Among the world’s most notable Mai Tais is the one at Li Po Lounge in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Though notorious is a more apt description, driven by an appearance on Anthony Bourdain’s TV show and the late celebrity chef’s declaration that the cocktail was “lethal.” The dive bar’s iconic neon sign is also a draw for the venue. The Chinese Mai Tai is a cult favorite or rite of passage, or maybe a combination of both.
Calling this the world’s best Chinese Mai Tai is a backhanded compliment, since Chinese Mai Tais aren’t really a subgenre and being the best in a dead end of an evolutionary tree still doesn’t mean the cocktail is necessarily good. The cocktail’s ingredients have shifted due to the supply of spirits, hence the red marker covering up original brands on the sign behind the bar. But it’s a mix of dark, light, and 151 rums, pineapple, and Chinese Liqueur. We did see these being built using some sort of batched liquor along with Mr & Mrs T. Mai Tai Mix and Pineapple Juice – very freely poured into a blender with ice and flash blended for 5-10 seconds.
The Chinese liqueur used is called Ng Ka Py, a Sorghum-based spirit that is bottled at 48% ABV complete with strong fruit peel and plum notes. It’s the cornerstone ingredient in the cocktail and can be quite divisive. Its a strong flavor with a really long finish, but it may not be pleasant for many including this writer.
Is it a Mai Tai? Well, the Mai Tai Mix kind of says yes. But the flavor profile isn’t like any Mai Tai you’ve ever had before.
When we visited Li Po on a Saturday mid-afternoon the place was packed, and they were selling plenty of the Chinese Mai Tais along with Li Po’s set of potent cocktails and beer. We found a couch and ordered the round of drinks at the bar where the bartender prepared cocktails, took money, and cleared stations. She even provided crowd control, allowing a couple who had been waiting to sit at recently vacated bar stools in lieu of guests who had recently entered the venue. If your Chinese grandmother was running a bar, this was the vibe.
Li Po remains a San Francisco institution that tourists and locals should seek out, and their Chinese Mai Tai is a must try… at least once.