So, three guys walk into a bar…
Wait, let me start over.
A homicidal maniac, an Al-Qaeda torture specialist, and a Foobooz commenter walk into Hop Sing Laundromat. After surrendering their photo IDs for inspection at the door, they are seated in an anteroom—on a church pew opposite an unmanned shoeshine stand.
The insane murderer gazes around at an antiquarian’s fantasia of leather-bound books—shelf upon shelf going right up to what must be a 15-foot ceiling—and feels a novel sensation. By the dumb luck of having tucked his collared shirt into the Dolce and Gabbana pants of his latest victim, he has passed the bar’s not-exactly-restrictive dress code. For the first time in his life he feels validated. The light is low. A faint scent of citrus oil wafts through the air. The proprietor was only play-acting when checking IDs, so the smears of dried blood on his had gone unremarked. And by the time he’s given an Old Fashioned chilled by a doorknob-sized hunk of ice (without even being asked for a credit card to start a tab), he has made an iron pact with God never to kill again.
The Al-Qaeda operative also feels something weird. Though he believes drinking alcohol to be a crime punishable only by the ritual stoning of the nearest woman in sight, he finds his own gaze drawn to the Arabic calligraphy decorating antique shoeshine kits from North Africa. Was it possible that the proprietor’s fatwa on cell phones was only the beginning of this strange den’s charms? Yes, indeed it is! The impresario is a also fellow eschewer of hard liquor, and a fanatical proselytizer of fresh-squeezed juice to boot—as passionate an enemy of fruit-juice oxygenation as the orange pressers of Jemaa el-Fnaa. In an instant, the fearsome mujahid realizes that America is a paradise for righteous men and infidels alike, bellies up to the bar for a (virgin) strawberry daiquiri, and lays down his arms forever.
The Foobooz commenter, meanwhile, can’t hold it in any longer. He flies out of the anteroom in a fit of fury, overturning three empty tables while howling over having been made to wait for a seat of his own. Momentarily gawking in pure awe at the utterly stupefying library of liquor bottles behind the bar, he regains his composure just long enough to take one blurry instagram photo and thumb an outraged tweet into his iPhone before running out the door and into the night, aiming himself for the nearest gastropub where he can find himself a plate of handcrafted sausage and a pint of Pliny the Younger.
Such is the power of Hop Sing Laundromat. It can give peace to the tormented, teach mercy to the fanatical and bring joy to even the pickiest of cocktail consumers. Even to its haters it offers a ripe target simply too big to miss.
Hyperbole? Absolutely. But hyperbole is what Hop Sing Laundromat was built on. It is the oxygen that allows it to survive. And pity that poor Fooboozer, after all. You have to feel for him. Has there ever been a more exhaustively hyped bar in Philadelphia’s history? By the time I overcame my own skepticism enough to give it a try, Foobooz had posted no fewer than 15 stories about the place—and nine of those were from before it even opened! These prompted more than 180 comments, trending ever angrier, and by the end, Foobooz editor Jason Sheehan was practically risking death threats any time he gave Hop Sing Laundromat any extra little bit of attention.
And not just from readers, either. Philly Mag editor-in-chief Tom McGrath had had it up to here with the HSL hype, too. “Not one more word about it,” he told Jason, as I heard it later. “Not in the magazine, not on Foobooz, not anywhere. We’re done.”
Well, almost. Before putting the edict into force, Jason wanted to send me in for a tipple.
As an editorial decision, it was win-win. Either I would love the place, in which case Jason could further prove that he hadn’t drunk some disastrous Kool-Aid, or I would despise it, in which case he could prove himself a fair-minded editor by capping off the HSL love-fest with the publication of a hate-filled screed.
And honestly. as my friend and I waited awkwardly in the anteroom—first for a sham search for available seats inside (there were enough to accommodate a mid-sized marching band) and then to take in the spiel in which Lêe warned us that we were “in for a big disappointment” and apologized for the “fiasco,”–the odds heavily favored us despising the place.
The practiced, highly mannered apology seemed insincere at best. And it was clear that we were entering a veritable Potemkin Village of control and stage-management. (Indeed, when Lêe suggested an hour later that we walk across the room to check out one of his cocktail-delivery carts, my pal expressed only half-joking relief at the revelation that we were allowed to leave our barstools.) The ground rules are well known by now: No phone conversations. No photography. No approaching other guests without formal permission. No credit cards. No asking a cocktail waiter if Lêe keeps his staff chained up in the basement during their off-hours.
And okay, that last one isn’t technically a rule, but a couple hours into our drinking session Lêe reported that he had just asked a patron to leave for making a similar intimation.
By this time, though, all we could say was good riddance.
I’ll be straight with you. My friend and I were ready to be driven crazy by Hop Sing Laundromat. Neither one of us goes in for faux-“secret” speakeasies, play-acting hosts or the sort of illusionary exclusivity that threatened to suffocate us in that waiting room. In fact, I’ve come to kind of dread contemporary cocktail bars because the mixologists who staff them are so often so good at mixing drinks, and so completely engaged by doing so, that most of them seem to view regular old conversation as nothing more than a time-wasting distraction from their one true calling.
I do like a well-made cocktail, but when I sit at a bar I want to talk.
