Photos: Gorgeous Revamped Chinatown Bar Offers Delicious Cocktails With Asian Flavors
Chinatown is really becoming a food and drink-lovers paradise: a once-shuttered bar is finally getting a new start.
General Lee's, which took over the Chinatown Central Plaza space once occupied by Mountain Bar, had its grand opening late November. The bar had a soft opening back in January, but now everything is finally set: the bar is open five days a week (previously it was three), they're now serving small bites and craft cocktails, and the gorgeous interior design is complete.
LAist recently visited the bar on a rainy Tuesday night. There's a startling difference between General Lee's and Mountain Bar, which was known in its heyday for throwing some all-out dance parties in rooms with red glowing lanterns in the mid-to-late aughts. General Lee's is still working on getting a permit that allows dancing; so for now, it's a place where you can lounge, hang out and listen to a DJ spinning indie tunes. But there are some ties to the past. Jay Lee, a general manager and partner of General Lee's, used to work at Mountain Bar, as well as one of the security guards we chatted with that night.
The interior design downstairs is beautiful with a blend of mid-century and vintage Chinese furniture. It has a leg up on design for sure from the original watering hole. It's now a cozy bar more than a dance spot: the sitting areas feel like you're in a living room with lamps and ornately-designed, wood-etched Chinese coffee tables. They complement the leaf and feather-patterned couches and arm chairs nearby. Leafy green plants dangle from the second floor of the dimly-lit bar, and everything emanates a green and yellowish glow from the lights.
Upstairs has also transformed. The dark, long room where rock bands and hip hop acts once performed now has a classy bar situated smack dab in the center. This equally moody room glows red, with Asian movie posters adorning the walls. There's even a light gold, L-shaped couch where the seats are plastic-wrapped—it's something that is nostalgic and familiar for some who grew up with Asian immigrant families. This room is open to guests during busier nights.
Their craft cocktails menu are variations on classic drinks, like Manhattans, martinis and old fashioneds but with Asian-inspired touches. Their tinctures and syrups are all made in-house, and they have unique ingredients like five-spice gomme, black sesame syrup, Szechuan Pepper tincture, shiso leaf-infused tequila blanco, green tea cordial, and oolong tea-infused sweet vermouth.
Our favorite libation we tried was the Lost Orient Sour, a smoky and savory take on a whiskey sour, using mezcal and sake. It's topped with a light egg white foam topped with a black sesame oil, mezcal spritz, and toasted black sesame seeds. The Lost Orient Sour is a perfectly chilled and balanced cocktail. Another one we sampled was the Old Chinatown—a solid stand-in for an old fashioned, though the addition of the five spice gomme doesn't seem to add anything new. We were hoping we'd get a stronger burst of flavor from that five spice. And while we enjoy the creativity and flavor profiles of the drinks, we can't help but cringe at some of the overly stereotypical type of cocktail names like "Zen Garden Negroni" or "Cherry Blossom Rising."
The recipes for their drinks come by way of well-regarded bartender Gez McAlpine of Vancouver, Canada's The Keefer Bar. He's been serving as a consultant on General Lee's cocktails on their last two menus. However, Garrett Mikell, the head bar manager, tells LAist that he'll be taking over on making the drink creations for their future menus. He describes their drinks as "medicinal," not so much in the actual medicinal sense, but more in the way that you'll leave feeling "somewhat healthy and refreshed," he says. We have to note that on their first menu, they even had a cocktail made with Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa, a traditional sweet Chinese herbal loquat syrup that's used as a remedy for sore throats and coughs. It's a flavor that reminds some folks (like this writer) of their childhood.
As for their food, which is catered by Blossom, a neighboring Vietnamese restaurant just a couple of doors down in the same plaza, they're serving mostly $5 small bites, finger foods like shrimp, pork and leek dumplings and oysters on the half shell. We sampled their most popular item, the Imperial Rolls, which although aren't anything out of the ordinary, they're made extremely well. The egg rolls are filled with chicken and shrimp, and deep-fried with an extra crispy rice paper covering—they're tasty and the flavor is haunting. Their Salt & Pepper Shrimp is a familiar Chinese cuisine dish, with large shrimp still in the shell, and sauteed with sichuan peppers, green onions, rice wine and garlic. If you're not one to shy away from peeling shrimp while chatting with your friends, then we'd recommend this one as well.
Mikell says that in the future, they'll be having some new drinks in the mix, including a sherry cocktail on draft. Lee adds that starting sometime in January, they'll have a special R&D night on Tuesdays, with guest bartenders coming in to whip up the drinks, and give discounts to folks who work in the service industry.
General Lee's is located at 475 Gin Ling Road, Chinatown, (213) 625-7500. It's open from Tuesdays through Saturdays, from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Food is available from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Drinks range from $6 to $12, and food is around $5.