder, or lightly tweaked version of a classic is called for.
DO: The Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly,” Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love,” or—and not just because he’s Jamaican—Shaggy’s “Angel (feat. Rayvon)”
DON’T: Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah”
Shark Attack ($10): The sole vodka drink on the menu (it has rum, too, plus fruit, maraschino liqueur, and blue curacao) will sneak up on you, and without the warning of a fin slicing by.
DO: The Jaws theme has no words, so maybe something from West Side Story? This is the only blue drink on the menu, but still.
DON’T: “Blue Hawaii.”
Halekulani ($10): Bourbon drinkers aren’t left off this list, so long as they don’t mind their whiskey Tiki’d up with pineapple, orange, and grenadine. Y
ES: “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer”
NO: “Moon Over Bourbon Street,” in fact, nothing from Sting’s solo work, ever.
Saturn ($10): My favorite cocktail on the old Alibi menu (read: the only one I’d order sober) was their Suffering Bastard, which was a gin-and-brandy deal. The Saturn is not that similar, but has fast become a new favorite for its willingness to punch some color into the finest clear spirit there is. Passionfruit, orgeat, and falernum (which adds a dark, nutty spice) bring local New Deal #33 gin squarely into bittersweet faux-Caribbean-funtime territory. Still, for its ginly roots...
DO: “London Calling” or “Bitter Sweet Symphony.”
El Diablo ($10): Créme de Cassis (blackcurrant liqueur), lime, and ginger beer combine with tequila to give the lie to this cocktail’s devilish name. It’s basically the equivalent of an unexpected 16 measure sax solo in what you thought was a rollicking rock song.
DO: Air sax on Foreigner’s “Urgent,” Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll,” or virtually any Springsteen song.
Alibi Old Fashioned ($10): Like any Old Fashioned worth its name, this glass of rums, bitters, honey, and orange peel is an adult’s drink, a sitting-down-singing-a-sad-song drink—a Solomon Burke drink.
DO: “Cry to Me” or “If You Need Me” or, if you like crowd work more than singing, “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.”
Slushies ($9): The Alibi offers a strawberry daiquiri and a richly coconutty piña colada, but also a combination of the two in the Miami Vice. This unlikely/uncooperative pairing calls for an odd mashup or an Oasis song.
DO: Request “Matchmaker” but sing “Chim Chim Cheree,” or Google Jon Sudano, then sing Smash Mouth’s “All Star” over literally any song.
Bowls ($28): These suckers serve two or more people, and come packed with bendy straws wearing paper hula skirts, often adorned with an open flame. As such, they should be drunk with good friends and lovers, and call for classic karaoke duets and boy-band or girl-group hits.
DO: “You’re the One that I Want,” NSYNC, or Spice Girls.
DON’T: drink the whole bowl alone and sing both parts of Captain and Tennille’s “Do That to Me One More Time.”
Zombie ($12): The master and commander of all Tiki drinks, the Zombie is the one with all the ingredients. The Alibi’s features rum from the Virgin Islands, falernum, cinnamon, grapefruit, lime, and angostura bitters, plus absinthe and 151-proof rum in case you weren’t drunk just from reading that list. It’s got an admirable ability to tie disparate elements together, but requires a strict limit of two per person. And since there’s no cranberry juice in it, I’m going to forego all Zombie puns and recommend the other thing that needs a limit of two at any karaoke night.
DO: “Bohemian Rhapsody” or sneak a third one and crush “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”
Beer: You don’t have to be into Tiki to get freaky. Especially during the all-day Sunday happy hour featuring a dollar off beers, wine and well drinks. (Happy Hour is 3-7 pm every other day, but karaoke doesn’t start until 9 pm.)
DO: Obviously you’ll be singing “Beer for My Horses,” including the horrible cop-show skit that opens the music video.