Ah Sing Den. 1100 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78702
Visited 7/19/17 @ 9pm.
Maria Victoria. Mezcal, lime, toasted Thai pepper syrup, kumquat/orange, cilantro. $12.
My road to mezcal appreciation was a long one, with many detours. First of all, mezcal was not exactly commonly available until fairly recently, so I didn't have a lot of experience with it. Secondly, I had the typical "one too many tequila nights" superstition, and so the devil liquor and all its derivatives were demons to avoid. Third, I didn't have an appreciation for smoky flavored liquors until I took a trip to Scotland, where I learned that I actually enjoyed the peatier varieties of Scotch, which mezcal is somewhat similar to. So when you combine its recent availability, my willingness to let go of my hangover memories, and my newfound appreciation for stronger flavors, you have the perfect opportunity for a new drink to charm its way into my heart. While the kumquat was unfortunately not available this night, forcing them to substitute orange in its place, the rest of the drink really showed up. The lime enhanced the mezcal's smokiness, and the toasted Thai pepper syrup was exactly the right mix of spicy and sweet behind it. The cilantro wasn't actually in the drink at all, just perched on top of the ice for the floral bouquet, so if you're one of those people with a genetic/behavioral dislike for cilantro you can just pluck it out, no worries.
Ah Sing Den is far from the first "concept bar" I've encountered so far on this trek, but it got me thinking about the power of marketing, and how differently the two types of bar can appear to the casual customer. A year ago Ah Sing Den was East Side Show Room, a fancier Italian/Creole joint that I hardly ever went to. They still served craft cocktails, but it had a different attitude about it; less memorable except for the high prices. Now the same owners have opened this different concept and I found myself really digging what they have done. The interior is really nice, an example of the "opium den" style. I'm not sure why "opium den" has become a style - not only has essentially no one in Austin ever been to an opium den, I'm pretty sure that the real-life establishments where people take opium are not nearly so attractive and unsqualid as Ah Sing Den - but I guess the dim red lights and couches evoke an environment where you could do opium with a minimum of hassle, and they're hardly the only ones trying it on. I've heard that their food is good, but we didn't try any this time. The exterior section is even nicer than the interior, with some cool-looking red light lanterns, no two alike, and a lot of groovy 60s lounge music piped over the speakers. This would make for an excellent date spot (assuming, that is, that your date is into opium), but even just for cocktails it's a really classy joint. Amazing what some red lights and couches can do for the mood.