From the East to West Coast—and nearly everywhere in between—Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) chefs are no strangers to America’s restaurants. They’ve been recognized for leading fine-dining kitchens, food trucks, small neighborhood establishments, fast-casual concepts and popular pop-ups. Whether they’re cooking food inspired by their own cultural backgrounds or riffing on Cajun or California cuisine, the awards and accolades keep pouring in.
Today, a growing number of AAPI-owned cocktail bars are garnering similar respect. A class of bartenders trained in Japanese bartending techniques—many of whom worked at New York City’s Angel’s Share in the East Village—have gone on to open their own spots. They’ve published books and won James Beard Awards. They’re mixing and shaking drinks that range from classic martinis to more creative drinks incorporating traditionally Asian ingredients like ube (purple yam) or White Rabbit candy (a milk-based soft candy).
From upscale speakeasy-inspired bars to more dive options, here’s where to raise a glass at some of the best AAPI-owned and operated bars in America.
Bar Leather Apron
An image of a frothy piña colada with a toothpick umbrella may come to mind when you think of sipping cocktails in an island destination like Hawaii. Put all those expectations aside when it comes to Bar Leather Apron. This recent James Beard finalist for Outstanding Bar is discreetly tucked into the mezzanine level of a sterile office building. Inside, co-owners Tom and Justin Park (who are not related) will just as happily serve you a textbook daiquiri made with local rum as they would a riff on an Old Fashioned infused with earthy matcha. Every drink is well thought out—just like the hand-stitched leather aprons on the bartenders.
Better Luck Tomorrow
The neon glow from Justin Yu and Bobby Heugel’s Better Luck Tomorrow speaks to the fun-and-playful menu at a spot that’s equal parts neighborhood bar and serious cocktail destination. Houstonians navigate their city’s sprawling freeways to nab a seat at the bar or an outdoor picnic table. There they can sip popular orders like the refreshing Sole Session with its mix of gin, apricot and lemon. Yu’s limited food menu includes a Steak Wednesday special, where a sirloin with French fries pairs well with a frozen gin (or vodka). It’s also worth noting that the bar’s name is a nod to the 2002 crime-drama film by director and producer Justin Lin, which follows a group of Asian American high schoolers.
Chef Ann Kim keeps striking gold in the Twin Cities, whether she’s opening yet another pizza concept or her ambitious restaurant Sooki & Mimi, which merges Latin American, Korean and Midwestern ingredients unlike any restaurant in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. The Basement Bar, located beneath the popular Uptown establishment, is another hit. Many of the cocktails, such as the Cilantro Sour or even a non-alcoholic mango drink, use fresh ingredients worthy of Kim’s food menu. The intimate and dimly-lit cocktail lounge, where a vintage turntable spins tunes all night long, feels like hanging out in a your coolest friend’s basement.
Double Chicken Please
New York City
Take a quick glance at Double Chicken Please’s drinks menu and it’s difficult to tell if you’re at a restaurant or a bar. Cold Pizza? Mango Sticky Rice? Japanese Cold Noodle? These are just a few of the innovative cocktails under the careful eyes of bartenders and general managers Chan and Faye Chen, whose bar was recently named the best in the country by North America’s 50 Best Bars Awards. From their Lower East Side cocktail den, the duo has redefined what a cocktail bar can be without feeling gimmicky—it’s ambitious yet fun, where you can sip a carefully made cocktail and use a bathroom with a soundtrack of hens clucking. And yes, there is food—naturally, the fried chicken sandwich is a must order dish.
New York City
Japanese bartending techniques are recognized around the world for a focus on precision as much as innovation. While Masahiro Urushido, a veteran of the NYC cocktail scene, helped employ such standards at this Big Apple favorite, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t know how to have some fun, too. The cocktails are serious, and the vibe is casual: A mouth-puckering amaretto sour balances ingredients like salted plum and egg whites, which shows off why Katana Kitten has been ranked among the World’s 50 Best Bars list. While the drink could be served at any serious bar, the downstairs could easily host a dance party all night long.
The Koji Club
Alyssa Mikiko DiPasquale’s years-long mission to show (and educate) the public that sake isn’t a beverage only meant for Japanese restaurants is on full display at this jewel box of a space in the Charles River Speedway. As Boston’s first sake bar, the Koji Club is a spot where you can drop in for a glass, pick up a bottle for dinner or stay for a workshop. The small-but-mighty bar snack menu includes Japanese snacks all the way up to caviar service. If you must, some nights the bar will allow patrons to order sushi from the nearby Café Sushi.
Phởcific Standard Time
Sisters Yenvy and Quynh Pham, who are in the running for a best restaurateur James Beard Award, put their stamp on Seattle’s dining scene when they reinvigorated their family’s long-running noodle shop Pho Bac. They’ve since opened a coffee shop selling banh mi and a cafe selling chicken rice. At their speakeasy, which is located above one of their family’s restaurants, the menu is unapologetically Vietnamese. Order a traditional egg coffee drink spiked with aquavit or a riff on dessert where coconut and basil seeds are mixed with soju. There’s even a small bowl of pho served as a chaser for a shot of Jameson that’s been fat washed with the beefy broth.
A team of industry vets, all Asian American, are behind a bar that started off as a tribute of sorts to Oakland’s Chinatown. The food menu highlights seasonal produce (it’s the Bay Area, after all) and many of the partners have fine-dining experience, but the cocktails are innovative and fun. One drink combines bourbon with flavors of White Rabbit, a popular and nostalgic candy for many Asian Americans. Baijiu is combined with other spirits and served in a panda mug. On any given visit, there’s bound to be a new cocktail inspired by any number of Asian countries, from Taiwan and Thailand to China and Japan.