Munchies

The Sober Bartender That Is Making One of New York's Most Inventive Cocktail Menus

How exactly does Sam Anderson, the talented beverage director at Mission Chinese Food, spend half his year abstaining from boozing while redefining the parameters of the traditional cocktail list?

by Alex Swerdloff
Jun 5 2015, 4:00pm

It's nearing 11 PM on a Saturday night. The slick, inky streets of the Lower East Side seem to breathe with the pulse of the city. The air is sweetly dank in a way that only New York in the spring or the corroded dumpster behind a Chinese buffet can be.

Passersby leer and cars honk. A tightly packed group of runners seems to have materialized out of nowhere. They cheer back at the irritated drivers. One particular vehicle, with a prominent sticker reading "Boricua Pride," comes to an abrupt halt just in time for a passenger to stick her upper body out of the backseat window and serenade the street with an impromptu rendition of Rihanna's "Bitch Better Have My Money."

All photos by the author

Sam Anderson, Mission Chinese's head bartender, suited up for the Midnight Marathon outside the restaurant. All photos by the author.

Tension and excitement are palpable. Several runners begin to flat-out sprint when they catch a glimpse of the looming Manhattan Bridge, a structure that will serve as both the starting line and a major component of the half-marathon they are headed for.

This event is known as the Midnight Half, and it's an unsanctioned race that takes place in the thick of the night through the streets of New York City. Runners create their own paths for 13 miles, so long as they show up at several selected checkpoints and do four bridge crossings—yes, four—along the way.

READ MORE: How Grandma's Secret Recipe Took Mission Chinese Food to the Next Level

Sam Anderson, the talented beverage director for Danny Bowien's Mission Chinese Food mini-empire, gracefully navigates through blurred fractals of runners to the starting line. Oh yeah, did I forget to mention he is here after working a full shift—some ten hours or so—at the restaurant, where he is redefining the parameters of the traditional cocktail list?

Anderson is clearly comfortable here among the community of runners, many of whom are friends and training partners. I, on the other hand, am in alien territory, trying desperately to keep up—mind you, the race has not even begun—as I swallow back the inevitable vomit that threatens to fill my cheeks. After all, I just drank four of Sam's insightful, genre-bending cocktails in the space of thirty brief minutes back at MCF.

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Anderson making a Phil Khallins bar side at Mission Chinese.

An hour before race time, I was sitting at one of Sam's two bar areas in the latest incarnation of Mission Chinese Food, where he spends most of his working hours. The restaurant, which got its beginnings in San Francisco, recently moved its New York branch to a location on East Broadway on the fringe of Chinatown, following a little problem with rodents (thanks to a nearby condo development site) in a prior location.

Despite the setback, the restaurant has been a huge hit since it opened in New York. It is notorious for its hip crowd, excruciatingly long lines, and what The New York Times refers to as its "psychedelic-Sichuan cuisine."

This is a restaurant that mixes metaphors and serves up the unexpected night after night. Their Mission Gose, which is brewed for MCF by Evil Twin Brewing, pays direct homage to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with its white tuxedo label. Chef Angela Dimayuga—the executive chef of the new location, whom we spoke with recently—chose the large art installation that looms above the heads of diners in the rear dining area and bar.

Phil-Khallins-drink

The Phil Khallins cocktail at Mission Chinese.

Hell, they even have a Twin Peaks-themed hallway complete with looping theme song. How many jaded hipsters with cinema studies majors do you think they lose back there weekly?

Kudos for this mélange of art and commerce goes to Bowien, Dimayuga, and, of course, the man behind the drinks: Sam Anderson.

Forget Tom Cruise. Sam Anderson is the kind of bartender movies were made for. The kind with more tattoos than there are bar stools, and even more stories than that. The kind who has worked for some of the industry's best and brightest, all while downing more drinks than you'll ever hope to be able to catch up to. But not so much anymore, it turns out.

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Anderson suits up for the race and leaves the restaurant.

As the runners take off, I am left in the dust, hoping I will be able to catch another glimpse of them somehow, somewhere, as they navigate through lower Manhattan and northwest Brooklyn to the finish line, back on the Lower East Side.

I have plenty of time to contemplate the odd disconnect between our archetypal concept of the "rock star bartender"—a Bacchanalian hedonist, a little sloppy, not too creative, but a fun-time guy who gets paid to party and look like he does so—and Sam Anderson, who has shown himself to be disciplined, driven, thoughtful, and all those buzzwords usually associated with being straight-edge, without the pretention and general douchebaggery.

