Bartender Chat: Aaron Lara of Lillo & Ella Talks Titles and Tinctures

Categories: Bartender Chat

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Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg
Aaron Lara heads the bar at Lillo & Ella, but not for much longer...
If you're a frequent patron of Chinatown restaurants, you probably don't think of great cocktails when you think of Asian food. At Lillo & Ella, bar manager Aaron Lara is trying to change that.

Lillo & Ella opened in the Heights in May, making it one of the few Asian restaurants in that neighborhood. Owner Kevin Naderi describes it as pan-Asian, offering small dishes from across the continent and a curated cocktail list of classic drinks and new inventions.

After working with Lara at Haven, Naderi approached him about being the beverage director at Lillo & Ella. Lara is a laid-back guy, though. He doesn't want to be called beverage director or any other frou-frou name like "spirits supervisor."

"I'm not directing anything," he says modestly. "I'm the bar manager."

One of Lara's favorite drinks on the menu is the Zatoichi's Revenge. It's a funky name for a very smooth cocktail, and Lara explains that it's named for a Japanese mini-series. The central character is Zatoichi the blind Samurai. At first he seems harmless, but he's actually a deadly assassin. Like the blind swordsman, the drink goes down easy, but packs quite a punch and demonstrates Lara's mastery of obscure alcohol.

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Bartender Chat: Shafer Hall of Mongoose vs. Cobra on Shots and Beers and Redheads

Categories: Bartender Chat

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Photo by Kaitlin Steinberg
Stacy Gouty (left) and Shafer Hall show off the Red-Headed Stranger cocktail.
If you've ever been to Mongoose vs. Cobra, the funky beer bar across from Leon's in Midtown, you probably already know Shafer Hall. The affable redhead is there all the time, mixing cocktails, pouring beers and chatting with anyone with an interesting word to say.

Hall is a partner in the business along with owners Mike Sammons and Ian Rosenberg, so he has a vested interest in keeping the customers happy, which he does with his penchant for storytelling and mad mixing skills. Because MvsC is known for its craft beer selection, Hall is a fan of incorporating beer into cocktails, combining the traditional "shot and a beer" into one drink.

Oh, and if you've seen Mongoose vs. Cobra in the Yellow Pages while looking for a go-cart dealership, yeah...it's the same place. And it's Hall's fault if you're confused.

"Somehow we got put in the Yellow Pages as a go-cart dealership," Hall says, "so we get phone calls all the time that are like, 'Hey, could I buy an engine and not buy the go-cart?' Or 'Do you have wheels?' We just laugh and tell them we're a bar."

When he wonders aloud how the misidentification happened, a coworker gently reminds him that it was probably his own doing.

"There's an old drag racing rivalry between the snake and the mongoose," Hall says, recalling how it happened, "so I think I was talking about that on a radio show and said something like, 'Yeah, just tell everyone we sell go-carts!' I mean, it's cool. We haven't asked them to change it or anything.

Keep reading for more of Hall's unique perspectives on life and drinking.

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Bartender Chat: Kathy Brophy of Prego Talks Speed Bartending and People Pleasing

Categories: Bartender Chat

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Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg
Kathy Brophy is always eager to serve.
Quick, picture the rowdiest beach bar you've ever been in. Now, picture the exact opposite.

These are the two ends of the spectrum in which Kathy Brophy, bartender at Prego, has worked. She started out in clubs and bars on South Padre Island, and now she's at Prego, the subdued Italian restaurant in Rice Village, where she also runs the catering program.

Because she trained for high-volume bartending, though, Brophy is faster than your average cocktail creator. She works fast and talks fast and gets things done. When you meet her, it's easy to see how she can manage to keep on top of both catering and bartending--she's moving a mile a minute.

In her time at Prego, she's become known not only for speed, but also for mixing a darn good drink. The menu is mostly fairly classic cocktails, but Brophy makes a lemon drop that will make your lips pucker and cause you to lean back a little in your chair and relax. And that's exactly what Brophy wants. You relax; She'll keep mixing as quick as possible.

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Bartender Chat: Kimberly Paul of Osteria Mazzantini gets Witchy

Categories: Bartender Chat

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Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg
Kimberly Paul of Osteria Mazzantini mixes up a mean brew.
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 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.

Kimberly Paul has been bartending long enough that she no longer has any misconceptions about the job. She's chill and personable, with a bit of a rocker vibe. She's dressed in all black, and she has maroon-ish hair and a nose ring. She's seen it all in the crazy bars and clubs of her past.

Now she's content to serve quality cocktails and wine at Osteria Mazzantini, while still offering her unique brand of badass to customers who might not be expecting such creativity from an Italian restaurant.

In honor of Mazzantini's new spring menu, which features bright citrus and homemade vinegar-based shrubs of Paul's invention, she's teaching us how to make her new favorite cocktail, the Sun of a Witch. It's prepared with Liquore Strega, so named because the town in Italy where it's produced has long been thought of as a hub for witchcraft. To Paul, that just makes it even better.

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Bartender Chat: Sean Beck of Caracol on Keeping Things Fresh and Seasonal

Categories: Bartender Chat

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Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg
Sean Beck at the bar at Caracol.
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 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.

Sean Beck has been at this for a while. He started as a server at Backstreet Cafe nearly two decades ago, then worked his way up to becoming a sommelier and the beverage director of all three of Tracy Vaught's and Hugo Ortega's restaurants: Backstreet Cafe, Hugo's and Caracol.

Today, he divides his time between the three, stopping by all of them on any given day and working behind the bar or training employees. When we meet to talk about the drinks at Caracol, he's already been to the other two restaurants, and he has plans to return to Hugo's again before his day is over.

Unlike many bartenders who are all about the creativity of crafting new drinks, Beck takes an intellectual approach to his endeavors, particularly where wine is concerned.

