The new craft cocktail finally opens after months of teasing the press with tantalizing hints.
Lêe sits at the bar in a tailored polo and his signature fork-tine glasses, a newsboy cap and several boxes of cigarettes scattered in front of him. Shakers and glasses and straws, too. He doesn’t drink all that much anymore—no more than a glass of wine with dinner, really—and it’s remarkable how little he sips each of the sample concoctions his bartenders are mixing up.
This is Hop Sing Laundromat: the new craft cocktail bar Lêe has finally opened in Chinatown after months of teasing the press with tantalizing hints. Today, they’re all working on what will be Hop Sing’s signature take on the Ramos Gin Fizz, and each iteration grows more complex, more refreshing. Lêe takes a sip from the glass, or from a straw employed as a pipette, stares at the liquid for a second, and seems to instantly know what’s missing, how the proportions should be adjusted. After two or three or more attempts, he is happy with this one—a rum-based Ramos—and he’s ready to move on to other spirits. As a rule, a cocktail will not make Lêe’s signature list if it’s not balanced enough to succeed with every major category of spirit. And none of them, as a matter of strict policy, utilizes syrup or bitters. (“When you have the most expensive well liquor in America, why would you want to cover it up?” he says. “You want sweet? I’ll give you [a sweeter] liquor. You want bitter? I’ll give you Fernet or something else.”)
Research and development like this—including Lêe’s well-chronicled obsession with getting every last detail in line with his exacting vision—has made him into one of the most unusual local celebrities this city has seen in some time. Indeed, he represents a whole new breed of bold-faced names in Philadelphia media, shying away from photographers yet seemingly everywhere all the time, providing a constant enough drip of information to local writers to maintain what was, for months, a perpetual sense of fascination about the soon-to-open lounge—yet precious little of the information was about him directly. (It’s been noted numerous times that he prefers to go by only a single name.)The story, as he dictated it, was about Hop Sing Laundromat, not the man behind it. And yet, the result of this refusal to open up about his background, or even to be photographed, led to an even greater spotlight on him personally. (And this is just the first of three planned projects, the second of which is already under way.)
It’s also led to the sort of drama that generates attention. One competitor publicly bet another, on Twitter, that Hop Sing would fail within a year. Stories about delayed openings and staffing snafus abounded. The usual food-scene haters came out of the woodwork, spewing their bile all over the blogosphere.
So what I didn’t expect when Lêe and I sat down recently to taste through a selection of cocktails, and conduct our interview for this article, was any sort of insight into who he is or how he got here.
It turns out, Lêe is full of surprises.
If you look at the names of Hop Sing’s signature cocktails, the majority of them pay homage, in one way or another, to America. The “Montana Payback” is named after the Battle of Little Bighorn. “A Failed Entertainment” was the working title of Infinite Jest. “Nevermore” is in honor of Edgar Allan Poe. Even the “Esta tierra es tuya”—which the menu urges guests to order “by its given name,” in Spanish—is Lêe’s acknowledgement of America’s roots as a melting-pot society, and a finger in the eye of xenophobes who insist that America is for English-speakers only.
Turns out that this fascination with America, this love affair, goes to the heart of who Lêe is—and, perhaps, to what motivates him.
In South Vietnam during the war, he says, his family fell victim to all the horrors of the era. When he was 10 years old, Lêe and his siblings were separated from their parents when they all were caught trying to escape. Three months in jail followed, in a room packed with more than 200 people, and no information about, or contact with, his mother or father. The family ultimately found their way out, but the experience still colors his outlook. (Asked about those Philly foodies who seem to relish a knee-jerk hatred of him after the past year’s worth of breathless blogger pieces, he says, simply, “There’s nothing they can do to me that the Vietcong hasn’t already.”)
Before he began conceiving Hop Sing Laundromat in 2009, Lêe spent nearly three months bouncing around all 48 continental United States in an Audi TT, exploring the country and absorbing the food and drink cultures he came across along the way. That experience isn’t just apparent in the names of his signature drinks, but also in the very framework of the bar itself.
