Q & A With Chop Suey's Adam Acuff: Craft Sake, Collaboration Beers + The Manhattan Project
Little Tokyo's historic Far East Café has for years been divided up into two establishments. One is L.A Weekly's most-improved craft beer bar of 2011, Far Bar, and the other is an underutilized restaurant and lounge next door called Chop Suey.
For the last few years, we admit we've skipped over even entering Chop Suey -- and who could blame us? Far Bar carries an impressive selection of domestic, Japanese and Belgian beers. Plus, we like feeling a little "New York" as we slip down the narrow brick alley adorned in white Christmas lights that leads to this Little Tokyo gem.
But for the last few months, Chop Suey's been quietly renovating, installing a new 18-seat bar, a cask system for real ales and -- thanks to new hire Adam Acuff -- a stellar craft cocktail program that will rival other bars like Steingarten L.A. and Seven Grand.
Though a more official grand opening will be planned for the future, the new bar (along with Acuff's new selection of craft sakes, whiskeys and mescals) will receive a low-key coming-out party tonight with its inaugural spirits-based event that includes a sampling of four different Manhattans dubbed the Manhattan Project, to be held in Chop Suey's new upstairs "tasting room."
We sat down with Acuff to talk about the new space, the new liquors and a special collaboration beer in the works with Eagle Rock Brewery. Read our interview after the jump.
Squid Ink: What's the plan once the new bar is officially opened?
Adam Acuff: We want to do a different tasting each week if we can. We have over 25 different craft sakes, 30 to 40 different craft beers, 40 Japanese beers and 20 Belgian beers. I'm buying up every bourbon and rye whiskey I can at this point as well as a number of liqueurs. We have daily special cocktails as well as a daily spirit flight. Our goal is to specialize in everything at the same time. We have lots and lots of beer and that's not slowing down at all. We're in the final phase of construction over here, but the last mile is the longest mile.
SI: How did you get into cocktails?
AA: I bartended at a brewpub in Ohio and when I moved out here, I was at Sonora Café and then I also worked at Blue Plams Brewhouse, so I've been involved in the craft beer scene for quite a while. I Worked at a margarita bar and got to know a lot about tequila. Prior to that, tequila was just something you slam down and it didn't have to be good. I tried a lot of tequilas out here and got to know a lot about that particular spirit. Then I got into whiskey, which is my favorite spirit. So we're a whiskey bar, among other things. We have some mescal and a lot of interesting liquors. We're definitely not a wine bar, but we do have a great craft wine selection, too. If we could get more Japanese whiskeys we'd get them, but they're still reeling so it's harder to get stuff. So far we have everything you can get distributed in the US.
SI: So how did you narrow all your whiskeys down to the four you'll be using at the Manhattan Project?
AA: This particular event we're doing everything with Heaven Hill Distillery. We plan on doing a different distillery or brewery or wine maker with every different tasting. I'll be making four different Manhattans with four different bitters and four different vermouths. I don't think I'm using any local bitters this time. I'm still actually figuring out what we're going to use. I've got 25-30 bitters at this point, so I gotta focus on those as well. Bitters are a lot of fun.
SI: How do you figure out which ones work?
AA: Trial and error--the old fashioned way. You open up the bottles and start tasting for the characters that you can bring out with different ingredients. You learn different things that you're able to pair together and slowly figure out what goes with what. After a while, you become fairly familiar with the different ingredients, but ultimately, it's trial and error. Sometimes you think it's going to be a great idea and maybe not. Turns out it doesn't taste as good as you imagined. The way we generally do it is I'll put together a few ideas and do a blind panel to get a consensus. Bring the chef in, bring down the owner, Jimmy [Smith, Far Bar's beer program manager] is usually involved and maybe a couple of our whiskey-drinking regulars and see what everyone likes.
SI: Are you going to be barrel-aging cocktails?
AA: Definitely. I just got three barrels from Hudson last week and I'm thinking I might even start as early as tomorrow. I actually have a 4th barrel that's pretty big, I'm not sure what to do with that. I want to do a barrel-aged old fashioned flight. We'll use a White Dog whiskey and maybe do a 3-month, 6-month and 9-month barrel age with a non-aged one to taste the differences. We also got a 55-gallon rye barrel from Templeton and we are going to be making a beer in it with Eagle Rock Brewery. I just took it over there yesterday and we're going to be doing a one-off Far Bar Templeton Rye collaboration beer.
SI: This is a lot of change in such a short amount of time. How is it going to be different from the other craft cocktail bars out there?
AA: The idea's been floating around in Don's head for a while and I've been looking to expand as well. I like that he's given me a lot of trust to run this thing. We've looked at other bars a little bit, but we like to add a little Asian touch to everything. So a lot of classic style cocktails with some sort of Asian flair. We have a smoked sesame julep which is quite interesting made with Yamazaki 12. We're doing a ginger and Benedictine drink made with Fighting Cock whiskey--that's one of my favorites.
SI: But you've already had a liquor license, right?
AA: Yeah, there's always been liquor, but now it's a little bit of a different feel. Over on the Far Bar side, there are bartenders with quite a following. People come in for Skyey [Chang] every week to have him make drinks, but his is a little different style. He makes Taiwanese cocktails -- a little sweeter, a little fruitier, but he's a pretty amazing bartender. People line up to watch him.
For more information about the Manhattan Project or to buy tickets, go to Brown Paper Tickets.
Follow Squid Ink at @LAWeeklyFood and check out our Facebook page.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Los Angeles dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.