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5 Essential San Francisco Chinatown Bars

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Guest post by Harrison Laver

Somebody told me to go see Mama the bartender at the Bow Bow in Chinatown, which were the most enticing words I had heard all week. That Friday I was downing shots of Patron with Mama amongst a sea of pistachio shells as beautifully terrible karaoke blared in the background. This was just one of my stops on the Chinatown bar loop, which is undoubtedly the wild west of the San Francisco bar scene. Chinatown will challenge your notions of what drinking and socializing is supposed to be like. Think you learned your lesson in college about not mixing different types of booze?  You’ll find yourself double fisting a Mai Tai and a Tsingtao. See a group you don’t imagine yourself talking to?  You’ll be best friends with the financial district guy in about 3 minutes. Just roll with it.

The Buddha Lounge

Buddha-Bar-SF-chinatown

(image from SF Weekly)

This is the perfect place to start off in Chinatown. Dimly lit and full of energy, the Buddha Lounge is on the corner of Grant and Washington and serves as the neighborhood watering hole. Quieter on the weeknights and jam packed on the weekends, the space is cozy and dotted with Tsingtao paper lanterns above. The sly weekend bartender is a middle-aged Chinese man who is a master at Liar’s Dice, and will play individual games with each group sitting at the bar. His harmony between shaking drink tins for martinis and shaking cups full of dice is nothing short of impressive. I recommend ordering a Lucky Buddha, which is a light beer in a green bottle shaped like the Buddha. Have a seat and enjoy the plethora of 2000’s hits blasting from the jukebox.

Li Po Lounge

In an establishment that looks like it was glued together by gold rush era buildings, Li Po is a mere 10 steps from the Buddha Lounge and promises authentic Chinese Mai Tai’s speedily blended by the sultry staff. Prepare to be faced with a rowdy crowd of tourists and locals alike who are intermingled in a drunk tranquility that can only be found in the depths of Chinatown.

Bow Bow Cocktail Lounge

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Photo of the shit show by the author

I usually approach this bar after I’ve had a few drinks, because it’s a certified shit show in there, in the best way possible.  On a Friday or Saturday night, it’s packed from end to end, and Mama the bartender is running the whole show.  Once inside, you play by Mama’s rules. She’s a forthright individual so if she see’s something that she doesn’t like, she’ll let it be known.  You can earn her respect by tipping well and buying her a shot of Patron, and buy yourself one while you’re at it. Bar snacks are prominent, karaoke is terrible and entertaining, and conversations seem to run seamlessly from one stranger to another. This isn’t the kind of place where you order a Moscow Mule or an Old Fashioned; Mama will politely refuse and make you a rum and coke instead.

Hawaii West

hawaii west

The less than scenic Hawaii West. (photo by author)

Just a couple blocks from the Bow Bow, Hawaii West is a little slice of drunk Hawaiian paradise. The extensive tropical decor makes a perfect setting to splurge on Hurricanes and cheap beer. A nice pool table in the front, tiki lamps everywhere, hula trim on all the straight edges, some Top 40 bangers coming from the jukebox…what more could you ask for? The bartenders are sweet Chinese women who take pride in their tropical cocktails, from a colorful hurricane to a nice daiquiri.

EZ5 Cocktails

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(image by Jonathan J. on yelp)

At this point, you’ve started at the Buddha, hopped to Li Po, strolled precariously into the Bow Bow, and skipped over to Hawaii West. Now you need a place to stumble into, and EZ5 is there for you.  Its comfy couches and club atmosphere will put you in a euphoric trance of joy, and solid drunkenness. Every surface seems to glow: the bar top, the tables, the giant bottles lining the front entrance; everything. This is the perfect place to take a breather and reflect on the night’s affairs.

So visit Chinatown for a night of strange adventure. You (probably) won’t regret it.

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Broke-Ass Stuart - Editor In Cheap

Broke-Ass Stuart - Editor In Cheap

I've been called "an Underground legend": SF Chronicle , "an SF cult hero": SF Bay Guardian, and "the chief of cheap": Time Out New York, but to those familiar with my work, I'm just "that douchebag who writes books about cheap stuff and drinks a lot".

  • Anne Marie Moore

    Does EZ still have the self regulated Karakoe machine? That was our after work office happy hour spot back in the day.