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Omaha Magazine

Tai-ing One On at Mount Fuji: Restaurant on 72nd Street has Been Kitschy, Cool, and Unique

May 27, 2021 04:42PM ● By Anthony Flott
cartoon mai tai, green backdrop

Art via iStock

When does a restaurant go from being a place to eat to a place to be experienced?

The Porpoise Place tried to do that half a century ago in Omaha, but it flopped in just months. 

Mount Fuji rose in its place and became an Omaha legend of sorts, along with its funky tiki lounge Mai Tai. For more than 40 years, Mount Fuji and Mai Tai were a feast as much for the eyes as for the palate.

The visual spectacle began with a neon sign jutting from its facade on the corner of 72nd and Blondo streets. Inside, the restaurant was dominated by a Mount Fuji panorama painted in 1974 by Omaha native and notable sci-fi author Terry Goodkind. There was 1970s deep reddish-brown carpet, vinyl-covered chairs, tea rooms with grass mats, rice-paper walls, and a rock garden with a pool full of koi.

Downstairs, the lounge featured bamboo light fixtures that cast just enough light to show off velvet paintings of near-naked women. There was metallic wallpaper with a palm-tree motif and fish tanks built into the walls. 

“Super kitschy, cool, and unique,” recalled Deanna Mesch, who experienced nothing like it in her hometown of Stanton, Nebraska. She first visited the Mai Tai with fellow students from Creighton University. Many visits would follow, leaving her with a certain taste for the kitschy.

“I traveled so much for my job that I would always try to seek out cool tiki bars and tiki lounges to see what was neat and how they were comparable,” said Mesch, who now lives in Grand Island. “Of course, some were much more elaborate, like the Tonga Room in San Francisco, but they are still not the Mai Tai.”

And not the atmosphere expected, perhaps, by those who come to know the history of owners Jack and Alice Kaya.

The couple were both Japanese and U.S.-born. Jack, though, spent his boyhood in Japan with relatives before returning to California as a teenager. The Kayas married, but when World War II broke out, they were interred in a camp in Jerome, Arkansas, with other Japanese U.S. citizens.

After being released, they moved to Omaha, where Alice had a sister. Jack, a self-taught cook, got a job in the Blackstone Hotel kitchen.

In 1948 the Kayas struck out on their own, opening the Grass Shack Cafe at 3229 California St. It was a breakfast, lunch, and dinner hotspot for Creighton students, especially the Japanese-Americans from Hawaii and California. The family grew to one son and three daughters, and lived in quarters in the back of the cafe. There, Alice made dresses and altered clothes.

The Kayas made another big move in October 1965, purchasing what had been the Old English Inn in Countryside Village across from Westside High School. They opened it as Omaha’s first Japanese restaurant—Mount Fuji Inn.

Exactly four years later, a three-alarm fire destroyed Mount Fuji and several other adjoining businesses.

The Kayas regrouped in five weeks, purchasing what had been the Porpoise Place at 72nd and Blondo streets. They opened the second Mount Fuji on Jan. 15, 1970—less than three months after the fire.

It’s likely the Kayas got a good deal from owner Mark Stevens, who was probably looking to cut his losses. Stevens had opened the Porpoise Place in December 1968. He had shelled out $17,000 to acquire his restaurant’s star attraction, Flopper, a 7-foot-long, 300-pound bottle-nose porpoise flown in from Venice, Florida. Once tanked, Flopper swam with local high school girls, visible in the Submarine Lounge through glass windows.

Less than four months later, in April 1969, the Porpoise Place was closed. 

In stepped the Kayas with Mount Fuji/Mai Tai and a menu featuring Japanese and Cantonese fare. Jack did most of the cooking, but Alice’s egg rolls drew rave reviews.

It was the Mai Tai, though, that seems to have generated the most memories—at least those that can be remembered—thanks to drinks that were wilder than the decor.

“Probably the first thing I noticed was the two-drink maximum,” Mesch recalled. “I’d never really seen that before, and so of course it makes you want to have more than two.”

There were more than two dozen concoctions, most strong and sweet, and all Alice’s recipes.

There was the Mai Tai, of course. You could get it with a branded green cup that looked like it came off the set of Gilligan’s Island. A visitor to the Forgotten Omaha Facebook page found one in a Denver thrift store. Other drinks included the XXX; the Zombie and Scorpion; Mount Fuji Snow, a frozen coffee liqueur; and Navy Grog, which was set on fire before serving.

“I would always either get a Mai Tai, Blue Hawaiian, or Scorpions,” Mesch said. “I know a lot of my friends would get the Zombies. All the drinks were pretty strong, so I guess I could see where the two-drink maximum was smart, even though I don’t think it was real because I know we usually had more than two drinks.”

She mentioned a friend who drank five Zombies once and woke the next morning on the floor of his living room apartment clutching all the swizzle sticks.

Alice, helped by daughter Jackie Shindo, kept the restaurant and lounge going for 27 years after Jack died in 1982. Alice worked her last shift in 2009 and died three months later.

Shindo continued to operate both places, but business slowed. Eventually, the restaurant opened only for larger parties or for catering. It closed for good in 2013.

The Mai Tai kept going for another five years, until a liquidation auction in April 2018.

The space was most recently occupied by Kandi’s Gentlemen’s Club.

The loss of Mount Fuji and Mai Tai is a shame, said Mesch.

“I don’t know if there’s anything like it in Omaha now,” she said. “If there is, how could it compare to dirty lanterns and two-drink maximums. “I think the greatest loss is that a lot of younger people, and just people that have never been there, are never going to see it.”

Or experience it. 

This article originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.