Don’t tell this La Mar bartender she can’t make a Manhattan

La Mar Cebicheria Peruana’s story began over a decade ago when celebrity chef Gaston Acurio opened the first location in Lima, Peru. Perched on the water at Pier 1½, the San Francisco version’s commanding views of San Francisco Bay set the tone for seafood fare that includes a variety of ceviche dishes — in Mexican and Japanese styles to boot — that derives their zest from the restaurant’s unique, somewhat secret leche de tigre (“milk of the tiger”) marinating broth.

Bar Manager Aphiradi Lee, nicknamed Aom, worked as a television news anchor for Bangkok, Thailand’s Channel 9 (now known as Modernine TV) before coming to San Francisco, where she got her start bartending at several Thai restaurants, including Osha and Ozone.

How did you become a television news anchor? When I was in my last year of university, I entered a beauty pageant and the makeup artist told me they were looking. I knew nothing about news, but they trained me really well.

Why did you leave your broadcasting career? It was a time when soldiers took power from the government. I went to work and soldiers were everywhere. In general, the military takeover wasn’t a bad thing, because the government was really a mess. But a lot of things were changing at Channel 9. And it’s just as well that I left when I did, because in Asia they don’t want to keep you when you get older.

Bartending is such a change of pace, though. Where does your passion for cocktails come from? I got a bartending job at Be My Guest, a Thai restaurant on Clement Street that my friend owned, and I didn’t like being behind the bar and not knowing things. Customers asked me lots of questions and made me feel stupid and made fun of me, so I started reading about cocktails and learned everything I could.

What do you tell customers at La Mar when they ask you what to drink? I love to talk to people first, find out what they like. You like something spirit-forward? You like something fruit-forward? It’s a very hot day, so maybe you want something refreshing? That sort of thing.

How did you adjust to working in a Latin restaurant? They sent me to Peru to learn about pisco and other aspects of the cuisine. Our owner is really famous in Peru. People there asked me what I did, and when I told them I worked for Gaston Acurio, they said, “Oh my god!”

Do you speak Spanish? No, not at all. Everybody always thinks I’m Peruvian because there are lots of Chinese and Japanese there, so they always talk to me in Spanish. They’ll say, “Are you Peruvian? Are you mixed? You must be Peruvian!”

Your bar is known for its pisco sours and pisco punches, but what else are you serving? It hurts my feelings when people assume I don’t know how to make a Manhattan or an Old-Fashioned. I make it clear to everybody that we are awesome with the classics. Our cocktail list has everything. Whether you like rye drinks, rum, cognac, we have something for you. There’s one where we put applewood chips in a smoking gun and use it to give the drink a smoky flavor. When you see me, please make sure to ask for my secret Manhattan!

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