Kevin Kleman's favorite place to enjoy a cocktail is in The Woodlands; in his living room or backyard. While we're all probably not invited just yet, you can catch him stirring drinks in the Heights at newly opened, La Lucha.
Ask any bartender what his favorite drink is and watch as he struggles to pick a favorite child. For Kleman, it depends on the day it's been. But most likely he's sipping on a stirred Vesper; the cocktail made popular in the '50s by Bond. James Bond.
The St. Paul, Minnesota transplant made Houston his home three years ago after visiting his brother's family and new goddaughter. Within two weeks of the visit he had wrapped things up back home and began his drive South. After a life spent in the snow, Kleman was ready to make a change. "[Houston] is a major city with major opportunities." The melting pot metropolis felt like the perfect opportunity to expand his horizon.
Kleman's first job in Houston was bartending at State of Grace, where he also supervised the beverage program. Now, he'll do the same at La Lucha, one of the two fresh-faced restaurants from Ford Fry and executive chef Bobby Matos. (La Lucha connects to Superica by kitchen.)
In high school, Kleman left a job selling clothes at Hollister to work bussing tables at his friend's family restaurant. He remembers the bartender there, Larry Braginsky, as "the coolest guy in town." Not only did Braginsky know how to make every drink, more importantly, he knew how to take care of each, individual guest. When Braginksy taught him how to make his first drink, a Cosmopolitan, Kleman decided he wanted to be behind the bar. "I wanted to be the [bartender] that people were like, that's my guy."
Twelve years later his style is to cater to the person sitting across from him. "If you want bottles in the air, we can make that happen. If you want your drink as soon as possible because it's been a long day, we can make that happen, too." He says his most important tools are patience and understanding when to talk, listen or flat out leave a guest alone.
Walking into La Lucha feels comfortable. The Persian rugs, eclectic seating choices, wooden ceilings, and even the record player make it feel like you've somehow escaped to a classy ranch house for the weekend. The bar menu is carefully curated around Mezcal and bubbles selections; both complementary to oysters.
Kleman hopes to grow recognition for his creation, the "Buffalo Speedster." Interesting really, he's created a little niche in between the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned. Whereas the Old Fashioned sounds great on a bear skin run next to the fireplace, the Buffalo Speedster fills that Old Fashioned void on a patio in the summertime.
"The Buffalo Speedster"
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1/2 ounce Aperol
2 dashes Rhubarb Bitters
2 ounces Buffalo Trace Bourbon
Orange zest to garnish
Stir ingredients with ice for 18 Mississippi's. Strain into a glass with more ice and garnish with fresh orange zest. The Aperol works well with orange essence, and the rhubarb bitters is the only evidence of anything sweet. Kleman likes Buffalo Trace Bourbon because it isn't bourbon typical sweet.
This cocktail will make you hungry, which is perfect because there's oysters and fried chicken nearby.
Shot of Advice: Stay grounded. Always come back to your roots and keep in the back of your mind where you come from and what you're about. Don't let the rat race change you.