Jimmy Vongsouvanh works the shoe box-sized back bar of Rainbow Chinese, poised and dressed in a way that elevates the image of a young bartender. Vest-clad with a touch of hipster, he rocks a slicked-back '90s skater coiffure as he warmly greets patrons sidling up to the eight-seat bar. He wins them over with no forced laughter. His mild demeanor and perceptiveness speak to the attention he puts into mixing each drink.
"I felt like I didn't know anything," says Jimmy, referring to his first experience behind the bar at Rainbow. About the same time Jimmy was finding his way around the bar, North Star Cocktails: Johnny Michaels and the NorthStar Bartender's Guild, was released -- a collection of recipes created by bar legend Michaels and the local guild.
Jimmy's first flip through the book landed on a recipe of Michaels's named "But He Didn't and He Never Will." Jimmy recognized the name as lyrics from a song he knew, but shrugged it off. Paging through more recipes, he realized it was no coincidence. Michaels was naming drinks after lyrics from the Smiths.
Since Michaels was managing Rainbow's bar program "from afar" when Jimmy started, the two crossed paths and bonded over the Smiths. "I knew he was the one to take over [the bar]," says Michaels, and he took the 20-year-old under his wing.
Four years later, Jimmy carries on the legacy, creating Rainbow's signature cocktails with intriguing names and blends such as "The One That Got Away," made with citrus-gin, Campari, Pimm's, and vermouth.
When asked what makes a good cocktail, Jimmy gets personal.
"I think character and love. What makes a good cocktail has to do with talking to the customer and asking them specifically how they like it. They might have had the cocktail 100 times the same way, but they might like it a slightly different way. That's when I start making a cocktail with my own twist on it."
What's in your glass? Jimmy Vongsouvanh: The Boulevardier (at Rainbow)
The Boulevardier 2 ounces Champa Whisky (from Laos) 1 ounce Campari ½ ounce Cynar ½ ounce sweet vermouth 3 buds of clove 1 orange peel (as garnish)
Fill double-rocks glass with ice. Add whisky, Campari, Cynar, sweet vermouth, and cloves. Lightly stir. Add orange garnish.
Note: Champa Whisky is next-to-impossible to find in the states; Jimmy just brought this variety -- along with a slew of unique sprits -- back from his recent trip to Laos. He plans on delivering some of these finds to bartenders at his favorite local haunts, so be on the look out for some of these:
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