It was a “happy accident” that landed Derrick Li behind the stick at spots such as Cold Drinks Bar at China Live and Sushi Sato (where he’s now bar director) over the years. He was a graphic designer back in China, but when he immigrated to San Francisco, he was just looking for an opportunity in the new city. He went to Chinatown to take classes offered to newcomers to the states, and what he first thought would be a place to learn about becoming a server, instead turned out to be a 10-week bartending school, he says. But the new skills stuck, and Li enjoyed mixing and pairing flavors together. He even found similarities to his former job. “That reflects the creativity about everything,” he says.
Li continues to flex that creativity and pour it into his new bar, Blind Pig, a stylish, speakeasy-like place situated on the second floor of the 83-year-old Cathay House on the corner of California Street and Grant Avenue. Li has been bartending competitively since 2016 and most recently won the West Coast regionals at the highly competitive United States Bartenders’ Guild World Class competition before placing 15th overall, and he’s adding those award-winning cocktails to his menu alongside new creations. When asked whether he has any favorite drinks on the menu, he says they’re all his “babies.” “I’m excited to share them with people, because they’re all my winning cocktails,” he says. The drinks will feature a number of “Asian-inspired” ingredients, Li says, such as the Pink Leaf drink, which incorporates bitter melon with Patron reposado tequila.
Other drinks incorporate and celebrate baijiu, the high-proof Chinese liquor made from fermented sorghum. “A lot of bartenders don’t feel feel comfortable to play around with baijiu, but I have a different feeling,” Li says. “I think baijiu can get to the top one day, just like how mezcal has gotten popular.” The Cubano incorporates rum with vanilla rose baijiu, while the Ming-Shi Highball highlights Ming River baijiu alongside mango vodka. Other drinks have a showier side, like the Smoke Umami cocktail which features salty vanilla butter-washed Kavalan whiskey, Manzanilla, mushroom, Angostura bitters and an injection of oak chip smoke, which is poured into the glass as the smoke cascades over the ice in dramatic fashion. There will also be an Asian-focused spirits flight available for those who want to try Japanese whiskey or different baijiu.
The bar takes advantage of its digs on the second floor of Cathay House and gave the space a light makeover, turning it over in just two months. “I saw a lot of 1930s Shanghai-style decorations, so we just turned it into an old-school speakeasy,” Li says. The name Blind Pig is in reference to a practice during Prohibition when establishments would charge customers to see an attraction, such as an animal, and they would receive a “complimentary cocktail” in return, Li says. Floor-to-ceiling windows provide views of Grant Avenue, as well as the cable cars climbing California Street. The circular bar at the center of the action is a carryover from the previous restaurant, restored to fit the new space, while circular booths along the windows echo the shape of the bar and allow for large groups to come in and drink. Dim Sum Corner, located on the ground floor below, provides a tiny food menu of dim sum bites, such as siu mai and Peking dumplings.
It’s an exciting time for Li, who started his bartending journey 15 years ago. “That’s my dream,” Li says. “I always wanted to open my own bar because I want to show people my creativity with cocktails.”
Blind Pig (718 California Street) debuts Thursday, October 6 and will be open 4:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, and 4:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday.