It started with a photo. Danny Louie, the bar manager at Mister Jiu’s (a modern Chinese restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown), was looking through some keepsakes when he stumbled upon an old photograph of his father, who passed away when Louie was just six years old. In the photo, his father was dressed up, standing behind a bar. Louie and his sisters speculated: It looked like a glamorous Chinese restaurant, most likely in San Francisco, where their father had immigrated to before Louie was born.
One busy weeknight, Louie was working at a restaurant/bar when Cecilia Chang, who opened the legendary Mandarin Restaurant in S.F.’s Chinatown in the 1960s, came in to dine. He ventured to show her the photograph, and she confirmed: It was, in fact, his father behind the bar at Mandarin Restaurant. She actually remembered Louie’s father, recalling him as being “a great man of character and amazing with guests.”
Like father, like son. Louie has long been a master of understated cool and a fixture in San Francisco’s cocktail scene. His humble, low-key manner has made countless customers feel welcome over the past decade, from his years tending bar at Alembic to running a creative drink program at the now-closed Chino.
Louie was one of the early bartenders in the country doing boozy boba slushie cocktails and experimenting with ingredients like dashi and white miso, not to mention a fondness for the funky Chinese spirit baijiu. He has been the kind of bartender who can go off-menu and consistently come up with something superb. “With my cocktails, I like to evoke a memory through the senses,” he says.
(image: Pete Lee)
At Mister Jiu’s, Louie continues to push the boundaries. “I approach building a cocktail much like I approach fashion,” he says. “It’s all about layers of texture, color and (with drinks) temperature.”
He factors in San Francisco’s formative Chinese history—a history that introduced Chinese food to the U.S.: “My goal at Mister Jiu’s is to capture the history and glamour that once was Chinatown—essentially, the Chinese culture of San Francisco in a glass. Along with that, I’m keeping with chef Brandon Jew’s philosophy of seasonality.”
Eternity (image: Pete Lee)
You’ll witness this fusing in drinks like the Happiness, a gin cocktail in which sour green apple and the bitter touch of gentian sings with the floral tannins of jasmine tea, honey and lime. On the opposite spectrum, the smoky Wealth cocktail adds Laphroaig peat to Rittenhouse rye whiskey, with further smoky earthiness from lapsang souchong tea, brightened by apple and Cardamaro liqueur.
“I get my inspiration from being a San Francisco native—the sights and scents,” he says. “I lean toward savory ingredients in my endless search for new flavor profiles. Growing up in a Chinese household, I was drawn to ingredients that my parents and grandparents used, like lotus leaf, bitter melon, long beans, red bean paste and sesame.”
(image: Pete Lee)
The Eternity cocktail drinks like a briny Martini. But the drink is more complex than you’d guess from glancing at the menu. With a base of Beefeater gin and a touch of Absolut Elyx vodka, Louie infuses dill in Lillet aperitif, then adds unctuous drops of crab oil, an oil he makes from roasting local Dungeness crab shells, then cooking them sous vide with lemon peel, rice bran oil and salt. Garnished with pickled long beans and smoked olives, it’s bold, savory and elegant. Seasonal joys might be hoppy Anchor Hophead vodka and Zirbenz Stone Pine Liqueur of the Alps, sweet-tart-herbal with strawberry and a scoop of nasturtium sorbet made from nasturtiums growing on the roof garden.
He takes the playful to another level with the Orange Jiu’lius, a grown-up tribute to the Orange Julius, enhanced by the subtle funk of Denizen rum, the silkiness of Absolut Elyx vodka, fresh orange juice, condensed milk and vanilla extract. It’s a creamy, decadent yet balanced concoction that tastes like the Orange Julius of your dreams.
Orange Jiu’lius (image: Pete Lee)
And there’s more to come. Heading upstairs from the lofty Mister Jiu’s dining room gazing romantically over Chinatown, through the sleek lower-ceilinged front bar where Louie and team serve drinks, you’ll find that same view from one floor higher. Historic bones and high ceilings frame the massive space where chef Jew, Louie and the team have further plans in the works.
Louie shares a sneak peek: “My ideas for the upstairs bar/lounge cocktail menu include iconic places in San Francisco. For instance, there may be a Japanese ingredient that reflects Japantown or perhaps a red, salty ingredient that reflects the Golden Gate Bridge. It [the iconic places] can come through an ingredient or glassware or a garnish.”
Louie’s artful-yet-crushable drinks beg for a larger space where even more patrons can enjoy them. We look forward to two floors of Louie creations. His father would be proud.