In the six months I’ve lived here I’ve yet to visit the East Bay. This is despite the fact that it seems the moment I moved to San Francisco all of my friends that have been living here since college decided to pick up and move there. I always subscribed to the idea that the eastward locals on the other side of the Bay Bridge were the “Brooklyn” of San Francisco, but the journey is hardly the quick jaunt I’m used to between the Lower East Side and Williamsburg.
Regardless, when I found out a good friend of mine was going to become a father soon, I decided it was high time I make the journey. However, the condition I set was that we channel the livers of our younger selves and partake on a little bar crawl. What follows is a rough outline of the bars we visited as well as some great cocktail ideas I picked up on the way in case you rather sip your libations at home.
We started our crawl in Emeryville at a bar called Prizefighter. It was early so the place wasn’t packed, but it was easy to see that as the night went it would quickly fill up. I was impressed by how successfully they achieved their goal of trying to bringing high-quality craft cocktails to a much more casual environment than usual. I ordered the Ti Punch Julep and, though it wasn’t served in the traditional pewter cup, it was a delicious and refreshing way to start the evening.
At home I created my own spin on the traditional recipe for Ti Punch, a Caribbean classic common in the French speaking islands. I used the intensely aromatic Trois Rivieres Rhum Agricole “Cuvee de l’Ocean”, a white rhum distilled exclusively from sugarcane grown on the south coast of Martinique. The flavor of the rhum is incredibly round and lactic, with rich notes of coconut, banana and fresh grass. My spin on the Ti Punch involves adding a hefty pinch of Taiwanese oolong tea leaves to the simple syrup. In Taiwan there is a type of oolong called “Milk Oolong” that has intense notes of milk, peaches and flowers. These meld wonderfully with the already creamy quality of the Trois Rivieres rhum. Dare I call it the “Oolong Ti Punch”?
Our next stop was the quirky but extremely enjoyable spot called Honor Kitchen and Cocktails, also in Emeryville. Again, this establishment surprised me by offering top notch mixology in a homey neighborhood tavern setting. Food is usually an afterthought at places that take their cocktails seriously, but that was not the case here. However, the star of the show was, believe it or not, their White Russian which they call the “Lebowski”. Appropriate for a place that has the phrase “The Dude Abides” in lights out front. Their variation uses the traditional vodka and coffee liqueur, but swaps out the heavy cream for condensed coconut cream and adds a splash of cold brew. I liked the changes so much I made it exactly the same at home using Nikka Coffee Grain Vodka. No, neither the vodka or any of Nikka’s “Coffee Grain” spirits have the flavor of coffee, but the round spirit that barley creates works particularly well in this indulgent drink.
After satisfying our indulgence for the heavier end of the cocktail spectrum, it was decided we needed something a little more zesty and citrusy. We headed to Comal, a Mexican restaurant in Berkeley known to have particularly good cocktails. I had the margarita that came with variation of orange-scented agave. Something about the obvious orange flavor inspired me to experiment with another Mexican cocktail later in the week: the Cantarito. The lesser-known Cantarito is actually the forefather of the Paloma, everyone’s favorite spritzy grapefruit and tequila drink. The Cantarito gets the rest of citrus family in the game. I let deeper flavors of ruby red grapefruit soda and blood orange take the lead in my version with an additional splash of Verde Momento Mezcal. For my tequila I used the excellent Blanco from G4. Its slight peppery quality along with a natural smokiness added a nice edge to tart and bitter flavors of all the citrus.
Our last stop, and in my opinion the best, was East Bay Spice Co. Everything about this place, from the food, to the decor, to the execution of the drinks was on point. And of their drinks we had many. The overriding theme of everything here is something like India-meets-Mexico-meets-The Caribbean. This made for really unique and tasty cocktails, none of which could ever be easily made at home. However, the fusion of Indian and Caribbean flavors were interesting and compelled me to attempt to recreate them at home.
After a little research I came across the outstanding signature drink from Bimini Gin, a gin that takes its inspiration from the islands. The Bimini Special uses coconut water, angostura bitters and lime to round out the grassy and zest driven notes of the gin. It’s worth noting that this drink makes a great hair-of-the-dog cocktail with all those much needed electrolytes in the coconut water.
So, I learned a few things about this great city by crossing the bridge. Great gastronomy is not limited to our side of the bay. Great things are going on behind the bars throughout the East Bay in settings that are much less cramped and coiffed in San Francisco proper. However, if you rather just make your own bar crawl at home we’ve got you covered.