He noticed, for example, that decent well liquors were difficult to come by. And that too many craft cocktail bars took too long making a drink. And that the pretension that so many arm-gartered and handlebar-mustached mixologists served alongside their drinks didn’t do much to welcome guests. So when he set about creating Hop Sing, he kept all this in mind.
And Philadelphia was the perfect place to do it. “If I was going to do this in New York,” Lêe says, “I could not give the people the well liquor that we’re giving them. Because the rent would be $30,000, 10 times what we’re paying here. So what we did, we passed on the savings. In order for me to open this bar in Manhattan [where he worked for some time], I can’t charge the prices I’m charging. If I was in Manhattan, using the liquor that we use, it’s going to be a $20 drink in order for me to make a profit.”
Of course, there were more than just financial reasons for creating Hop Sing here. For Lêe, this is a project about passion and belief as much as anything. “We’ve set out to build a bar for the city of Philadelphia,” he says. “A place that the city can be proud of. I never for a minute wavered from that belief, because this city is my home now.
“It’s not about profit,” he adds. “Because if it was about the money, than it would have been finished long ago. If Hop Sing Laundromat fails, then I want the people of this city to know that we’ve given everything we’ve got and more. In our lifetime, cocktail bars here in the States and around the world will be using better liquor in the wells, and this city is the first to do so. As long as the earth still spins around the sun, nobody from anywhere can take that away from Philadelphia.”
So far, it doesn’t seem as if that will happen. Business has been exceptionally strong, and even the much-reported-upon rules of conduct—the dress code, the no-phone-photo policy—haven’t been met with much resistance. And all the details that Lêe fussed over in the long lead-up to opening on May 25 have proven to be successful, from the generous distance between tables (privacy is paramount at Hop Sing) to the music, which runs the gamut from Van Morrison and Solomon Burke to more contemporary artists.
As for the drinks themselves—I’ve tasted maybe a dozen and a half of them, both as part of our interview as well as as a customer—Hop Sing’s are remarkably well-balanced and complex, and often succeed in unexpected, or at least too-rarely-seen, ways. With his sixth sense for flavor and balance, and with senior bartender Robert Fuentevilla on the team, the reality of Hop Sing hasn’t just met the pre-opening buzz—it has well exceeded it.
The standard Manhattan here is made with Rittenhouse Rye, Carpano Antica, and just enough Angostura bitters to bring out a whiff of exotic cardamom perfume. A screwdriver looks standard on paper, but the fact that the orange juice is only squeezed after the drink is ordered lends it a level of freshness that stands out.
Then there are those signature cocktails, which take full advantage of the more than 1,000 bottles lining the shelves behind the bar and in the well. The “4:31pm”—named for the exact hour that Prohibition was signed out of existence—combines Beefeater and Plymouth gins with two types of vermouth and yellow Chartreuse. They’re all allowed to sit with slowly melting ice for a minute or so, mellowing out the heat of the gin and allowing the more subtly sweet and spiced essences to come to the fore. The “Montana Payback” features a menacing-sounding muddled whole Thai chili pepper, but its heat is attenuated by a densely frothed layer of cream on top, whose fat coats the tongue and allows the more fruity and floral aspects of the pepper to come out. Combined with Laird’s AppleJack, El Dorado De Luxe Silver rum, Velvet Falernum, a muddled strawberry for color, and dried rose petals as a garnish, the reality of the drink is as delicate and elegant as it appears menacing on paper.
Instead of Red Bull and vodka as a drink-time pick-me-up, Lêe created the “Nevermore,” built on a base of seriously caffeinated Vietnamese coffee set against Smooth Ambler gin from West Virginia, Patrón Citrónge, and cream. “Gimme Shelter” is “basically deconstructed Baileys,” Lêe explained, with Rittenhouse bonded rye, Bärenjäger, cream and a dusting of nutmeg. The “Boston Healer” is an iced-coffee with peppermint that leans on the sweetness of Johnny Drum bourbon, Bärenjäger and Licor 43, and would be perfect on a long Sunday afternoon. The list goes on, and is in a regular state of flux and tweaking.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014