For a good part of my life, going to Chinatown was a chore my parents had to drag me to, either to shop for the week’s groceries or see family. It wasn’t until adulthood that I gained a newfound appreciation for what the neighborhood encompasses. From bustling shops to some of the best restaurants in the city, there’s a whole wonderland of Asian businesses to explore. But before Nine Bar opened this past summer, a cocktail bar was not among them.
Hidden away behind Moon Palace Express, a restaurant operated by Nine Bar co-owner Lily Wang’s parents, the lounge can be easy to miss. The only indicators I was in the right place was a sign outside bearing the Chinese characters for “Nine Bar” and a bouncer standing near the door. It’s akin to the experience at Blind Barber, where Wang’s co-partner Joe Briglio used to work. Once I stepped through the entrance, I was transported to a dim, moody speakeasy housed in the space that had previously been Moon Palace’s dining room.
The first thing I noticed was the bar itself. Bottles sit neatly displayed on shelves in front of exposed brick, with the top rows reserved for trinkets, like a Kaws BFF figure and lucky cat statue, and a sign imploring guests to support their local Chinatown. In the center of it all is an illuminated hand fan-shaped mirror. Across from the bar is a lounge furnished with sleek couches and a couple of low tables and stools. Beyond that is a DJ booth, which went unoccupied during my visit.
As a result of arriving at 7pm on a Saturday night, every seat in the house was predictably taken. This led to a bit of confusion because while Nine Bar offers waiter service for those at a table, it does not have a host (nor does it accept reservations). So my date and I stood awkwardly by the entrance, along with two other groups, trying to pinpoint which patrons were preparing to leave. And even when we thought we had secured a spot, we were still bested by a couple at the bar who beat us to the table by mere moments.
Once we finally snagged seats in the lounge after 20 minutes of discreet stalking, I was ready for a drink. The menu reflects the neighborhood by leaning Asian-ish and features sections dedicated to highballs and sakes. I opted to start with the Mai Tai, a strong and well-executed version of the tiki classic that has a nutty finish thanks to the addition of almond cookie orgeat syrup. But if you want something that’s both refreshing and spicy, go with the tequila- and passion fruit-based Paper Dragon. It gets its punch from Sichuan peppercorns.
On the other side of the spectrum, the Paradise Lost is a rich and clarified concoction made with Rhine Hall mango brandy, Novo Fogo cachaça, ube, pineapple and Thai coconut milk. Unlike the other drinks, I sipped on this one slowly to really savor its complex profile. For fans of old fashioneds, there are two choices: the Cheating Death and the Good Fortune, the latter using rice vodka, plum wine and barley to emulate the taste of whiskey.
Though there are plenty of great places nearby to grab a meal, Nine Bar chef Elvis Mom entices guests to stick around with a short but solid menu. The crab Rangoons are fried to crisp perfection and accompanied by a duck sauce. My lone wish is that there was more of that crab-filled cream cheese in each dumpling. Better yet were the chilled noodles, a nice mix of veggies, chili oil and spicy sesame sauce.
Instead of large entrees, Mom offers two handhelds. The chicken sandwich, almost a requisite nowadays, boasts a juicy grilled thigh topped with green papaya slaw and spicy mayo. It’s a commendable option but I much preferred the McKatsu–an impeccably fried pork cutlet sitting on a sesame seed bun and dressed with cheese, lettuce, pickled radish, hot mustard and spicy-sweet Bulldog sauce. Each bite left me wanting more. Take note, Golden Arches.
For dessert, the brûléed toast ended the evening on the sweetest note. Banana milk bread covered in palm sugar is torched to create a satisfyingly crunchy top layer and served with a drizzle of condensed coconut milk. To savor it for too long, though, would’ve been selfish; a line of people were eyeing the tables and eagerly awaiting our departure.
The vibe: A moody, Blade Runner-esque space with a long bar and a few couches and tables. Music is played at a reasonable decibel level so no shouting is necessary. You can start or end the night here.
The drinks: The classic Mai Tai, enhanced with almond cookie orgeat syrup, doesn’t disappoint. For something more original, the Paradise Lost is a complex sip that goes down smoothly.
The food: A lineup of Asian-inspired plates and sandwiches complements the cocktails, meaning there's no reason to leave. Order the cold sesame noodles for a spicy bite that doesn’t overwhelm. But no matter what, make sure to get the McKatsu, a fried pork sando packed with flavor.