Illustration by Cierra Pedro

The Taste of Themed America

There are some depths to which we functional local drunks simply won’t descend, and most of them are located on Las Vegas Boulevard. Cabo Wabo, Margaritaville, Dick’s Last Resort, Gilley’s, Señor Frog’s … there are a number of party bars concentrated on the Strip, and while we’re not opposed to them on principle—hey, if you can sell $44 pitchers of mai tais to tourists, just keep doin’ you—they’re not places locals would ever go, or tell visiting friends to check out. Last week, I visited two of them and sampled the closest each had to a signature drink.

I went to Cabo Wabo Cantina, the Sammy Hagar-owned bar and grill at Planet Hollywood, with the full intention of drinking my way through several such bars. My dream was snuffed out a mere two sips into Sammy’s Toasted Colada, described on the menu thus: “Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum, Coco Lopez and pineapple juice, served on the rocks; garnished with freshly toasted coconut.” It was the color of nonfat milk and easily the sweetest thing I’ve ever had in my mouth. My palate, toughened by years of Campari drinking, telegraphed a message to my brain: What the living fuck is this?

Whatever Cabo Wabo is trying to do—whatever they hope to accomplish by serving drinks the flavor of diabetes—it’s plainly working, and I commend them for it.

Duly chastened, I took in my surroundings. Cabo Wabo is at once a tribute to its owner—I actually liked Sammy’s stint in Van Halen, shut the hell up—and homage to the sort of beach-town bars run by American expats. It features murals of anatomically impossible women on the walls (alongside a borderline-offensive caricature of a Mariachi band), and a band on its patio cranking out legacy rock cover tunes to the delight of a crowd—yes, a crowd; the outdoor patio was packed—drunk on the power of American individualism. And as we paid our check, a group of young men approached the bar and ordered shots of … sambuca. Whatever Cabo Wabo is trying to do—whatever they hope to accomplish by serving drinks the flavor of diabetes—it’s plainly working, and I commend them for it.

I needed a full 24 hours of recovery before I returned to the Strip, and to Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville at the Flamingo. I was predisposed to dislike it, because I dislike Jimmy Buffett’s music. But something funny happened: I kinda liked it, in all its high Floridian cheesiness. The fiberglass whale hanging from the ceiling and the ship’s prow with the boob-job mermaid figurehead—they’re no worse than the kitschy crap you’ll find just a couple of miles away at the Golden Tiki. And there was no Buffett music playing, always a plus.

I ordered one of Margaritaville’s “Boat Drinks,” the 5 O’Clock Somewhere, because those exact words appear on the front of the menu. Made of Margaritaville Silver Rum, Paradise Passionfruit Tequila, Bacardi 151, sweet and sour, orange and pineapple juices and “a splash” of grenadine, it made the roof of my mouth sting like I’d drunk a shot of peroxide. It wasn’t sickly sweet, like my Cabo Wabo colada, but it was sweet enough to make its sour elements taste uncomfortably like medicine. I didn’t finish that one, either.

I don’t deny either of these places their appeal. I’ve seen plenty of Strip-side bars with better cocktails shut down over the years, so if Cabo Wabo and Margaritaville know what it takes to stay afloat, bless them. But holy crap, those were some terrible drinks. For a moment, I almost forgot that it’s always Campari hour somewhere.