When local Chinese food pioneer Cecilia Chiang floated into the newly opened Chino for dinner, she immediately caught Danny Louie's attention. Of course, Louie knew about Chiang and her contributions to the Bay Area food scene, but he had more than just a professional interest. So he was pleasantly surprised when, after her dinner, the 95-year-old culinary doyenne asked to meet him. "Cecelia has something to tell you," a co-worker told Louie.
At her restaurant, The Mandarin, Chiang had worked with Louie's father, who was also a bartender. He passed away when Louie was 6. "Your dad was an amazing man of character," she told Louie after he introduced himself. "He was great with his clients." Louie immediately texted his wife with the news, and they both started crying.
"I won't say it's in my blood [to be a bartender]," says the long-haired and even-tempered Louie. "Plain and simple, I needed money. I needed a job. I didn't want to wait tables, but I always wanted to bartend. Little did I know it would be so hard."
It's somewhat surprising that Louie considers bartending a difficult craft, given the playful menu that he's put together at the Asian-inspired joint from the team behind Tacolicious. "I'm not over-thinking how to pair things up with the food," he says. "We're just having fun with the menu." But serious approach and heart lies behind each drink, even if everything appears to be fun and games.
Given Chino's psychedelic interior, a weird mix of ‘70s toys and portraits of elderly Asian people, white-brick walls and neon backgrounds, the bar program needed to be vibrant. Louie's cocktail menu introduces some more subtle Asian elements, like infusions made with tea, but the funky drinks like alcoholic boba slushies are what really sets Chino apart. "I mean, who brings a boba slushie machine to a bar?" Louie says, laughing. "I like dark and stirred drinks, but you can get that at a lot of other places." Deceptively strong and sealed up in a plastic cup in traditional Taiwanese fashion, they're dangerously delicious and easy to drink.
In a reflection of the mishmash of influences at Chino ("This isn't Clement Street," says Louie of the menu, whose influences span Japanese, Filipino, Korean, and Shanghainese, among other cuisines), Louie draws on a mixture of drink traditions as well. Classic drinks like the Shanghai Buck and the Singapore Sling are paired up with zany originals like the bright and creamy Chinatown Iced Tea, made with passion fruit, almond milk, Lipton tea, and baijiu (forget any past experiences with the often-awful Chinese rice spirit-the variety Louie uses has a light, pleasant flavor, with cherry notes). His Old Fashioned gives the very grown-up drink a big-kid twist, substituting housemade cola syrup for sugar.
Louie's flavors often border on tiki, but don't breach it; they're fruity, yet nuanced, and never cloying. Louie honed his sensibility for slightly tweaked classics during his days at the Alembic, and the result is a candy-colored menu that still has balance-a restraint and training you can taste.
Even when we graduate from sippy cups to harder pleasures, we never stop needing our parents, and Louie's talk with Chiang brought him a great deal of peace. "I felt it was my father basically trying to reach out and talk to me, and let me know that I'm making the right decision to do something like this."