Looking around Chinatown’s Li Po Lounge, the 85-year-old cave of a bar with boxes on the floor and a sofa that belongs in the apartment you rented when you were 20, is a Where’s Waldo-style activity. Brazen red light bleeds like ink from the corners of the room and zodiac calendars adorn the walls. Above the bar hang a few framed certificates: one is signed by Mayor London Breed and honors the Chinatown business with the Business Strengthening Award, given on May 8, 2019, as a part of San Francisco Small Business Week. The other holds an eyebrow-raising framed document from the United States Patent Office, dated November 26, 2013. The simple piece of paper proclaims Li Po’s ownership of the Chinese Mai Tai, an “alcoholic fruit cocktail.”
In a season of Bay Area trademark drama, it might not come as a surprise to learn a bar went ahead and trademarked the recipe and name of its most popular beverage. But, for what it’s worth, the history of the mai tai is already a hotly contested one. The Bay Area claims (probably correctly) that Trader Vic’s in Emeryville originated the sugary drink. Li Po’s rendition, though, is different — hence the name “Chinese” Mai Tai, explains manager Vincent Lee. According to random signage at the bar and documents related to the registered trademark, the infamously powerful punch contains both light and dark rum, pineapple juice, and “Chinese liqueur.” For $11, the liquid phenomenon is well-known and almost always the same: so sugary and pleasant, one doesn’t even notice how super drunk they’ve become before a second is even halfway gone.
As for Li Po itself, the legendary bar was opened in 1937 by Wilbert Wong and William Jack Chow, giants in the Chinese American community at the time. After a few ownership changes, it was the current owner, Kenneth Lee, who came up with the Chinese Mai Tai. Vincent Lee says a “dear friend” of the owner came into the bar nearly 25 years ago, did some prodigious imbibing with Lee, and the two concocted the mai tai that’s still on the menu today. It’s no wonder Vincent wasn’t keen to share the recipe, but he did impart a bit of the secret formula: “We put Chinese wine in the mai tai,” Lee says. “We’re the only mai tai in Chinatown.” When pressed for details, he kept it cool refusing to elaborate beyond, simply, Chinese wine. Scott Louie, a bartender at Li Po for about three years, didn’t reveal much more than that either. Though he did confirm that, hands down, the Chinese Mai Tai is the most popular drink at the bar.
And for what it’s worth, the bar is far more than just a local-only spot. Beyond Anthony Bourdain’s famous visits, and Abbot Elementary’s Chris Perfetti, who dropped by during an unrelated HBO filming, Louie says he was working when a famous (though unnamed) retired NFL reporter came in for a drink. Odds are those in the know will continue to frequent what some have described as the perfect San Francisco bar for years to come. In 2019, Li Po was awarded legacy status by the city, helping ensure its future a bit longer. Not unlike the reason for summiting Mount Everest, Louie feels the allure of the drink really is in its own grandiose lore at this point. “It’s a strong drink, but people try it because it’s famous,” Louie says.