Faraway tastes, local flavors shine at Chinatown's Li Po 

click to enlarge Hawaii to San Francisco, with a stop in China: Daniel Choi invented the Chinese Mai Tai while experimenting with the Li Po Cocktail Lounge’s collection of Chinese liquors. The lounge has been a Chinatown staple since 1937. - BETH LABERGE/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Beth Laberge/Special to the S.F. Examiner
  • Hawaii to San Francisco, with a stop in China: Daniel Choi invented the Chinese Mai Tai while experimenting with the Li Po Cocktail Lounge’s collection of Chinese liquors. The lounge has been a Chinatown staple since 1937.

For a place that’s been around as long as the Golden Gate Bridge, nothing much besides the owner has changed in this Chinatown dive. Same Buddha shrine behind the bar. Same oversized lantern, frayed by the sands of time. Same murals of bonsai landscapes. A basement room is available to rent for private parties. On any given day, the bar attracts an early wave of tourists and an evening surge of neighborhood locals looking to catch a buzz. Regulars slam cups on the bar during games of liar’s dice. Guys drink sweet Chinese whiskey with ginger beer backs. Ladies sip the house original Chinese Mai Tai from fluorescent bendy straws. And lounge-vet-turned-bartender Daniel Choi won’t be caught in anything but a Hawaiian shirt.
BAR info: 916 Grant Ave. • (415) 982-0072 • lipolounge.com

What’s up with the 1980s Hawaiian shirt?

My wife goes to Hawaii for work and always brings me back some. I’ve got more than 50. Most of them are still brand new. If I’m gonna be serving mai tais, I ought to be wearing one.

How did you land this gig?

I used to drink at this bar in the ’80s. Now I’m the one serving the drinks.

What do you like about your job?

We’ve got regulars who have been coming here for 60 years and I meet a lot of new faces every day. I’ve bartended at other places, but I love it here. I don’t want to leave.

What kind of crowds do you tend to?

Before 4 p.m., we serve mostly tourists. After 4 p.m., businessmen from the Financial District come around. During the weekends we see a large crowd from the Marina.

How did you come up with the Chinese Mai Tai?

When I first started working here 18 years ago, I mixed all kinds of alcohol with the Chinese liquor that we have. One day, I put it in a mai tai and it worked.

What do your guests like most about this bar?

It’s the culture. The front door, the lantern out front and inside, the paintings on the wall, the Buddha shrine — they’re all original. The old people have told me that we used to have go-go dancers upstairs. People really enjoy our drinks because the atmosphere creates the experience.

About The Author

Rhys Alvarado

Rhys Alvarado

Bio:
Rhys Alvarado is a cocktail enthusiast and sucker for soul and sweet reggae music. A food and drink blogger since 2009, Rhys has sipped his way from Hawaii to Santa Barbara and up the coast to San Francisco, where he's found a glorious wave of craft concoctions and expert drink-makers.
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