I think back to the first drink Anderson served me, the one he is best known for: the Phil Khallins. Certainly this is evidence of a different kind of mind at work behind the bar. This drink, like so much else at Mission Chinese, combines a hyper-modern sensibility with a funky nostalgia. It is multicultural and offbeat. Served in a soup bowl like your favorite tom kha soup, it is a delicious slurry of gin, ginger, fried chilies, kaffir lime, and coconut. Nothing says Sussudio quite like Bangkok circa 1985.

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So, what kind of person thinks up a drink like this?

"I was raised in California but in a Fundamentalist Christian Cult—full-on, end-of-the-world, communal-living, Bible-banging, doorbell-ringers. I left home at 16," Anderson told me.

Not exactly what I was expecting.

But, he explains, "Being raised in a cult, I wanted to be subsumed in a city that would re-parent me and teach me about life. I wanted to be near commies, queers, artists, freaks and poets."

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Now Anderson is coming into focus, the man who created the instantly O.G. General Tso's Old Fashioned, which is infused with so much peanut flavor, it made me fantasize about the glorious day—no doubt to come soon—in which a suitable "toy" to find in a Cracker Jack box would be a mini-bottle of Hibiki.

"I moved to New York when I was 24, after getting my degree in poetry composition and film theory," Anderson says.

The Zen discipline of a long-distance runner, however, was not always his.

In the early days, working his way up from Freemans to Hotel Delmano in Williamsburg to bartending for several years for chef April Bloomfield and Ken Freeman, "I was notorious," Anderson says.

Sam-mission-chinese-crossing-finish-line

"I got as high and as wasted everyday as I could be possibly handle. Just taking it to the edge on the regs," he reports.

Until, this happened: "Suddenly, I lost someone very dear to me."

Two years ago, Anderson's life turned around: "When a friend [dies] or vanishes and you're not living in the present moment, it can have a dramatic effect. I quit smoking and started running to deal with grief and to confront the present moment, even when it's really shitty. I discovered a deep source inside myself."

Nowadays, during training season, Anderson runs six days a week and doesn't drink, except for the rare glass of Champagne to celebrate a race well done.

At work, "I taste everything, but spit—very common practices among sommeliers that many smart bartenders adhere to."

Anderson believes his abstemious lifestyle inures to both his benefit and that of his customers: "Things don't slip. The different lens is that I look for inspiration in places other than spirits or classic cocktails themselves."

"The Chinatown markets are an endless source of inspiration. You don't look for bottles of alcohol for inspiration but rather things that might be added to a drink, lines from a song, a memory from childhood, a fruit or vegetable you've never seen before," Anderson says. "Savory is a big part of this. Umami, salty, bitter vegetables, vinegar, yogurt, nut fats, numbing chilis, milk,"—these are all building blocks for Anderson.

Sure, he acknowledges there is a "stigma to the sober bartender." And for those who insist on buying him a drink, he will keep it to himself that he's actually downing a soda.

But Anderson is not afraid to admit that "it's part of my personal mission to provide a counterexample and to inspire folks to take care of themselves."

And that he does. As I meet up with him at the sidewalk-turned-finish line, Anderson reports, "I finished around 1:26, a time I'm happy enough with considering the course's difficulty."

Sounds damn good to me, but Anderson is a perfectionist. He hopes one day to finish at the top of this race, which draws great runners from all over the nation.

And, yes, although he started off with coconut water, I can report that Anderson also celebrated with a glass of Champagne. He later reported, though, that after throwing back the bubbly, "I felt like I was going to black out!"

sam-mission-chinese-drinking-coconut

It's not often that one gets to tell the bartender that he should slow down on the drinks.

In fact, what Sam Anderson is looking for is something more important than the smoky embrace of a mezcal shot. The man who serves up a quintessential but radically updated New York egg cream—this time made with perilla leaf and za'atar—has found "new reasons to be in the field: making other people's nights amazing... painting pictures with drinks... finding a way to express myself, express the spirit of the restaurant in a drink."

"It's always been my desire to have balance between doing a bar that does great cocktails, beer and wine and is fully in sync and complementary to food that is equally badass and elegant," Anderson says. "That synergy has been at the center of the thrill of working for Danny Bowien and Angela Dimayuga at Mission Chinese," he reports.

"I am exactly where I am supposed to be."