"Wine has always appealed to me because it's the study of history, time, environment, personality, and to a certain extent, English, because you really learn the vocabulary of wine as you're studying it," explains Beck, a former English and History scholar.

He loves taking his knowledge of all aspects of drinking and spreading it around--whether that's through training new employees or having a chat with a curious customer at the restaurant.

"The goal is always to raise the bar for what we do and raise the bar for what Houston does," Beck says. "Any time we can be an inspiration, that's great."

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Bartender Chat: Stephen Caronna of Lei Low Talks Rum and Hemingway

Categories: Bartender Chat

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Photo by Kaitlin Steinberg
Stephen Caronna of Lei Low makes a mean tiki drink.
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.

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.

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Bartender Chat: Gratifi Gets a Restaurant Impossible Makover

Categories: Bartender Chat

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Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg
Craig Mickle pours a drink in the new and improved Gratifi.
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.

This time last year, Gratifi Kitchen + Bar wasn't doing too well, and owner Kevin Strickland will be the first to tell you.

"A year ago, I changed the name," Strickland explains. "I was done with Ziggy's Healthy Grill. We changed the name and the menu, and it just wasn't happening. Making change here was so difficult."

Trying to keep the flailing restaurant running put Strickland in debt -- majorly, as he admits on the latest episode of the Food Network's Restaurant Impossible, which aired this past Wednesday. If you missed it, it's airing again Monday at 1 p.m. and the following Wednesday at 6 p.m.

Sad, tired and frustrated, Strickland applied to be on the restaurant makeover show, which ended up coming to Houston to give Gratifi a hand back in January.

"It was more than I expected," Strickland admits. "I expected it to be intense, and it was more so. The part I didn't take into account was that they literally threw me out. I couldn't come into the restaurant. It was very disorienting. So I hovered."

Strickland says even his hovering was an issue, as he was constantly being yelled at by producers for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He expected the show's zero-tolerance host, Robert Irvine, to be difficult, but he hadn't anticipated so much yelling from the producers.

"You do feel exploited," Strickland says. "Here's the kicker, though: When you watch TV shows like the Real Housewives, you always think, why do those people do it? Why would you always want to be caught saying such stupid things? And now I understand it. You get used to the attention. For three days, I was the center of the universe. After they left, I was like, what about me? Now I understand. You get sucked into that."

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Bartender Chat: Alex Gilbert of Grand Prize and The Honeymoon (Coming Soon)

Categories: Bartender Chat

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Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg
Don't ask him to mix up something crazy and creative. He's all about the classics.
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 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.

Alex Gilbert is really excited about his new job. Later this spring, he'll be moving from his post as a bartender at Grand Prize to a new cafe/bar called The Honeymoon, located on the rapidly evolving block of 300 Main downtown.

It's a partnership between Brad Moore and Ryan Rouse (of Bad News Bar, Grand Prize and Goro & Gun) and the folks behind Boomtown Coffee, Matt Toomey and Charlotte Mitchell. The idea is to create a New Orleans vibe by combining a coffee shop with a bistro/cafe and a bar. The space will be NOLA-inspired, and judging by the awesome look of Goro & Gun and Bad News Bar (you're okay, too, Grand Prize), it should be a pretty cool space in which to eat and drink the day away.

Gilbert has been brushing up on his classic New Orleans cocktails in preparation for the move. He's been working on perfecting his Sazerac, often thought of as the oldest cocktail in America. As of 2008, it's also the official cocktail of Louisiana.

In case you're wondering, Texas doesn't have an official cocktail. We don't even have an official beverage. But that's neither here nor there.

Part-time musician Gilbert is looking forward to the move downtown and the opportunity to flex his classic cocktail skills. Though if you ask him what he wants to drink, he'll probably just order a beer.

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Bartender Chat: Christa "Monster" Havican of Boheme

Categories: Bartender Chat

Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg
Christa Monster mixes drinks for a living, but she also paints and bakes a mean pie.
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 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.

Boheme is gearing up for a Chinese Lantern Festival, traditionally the end of the Lunar New Year celebrations. The official end of the Lunar New Year fell on February 15, but Boheme is drawing the party out just a little longer with the Lantern Festival, which will take place on February 21, beginning at 4 p.m.

For the celebration, bartender Christa Havican has invented two cocktails that use baijiu, a Chinese spirit imported and marketed by a Houston company under the name Byejoe. The spirit, made from red sorghum, is the most widely consumed liquor in the world, and Byejoe was the first company to bring it to the United States. So it's pretty special.

During the Chinese Lantern Festival at Boheme, there will be entertainment, food and two special cocktails featuring Byejoe Red, an 80-proof highly refined baijiu, and Byejoe Dragonfire, which features lychee and chile flavors.

Check out our interview with Havican, as well as her recipe for a Lucky Little Star cocktail featuring Byejoe Red.

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Bartender Chat: Tommy Samson of Lowbrow

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Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg
Tommy Samson loves you that much.
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 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.

When Lowbrow opened in October, people touted it as a new Montrose neighborhood bar, and that's essentially what it is, though I've heard the intent was to create more of an eatery than a drinkery. The food is quite wonderful, but the ample porch and great cocktail menu has led most to consider it a bar first and a restaurant second.

Adding to the bar reputation are the creative and chill bartenders who hold down the fort every evening, mixing drinks and cracking open many a Lone Star for the hipster clientele. Tommy Samson ("Samson like you like to keep your swimming pool...no P in there.") is one of those relaxed guys behind the bar who's just as comfortable making unique cocktails as he is serving up a shot and a beer.

Here, Samson makes us an Unusual Mule cocktail and chats with us about art, classic cocktails and falling in love with Houston.

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