My friend, meanwhile, professes not even to like cocktails.
But here we were, two hours and three or four drinks in, racking our memories for the last time either one of us had had so much fun at a bar. (About 15 years ago was the answer for me, but that was the sort of fun I’ll never be reckless enough to have again.)
What won us over? Well, there was the kid-at-a-gizmo-store glee of watching Lêe glide along the high top shelf behind the bar on his custom-made ladder, pluck out a bottle, and seem to drop it free-falling to the floor—only to see it whip around some sort of wrought-iron chute to bar level, where it awaited a leisurely retrieval. There was the bar room itself, with its museum-like collection of turn-of-the-century licenses and Prohibition-era liquor prescriptions—a legal loophole much like today’s medical marijuana scrips. There were the drinks. Mustn’t forget the drinks—made without simple syrups, largely without bitters, and always with juice squeezed the moment before it met its high-end liquor.
Oh yeah, and there was the liquor itself. Do you want to know why Lêe’s coy little rum-and-grape-juice cocktail is so gobsmackingly delicious? Well, the frothy, tannic juice extracted from freshly pulverized red grapes is part of it, but so is the use of 15-year-old rum. (I proved this to myself at home later when I pulled out my juicemaker and a bottle of Mount Gay, which rarely fails to make me happy but, this time, didn’t quite do the trick.)
There were other wonderful drinks (and a couple that were just fine). One featured two gins, because Lêe apparently couldn’t find just one that gave him all he wanted, mixed with two Spanish vermouths—one red and one white, so not quite as fanatical on that count—plus Chartreuse. Whatever I thought it was going to taste like going in, it turned out surprisingly different. And way better. Lêe took us off the menu several times, making note of what we’d liked or expressed curiosity about and trying out ideas under development.
He also produced an absolutely brilliant Tequila Sunrise. It took about 10 minutes—a thoughtful consideration of just which tequila should go into it, a forceful shake, little more orange juice, a little more of something else, a time-out for Lêe to pipette a milliliter onto his tongue, another little tweak—but it was so perfect that it made both of us laugh out loud, both at how sheepishly one of us had floated the idea, and how much we enjoyed a drink that the amaro-and-bitters-loving cognoscenti would probably dismiss as a cocktail caricature best fit for college freshmen.
But forget about all that. The drinks made our evening pleasurable, but it was Lêe who made it fun. Cast him any way you like—a dandy sporting collectible cufflinks and glasses whose frames are made from gilded forks, a control freak who had his contractor move the entire bar after it had been plumbed and wired, a jujitsu master of media manipulation, a voodoo doll for Foobooz skeptics—but what really matters is that he was born to talk to people across a bar.
Or born, at least, to talk to people across this particular, lovingly and painstakingly realized bar—because like anyone in the throes of creating something personal and special, Lêe has an inexhaustible capacity to talk about Hop Sing Laundromat itself. How he drove through 48 states in a convertible to visit every cocktail bar of note. How he sanded, and sanded, and sanded a giant crossbeam to remove ages of paint and expose the lustrous wood underneath for the fist time in who knows how long. How John Brown, a slave after whom Lêe named one drink, sent himself to free territory in a freight box. How the honoree of another cocktail became the first woman admitted to the Iowa bar in 1869, thus becoming the first female lawyer in the United States—only to then forsake actual practice in favor of teaching and (further) activism.
But it was by no means all HSL mythology. The man’s an attentive listener, too, giving you his undivided attention while he sips on blended fruit juices. He’s also generous with the story of his life, which featured childhood imprisonment in a Viet Cong political detention camp, and eventual escape by boat to an Indonesian refugee camp. (When, on this journey, workers at an American-operated oil derrick refused to shelter the families aboard, Lêe told us, one contingent nearly convinced the rest to sink the craft on purpose, forcing the oil men to either relent or watch them drown.)
Conversation flowed as freely as the liquor. Actually, more freely, because our drinking progressed at a measured, pleasantly grown-up pace. We notched up 11 drinks between the two of us, but that took almost four hours.
When we finally asked to settle up, another bartender brought us a bill listing only six drinks. We pointed out the mistake. He declined to recognize it as one, saying, “Whatever you order, we charge you for, but whatever we make for you is on the house.” That sounded more like a Zen koan than a sustainable retail policy, so I asked to talk to Lêe, who’d disappeared 10 or 15 minutes before. He, too, insisted that the bill was correct—even after I pointed out that the final drinks we had ordered from the menu weren’t on it.
It may be that Lêe had smoked me out at the beginning while glancing at my driver’s license (which doesn’t have the same name as my byline, but is close). I’ve heard that others have had gratis off-menu cocktails too, but five seems like a lot of them for one sitting, even if the three of us had struck up a pretty sympatico rapport.
Whatever the case, it all came out more or less as it should have with a corrective tip. And even if Lêe took a shine to my pal and me for reasons other than our native charm, there’s no faking his gift for gab, or his enthusiasm for the bar he’s created in which to exercise it.
It’s an enthusiasm that, despite my initial bristling at its hipsterish pose and its minutely controlled atmosphere, infected me completely.
Hop Sing Laundromat [Official Site]
Additional photography by Robert Neroni Photography