Bartender Chat: Stephen Caronna of Lei Low Talks Rum and Hemingway
Welcome to Eating...Our Words' Bartender Chat, in which we sit down with local bartenders and get to know their style. Whether they're slinging beers or mixing complex cocktails, bartenders are our buddies and confidants, but now we're turning the tables and the camera on them to find out what they're passionate about and what makes them some of Houston's best.
Photo by Kaitlin Steinberg Stephen Caronna of Lei Low makes a mean tiki drink.
Until Lei Low opened at the very end of February, Houston didn't have a dedicated tiki bar. There were a few restaurants and cocktail bars with tiki drinks on the menu, but nothing like this. This place is legit.
The walls are covered with woven bamboo, and the back wall of the bar is filled with tiki mugs, most of them from owner Russell Thoede's private collection. Along with his wife, Elizabeth, Thoede built most of the place without the help of a designer or construction crew. It was his vision, and he made it with his own two hands--from the bamboo-lined walls to the sexy mermaid purse hooks under the bar.
Thoede is passionate about tiki culture, which he calls "anything exotic," and that passion has spilled over into his employees, who are more than willing to explain the ins and outs of the drinks on the menu or pontificate on why the tiki culture is so fun. I caught up with bartender Stephen Caronna to get his take on the tiki phenomenon and find out why he loves rum so much.
How long have you been bartending?
Going on five years now. I started...I guess it depends. Do you consider pouring beer at Flying Saucer bartending? That would be my first time behind the bar. I worked at Hearsay downtown, I worked at Piola, and then I was at Downhouse for the last two years before I came here.
Why did you start bartending?
I went back to school at U of H about four years ago, and I needed a job that was flexible and made decent money and was fun. I was already getting into cocktails, and I was a beer and wine nerd and a home brewer, so it seemed like a natural fit. Once I started, I realized I was pretty decent at it. And I've been enjoying it ever since.
How'd you get involved in Lei Low?
I knew Russell (Thoede) vaguely from working at various restaurants and seeing him around town. I worked with him briefly at Down House, so I knew in advance about the project and was excited about it. Rum has always been kind of my specialty. I wanted to jump on the chance to learn something new and work under Russell, who's incredibly knowledgeable.
Why is rum your specialty?
We're trying to change people's perceptions of it. Rum is delicious, and compared to other spirits, it's probably the most varied in terms of styles and flavors and regional differences. And the best rums are a fraction of the price of the best whiskeys. So you can drink probably the best rums in the world ridiculously cheaply--sometimes $20 a bottle. There's a lot of value, and it's different. And also, I get very bored of the whole "I'm a whiskey person." I want to do something different.
What would you be doing if you weren't bartending?
Probably working in video. That's what I studied at U of H. I did photography and video. I worked on documentary films and did videography, directing and editing. I do photography shooting and editing, too.
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