Bartender Chat: Stephen Caronna of Lei Low Talks Rum and Hemingway
Stephen Caronna of Lei Low makes a mean tiki drink.
Photo by Kaitlin Steinberg
Welcome to Eating...Our Words' Bartender Chat, in which we sit down with local bartenders and get to know their style. Whether they're slinging beers or mixing complex cocktails, bartenders are our buddies and confidants, but now we're turning the tables and the camera on them to find out what they're passionate about and what makes them some of Houston's best.
Until Lei Low opened at the very end of February, Houston didn't have a dedicated tiki bar. There were a few restaurants and cocktail bars with tiki drinks on the menu, but nothing like this. This place is legit.
The walls are covered with woven bamboo, and the back wall of the bar is filled with tiki mugs, most of them from owner Russell Thoede's private collection. Along with his wife, Elizabeth, Thoede built most of the place without the help of a designer or construction crew. It was his vision, and he made it with his own two hands--from the bamboo-lined walls to the sexy mermaid purse hooks under the bar.
Thoede is passionate about tiki culture, which he calls "anything exotic," and that passion has spilled over into his employees, who are more than willing to explain the ins and outs of the drinks on the menu or pontificate on why the tiki culture is so fun. I caught up with bartender Stephen Caronna to get his take on the tiki phenomenon and find out why he loves rum so much.
How long have you been bartending? Going on five years now. I started...I guess it depends. Do you consider pouring beer at Flying Saucer bartending? That would be my first time behind the bar. I worked at Hearsay downtown, I worked at Piola, and then I was at Downhouse for the last two years before I came here.
Why did you start bartending? I went back to school at U of H about four years ago, and I needed a job that was flexible and made decent money and was fun. I was already getting into cocktails, and I was a beer and wine nerd and a home brewer, so it seemed like a natural fit. Once I started, I realized I was pretty decent at it. And I've been enjoying it ever since.
How'd you get involved in Lei Low? I knew Russell (Thoede) vaguely from working at various restaurants and seeing him around town. I worked with him briefly at Down House, so I knew in advance about the project and was excited about it. Rum has always been kind of my specialty. I wanted to jump on the chance to learn something new and work under Russell, who's incredibly knowledgeable.
Why is rum your specialty? We're trying to change people's perceptions of it. Rum is delicious, and compared to other spirits, it's probably the most varied in terms of styles and flavors and regional differences. And the best rums are a fraction of the price of the best whiskeys. So you can drink probably the best rums in the world ridiculously cheaply--sometimes $20 a bottle. There's a lot of value, and it's different. And also, I get very bored of the whole "I'm a whiskey person." I want to do something different.
What would you be doing if you weren't bartending? Probably working in video. That's what I studied at U of H. I did photography and video. I worked on documentary films and did videography, directing and editing. I do photography shooting and editing, too.
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The magical Mai Tai at Lei Low.
Photo by Kaitlin Steinberg
A person walks into a bar and orders _______. He or she has just earned your undying admiration. If they come in here and order a daiquiri...or there's this thing called a Tea Punch. Neither of those are on the menu. But anybody who knows what they like impresses me. If you take an hour to decide what you want to drink, I usually joke around. You're not buying a car. It's not a big decision.
When you're working, where do you drink? I really like Bad News Bar downtown, and I really like Down House, so I still go there. And honestly, I come here to drink. Even when I'm not working. I mean, you don't want to get drunk at work, but they have these delicious drinks I can't get anywhere else.
What do you order? My favorite drink here is the Mai Tai, but my favorite drink of all time is a daiquiri. I often order daiquiris. At Bad News they'll get goofy and put Campari in it just for fun because they know me. But I like things that are so simple that when you put them together, they're more than the sum of their parts. Like, wow, these three things taste this good together. I like the simple stuff.
Do you have a favorite ingredient to use? Any rum or Mezcal. And if you can combine rum and Mezcal, which might seem counterintuitive, that would be really cool. That was my niche at Down House. The rum and Mezcal mix. Especially a funky, Jamaican rum and a smoky Mezcal. Somehow I was able to take things that were not very approachable on their own and make them come together.
What's one thing that you wish people understood about bartending that they might not? I wish that people would realize that there are quality bars now. We get a lot of people who say "I want a drink, but I don't want one that's sugary sweet." And you know, I get why they say that. But it's almost insulting when you put a lot of work into drinks and try to balance them and try to take almost a culinary approach to the drinks, and people just assume that you're going to be making sugary gross garbage. So I guess I just want to say look around when you go into a bar. If it looks like a quality bar, take their word for it and just order something.
But I think tiki drinks have gotten a bad rap for being overly sweet. And rightfully so. I used to call it my personal mission to change the reputation of rum one daiquiri at a time. What's funny is often when people try a proper daiquiri, they're like wow this doesn't resemble the corn syrup and fake red dye crap I've had in the past. That's one of the best things--to open someone's eyes. They say, "I don't like rum," then you give them a rum drink, and they like it all the sudden. We're kind of opening people's eyes I guess, if you want to get all weird and deep about it.
What's one of the weirdest things you've seen while working here? I try not to judge. People do all kinds of weird stuff. They put ice in their wine. They mix beer. Two people tried to get it on in our bathroom on the first night. I had to stop them. So that was weird. The cool thing I've noticed, though, is we offer shared drinks here, and I thought that people in Houston wouldn't like that, but they've really responded, and they're having fun drinking with these giant straws out of this giant bowl. I think that's really refreshing and cool to see people sharing and doing a communal thing.
Have you brought any strangers together with your shared drinks? Well the people who had sex in the bathroom met that night. So I think that's bringing people together...?
If you could have a drink with anyone living, dead or fictional, who would it be, and why? I think Hemingway would be a great person to drink with. He was a famous daiquiri lover and a cocktail enthusiast in general. And obviously he was a well-traveled, educated, interesting person. I'd probably drink a Hemingway daiquiri. I'd be like, "Check it out, I drink it just like you!"
Check out how to make Lei Low's most popular drink, the Mai Tai, in the video below.
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