Meet your mixologist: Erik Carlson

About the series: In a saloon town such as San Francisco, the bartender plays a crucial role. Confessor, friend, sounding board — the man or woman behind the plank sees to it that our needs are met with elegance, grace and often wit. They see humanity at its best and most convivial, but also offer a nod and a welcome to the lonely. But what do they see when they look at us? What are the tricks of their trade? And what lessons have they learned along the way? In this Examiner weekly feature, we talk to some of our local bartenders to find out.

Umami

2909 Webster St., (415) 346-3431, www.umamisf.com

When 32-year-old Erik Carlson left Seattle 10 years ago with the intent of going to culinary school, the chef at the restaurant where he worked told him, “There’s more money in bartending.” So he reconsidered his options and told the bar manager at the same restaurant that he was heading to the City by the Bay to sling Sidecars with the best of them. His parting words: “You’re never gonna make it. You’ll be working the graveyard shift at Kinko’s.” Well, he’s been bartending pretty much the entire 10 years he’s been in San Francisco. His wife is the lovely Téa Funicello, who plies her trade at the Clift Hotel. Umami continues to beat the odds in the fickle Marina district and celebrates its one-year anniversary in December. But buyer beware. Though we never asked for a fourth albacore taco, our server added one onto our order and incidentally charged us for it!

Where did you wind up starting out in San Francisco? I landed something the first week at Scala’s. I was a bar back and became a bartender. The bartenders there taught me so much. I met a lot of great people.

Do you remember the first drink you ever made behind the bar? A margarita. I had no idea how to make it. I had to grab someone off the floor and a have a server tell me!

What does the word umami actually mean? It’s a balance between savory and sweet, like a sixth sense of taste; the perfect balance of flavors.

What drink do you typically order or make? Margaritas have always been my favorite. I like going to Tommy’s after a day at Baker Beach and having a margarita.

What’s the best tip you’ve ever gotten? C-note tips are good.

C-note? $100 bill. The guys giving out the C-notes usually give them to the girls. My wife once got tipped $1,500.

Is there a bit of friendly competition between you and your wife? There was when we were at the Clift and we were competing for shifts. Seniority-wise, I was lower.

Who makes a better margarita, you or her? We don’t make cocktails ever at home. I like to be taken care of and pampered.

We like to play a little game here called “What Your Drink Order Says About You.” Let me ask you about some of the specialty drinks here at Umami and what it says about who orders it. Hello Kitty (nigori sake, English cucumber and watermelon, served up). That’s a drink any girl will order. If guys order a Hello Kitty, they want it in a bucket instead of a martini glass. They are very uncomfortable in their skin when they order it.

Bubbling Buddha (prosecco and elderflower liquer). One hundred percent of girls order that.

So what’s a dude drink then? Usually guys order beer or vodka and soda.

You think they’re scared? It’s almost more group mentality. If one guy orders a vodka soda, then all 20 order a vodka soda.

What are your golden rules of bar etiquette? Keep a tab. No one in this neighborhood carries cash, so they close their tab and then open it five minutes later. You will order another drink, you can quote me on that. Get a spokesperson to organize your thoughts.

Featured Recipe

Faded Crane

» Three pieces of tangerine

» Two dashes of Fee Brothers orange bitters

» One fresh-squeezed lime

» Dash of simple syrup

Muddle together and add Ketel One vodka. Shake and top with soda. Garnish with kafir leaf

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