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A Bourbon At...Li Po Lounge

A Bourbon At?is sponsored by our friends at Basil Hayden’s Bourbon. Basil Hayden’s is handcrafted, light-bodied and aged longer with twice as much rye to produce an incredibly approachable, sophisticated and luxurious bourbon. It’s spicy. Unexpected. And full of potential. Just like your plans tonight.

[Photo: Naseema Khan]

If you want to increase your likelihood of encountering haggard Asian men playing Liar’s Dice while drinking Hennessey and J&B neat, an Indian tranny with jheri curls manning the jukebox with a Purple Rain opener, all while overhearing a band of tourists play show-and-tell with the knickknacks they just purchased on the streets, then grab yourself a stool at Li Po one of these days and settle in.

The “cave bar,” as it was once known, is set right in the heart of the largest Chinatown in North America, where by day masses of bodies barter in the stores and tread the streets making deals, yet by night the scene can be relatively quiet and tucked away from the cocktail of bars encompassing the Broadway-Columbus mayhem, you know, the titty bars and clubs, but also the revered spots like The Saloon, Vesuvio and Specs.

Li Po fits in with the latter camp, and locals recognize that. It opened doors around 1935, a time in San Francisco when Chinatown was starting to boom given the ease of immigration that would gradually continue over the next decade or so. It’s owned by a family association known as Louie Fong Fong, so if you had any ideas about buying the place and converting it into a rub and tug for alcoholics, well think again. You’ve got to be in the family association to have anything to do with the lease or ownership.

From the 30s up until several years ago, there was a bamboo doorway that marked the entrance; and when you walk in it has a tunnel feel: rounded and narrow with a deep maroon hue, though brightly lit. On the walls there are watercolor paintings of dragons and other seemingly traditional Chinese caricatures, and a large shrine in the back behind the bar that gives the whole place the feel of a temple, though an unsacred one. None of the décor has been touched since 1935, save the bamboo structure that’s been removed, making it a cultural heirloom of sorts.

For libations, I stick with the Chinese whiskeys: several of the Ng Ka Py -- only served neat with a glass of water -- and Mui Kwe Lu, an ingredient in Li Po's notorious Mai Tai, which alone justifies a visit to this bar. Both whiskeys have nice herbal finishes with hints of cinnamon and ginseng and are of the sweet variety -- very pleasant to sip on. Lean on them when you’re working on your tribute buzz to the largest Chinese population outside of Asia itself. That’s right, Chinatown SF. Ni hao bitches.

So if you have a friend in town or are roaming Chinatown for whatever reason, stop in. You'll enjoy it. It’s fun. On the weekends -- the big night being Sunday night -- they have DJs and sometimes bands play in the little cocaine den downstairs. It’s a dark concrete room that is creepy as all hell: absolutely perfect for the shady and interesting tale you want to come away with that night you blacked out in Chinatown.
- Eddy El Espia

Li Po Cocktail Lounge

916 Grant Avenue, San Francisco, CA