WITHIN the echo chamber of the local food websites, and the foodies who love them, there has been no topic more breathlessly anticipated, more hotly debated, more intricately dissected than Hop Sing Laundromat. For almost a year now, it has been amusing to watch the comments on sites like Yelp and FooBooz: When will Hop Sing Laundromat finally open? What will it possibly be like? Will Hop Sing Laundromat change our lives? One commenter on Yelp even quoted the philosopher Jean Jacques Rosseau: "Patience is bitter, but the fruit is sweet."
It has been like watching Waiting For Godot, For Dummies.
For the other 99 percent of the world outside this echo chamber, here are the basics: Hop Sing Laundromat is a totally-secretive-but-not-really cocktail bar in Chinatown at 10th and Race that opened a few weeks ago for "friends and family," then closed for a few weeks to tweak some things and may open again soon. Then again, maybe not.
As of last week, this note was posted on Hop Sing's website: "More than anyone else, we understand it is impossible for us to live up to the expectations you may have for our establishment due to the massive amount of media coverage and unprecedented standard which seems to have been set by everyone else but us." The note also quoted David Foster Wallace and offered "sincere apologies" for "our shortcomings."
At the center of the Hop Sing Laundromat puzzle is its owner - who only goes by the name Lê - a man who favors tailored suits and flashy cufflinks and glasses fashioned from two gold forks. Frankly, no matter what happens with his new bar, Lê has already proven himself a genius in the PR department, playing the local food media like a maestro.
Lê has been described as an "enigma" and "mysterious" and likened to Bruce Wayne and the Count of Monte Cristo. In fact, another Yelp review quotes from the Count of Alexander Dumas' novel: "What is the marvelous? That which we do not understand. What is that we really desire? That which we cannot obtain."
A nod to 'Bonanza'
One hesitates to describe Lê as "inscrutable," but after spending a little time with him recently, I believe he ironically embraces this stereotype. Simply consider the name of the bar. Baby boomers will likely get the reference that will fly over the head of younger hipsters: Hop Sing was the Cartwright family's cook on the TV western Bonanza, a 1960s Asian caricature who was always threatening to quit and start a laundromat.
"We set out to be an original bar in this city," Lê said. "This city hasn't had anything original in a long time. We did not set out to copy anybody else."
From the outside, at first glance, it seems like just another trendy speakeasy-style bar - no sign, dark, gated entrance, ring a bell to get in. But having been into Hop Sing for its soft opening and on a few subsequent visits, I would say there are subtle differences.
Lê is vague on just about everything: his work experience (worked "in restaurants in New York, in Chinatown"; end of story), his education (dropped out of an engineering program; no more information forthcoming) and even his name. ("I have a name, I'm just not telling you.") Ask him for an opening date, and he will demure. Ask him about the food, and he will tell you that it will be an offering of the finest takeout in Chinatown, but he is still "working with the restaurants" to "tweak the dishes" to his taste.
But while he may keep a lot of information close to the vest, one thing is clear: He is a spirits and cocktails geek. And I mean this in the best sense possible - it takes one to know one. Lê claims he made a 70-day, 33,000-mile road trip visiting every craft cocktail bar in America as research, and he says he is serious about "improving" the experience of high-end cocktails.
Tuned cocktail menu
When I visited Hop Sing - which had still not reopened since its brief soft opening - and I arrived to find Lê sitting at a table studying a copy of the 1930 classic Savoy Cocktail Book, fine-tuning his cocktail menu. As if to underscore the public's anticipation, someone rang the doorbell outside about every 10 minutes.
It's hard to put a finger on the decor exactly. Upscale old-Western bordello? The reception area has a shoeshine stand and a floor covered entirely in pennies. Inside, candelabras abound, the floor is "painted" with cabernet sauvignon and the bartop is made entirely of nickels.
Hop Sing's back bar is bigger than any I've ever seen, with dozens upon dozens of whiskeys, brandies, rums and tequilas. "I have 30 gins," Lê says. "Where else have you seen 30 gins?"
Lê also boasts of his well liquors, stocked with much higher quality and higher priced brands than most places, such as Red Breast 12-year-old Irish whiskey, Hibiki 12-year-old Japanese whiskey, Laphroaig Glenlivet 15-year-old scotch and El Dorado 15-year-old rum. And unlike some other speakeasies, he will have vodka.
So far, the drinks I've had have been amazing. One obvious difference with Lê's approach is that he's not relying on the whiskey-bitters-and-simple-syrup approach that's become commonplace. My favorite at the preview tasting was a combination of 15-year-old El Dorado rum and fresh-pressed grape juice - and nothing else. Another was a mix of cognac, blanc vermouth, lemon and mandarin orange juice. Another was a wild blend of applejack, rum, muddled strawberry, coconut liqueur, lime juice and a dash of hot Thai pepper.
There is definitely a Bruce-Wayne-bat-cave vibe to certain crazy innovations that Lê is rolling out. The first is a rolling ladder to accommodate such a large back bar - he invented a padded chute where bar-backs can slide bottles down to the bartender waiting below. Then there is a cart that can be loaded with liquor-filled shakers and wheeled over to the table where the drink will be finished. "All of my waiters are bartenders," Lê says. "They will shake the drink at your table."
The whole point of both inventions, according to Lê, is cutting the time it takes to get a drink in hand, something a lot of people complain about at bars where serious cocktails are meticulously crafted. "At every craft cocktail bar in America, on a Saturday night, your drink won't get to you for 25 minutes. In my bar, you will get your drink to your table in 10 minutes, even on a Saturday night." Ok, so it's still not a 30-second pint and a shot of Jameson, but what do you expect from a place with $12 cocktails?
Which I guess brings us to the next issue that the foodie websites will debate and dissect. Namely, how many fancy cocktail joints can Philadelphia support? Hop Sing's success or failure will soon enough answer that question.