We begin, as all new years should, with Champagne.
At least that was the plan. But over the next few paragraphs it will become apparent nothing concerning Hop Sing Laundromat goes according to anyone’s plan except its cagey puppeteer’s, the monosyllabic liquor czar Lee. I can’t call the following words about his Fort Knox speakeasy a proper review, since I was carded before admission and thus my identity known, but the thoughts below are my own, as much as Lee might have tried to influence them.
It all began two weeks before Christmas.
I had just finished eating pizza when a message on my phone proffered a mysterious invitation from a number I didn’t recognize: “Good evening, Mr. Erace. This is Lee from Hop Sing Laundromat, and I would like to invite you in for a personal tasting at your convenience.”
Lee got my number from an unnamed mutual friend. His self-serving, if generous, offer — I declined, of course — was like gasoline on the Lee pyre I’d been tending in my soul. I was a Hop Sing holdout, you see. The impromptu invitation was the first correspondence I’d had with the man, the myth, the wannabe legend since he leaked his plans back in 2010 to turn a vacant Indonesian restaurant into Philly’s most meticulous drinking destination. As cocktail scribes suckled at his top-shelf well and Twitter tribes strapped on their kneepads, I resisted. The pseudonym, the phony self-deprecation, the game of hot-and-cold he played with the press — it irked me more than intrigued.
For a while, anyway. When Lee texted me, Hop Sing had been serving six months, the hype machine had settled into a less rabid churn and curiosity nibbled at me like a mouse at cheese. I’d review it, I decided, the first review of 2013.
Which is what brought me to an ornate metal security door at 1029 Race Street on the Saturday before Christmas, and face to face with Lee, backlit by an otherworldly blue glow like an alien emerging from the mothership.
Lee admitted a twosome and politely asked me to come back in 15 to 20 minutes. I returned and, after grudgingly handing over my license, was invited into the waiting room, a cozy holding cell with a row of theater-style chairs flanking a vintage shoeshine station, the now famous floor of pennies shining.
Lee recited the house rules (no photography, no talking on cell phones) and 10 minutes later, I was in. He pulled out a throne-like seat for me at the center of the brass-and-crimson room with the look of a haunted library (cathedral lights, gilt mirrors, floor-to-ceiling book racks of bottles) tended by a mannerly waitstaff.
I ordered “something with Champagne,” bartender’s choice, but the only Champagne Hop Sing serves is Dom, by the bottle, Lee explained. I should have known, considering his well is a who’s who of the alcoholic aristocracy. So I opted instead for a Hotel Nacional (rummy, frothy and pineapple gold) from the “classics” side of the menu.
Hop Sing’s drinks are a very fair $12 and tend toward the straightforward. Some have only two ingredients, like the Henry “Box” Brown, 2 ounces of 15-year-old El Dorado dosed with 3 ounces fresh red grape juice, named for a slave who mailed himself from Richmond, Va., to Philly in 1849. In a cocktail scene where you’re only as good as your apothecary of housemade bitters, tinctures and drams, it’s ballsy.
So is Lee’s widespread affection for coffee and cream, whether in the haunting Nevermore with tequila and gin or the refreshing Boston Healer with bourbon, vanilla and honey liqueurs and bruised mint. A thin cap of dairy neutralized the slow-burning sting of muddled Thai chilies in the Montana Payback, a concoction involving rum, applejack, strawberries and farlernum.
The off-menu tequila Old Fashioned was mostly booze but, paradoxically, not boozy. When the fire vanished from its tableside-flamed orange peel, it revealed a smooth tango of mezcal and reposado, smoke and oak set to plainspoken Angostura, agave and a spray of essential citrus oils. I sought that balance in the Triple A special, but there wasn’t enough fresh-pressed green apple juice to combat the lethal doses of applejack and absinthe.
“I know you didn’t like the Triple A,” Lee whispered when he set down the check, “so I took it off the bill.” I’d given no indication I hadn’t liked it. I’d even drunk most of it. Is Lee psychic or just a very keen observer?
I can’t say for sure. But I can dispel at least some of the mystery behind the man: Lee grew up in Saigon during the Vietnam War. His family tried to escape, twice. The first attempt was unsuccessful. The second smuggled them into a Indonesia refugee camp, the start of a relocation process that would move them to Singapore, then to Orange County, Calif. He moved to New York, working as the assistant director of food and beverage at a posh hotel before quitting to become a day trader. He spent more than two months driving cross-country visiting bars, leading up to the opening of Hop Sing Laundromat.
Fact or fiction? Hard to tell. But one thing I know to be true about Lee is the following: His job, he says, is “to find out what my guests need and do whatever it takes to get it.”
I know this is true because a few days after my visit to Hop Sing, I was prowling state stores for a bottle of Wigle Ginever, a new Dutch-style proto-gin produced in Pittsburgh. I tweeted how I couldn’t find it. The following day, a bottle mysteriously appeared on my doorstep.
“My job is to find out what my guests need,” Lee echoed when he rang me later at home, his caller ID flashing on my TV screen. “That’s what you needed.”
I’m returning the booze. Lee’s real name, I’ll keep.
HOP SING LAUNDROMAT | 1029 Race St., hopsinglaundromat.com. Open Tues.-Sun., 6 p.m.-2 a.m. Cocktails, $12