Every week, a Weekly staffer walks into a bar and asks the bartender to make us his or her favorite cocktail.
The place: Sambar, 5416 Sixth Ave. N.W., BALLARD.
The barkeep: Jay Kuehner.
My order is your favorite drink: "Oh I see. Well, what's your favorite drink?"
That's so not the point! You're a cheater! Jay acknowledges my accusation with a slightly sheepish dip of his head. "Well, I can't choose. You're gonna get a couple different options."
Whatever floats your boat, I guess, Jay. What's up first? "This one helps if you have fresh tomatoes," he begins, slicing into one of the aforementioned fruits. After a great deal of shaking, chopping, and assorted similar tasks, he presents me with Sangrita and tequila.
So, all that looked pretty complicated. What's actually in this? "Fresh mashed tomato, a little Tabasco, a dash of lime juice, some orange, a dash of cinnamon, a dash of cayenne, a dash of raspberry, some smoky paprika sometimes is really good, and unfermented grape juice." All of this is served in a shot glass with a shot of tequila. You sip the tequila, then sip the Sangrita to get the flavors blending. "I gave you a nice, minerally silver tequila, too," he says. "Cazadores Blanco."
Oh my. Well, let's see if all that work is worth it. After a sip, I'd say yes. The ingredients list sounds to me like Jay has given me the bastard child of a Bloody Mary, a Margarita, and a tequila shot, but that isn't quite how it tastes. The hot sauce/cayenne/paprika means it all makes my tongue tingle. There are so many flavors in this one and they all blend so well that it's hard to pin down any dominant one. Complicated, but a good choice as long as I don't have to make it.A+, Jay. Ready for round two. Watching him prepare this second drink, I see that this obsession with fresh ingredients, and lots of them, is something to be expected from Jay. The second drink, which has no name as of yet, includes raw ginger, Puerto Rican rum, ginger syrup, bitters, and is topped off with sparkling wine.
The third -- something he calls a Caracas, like the Venezuelan city -- ends up being the most interesting. It's a wedge of lime, one side dipped in rock sugar, the other in ground espresso. You chew it up a bit, take a shot of Venezuelan rum, then swallow the lime.
So why three drinks? "It's tough because there's so many different phases, you know? The Sangrita is a good quick beginning-of-the-night drink because ordinarily you'd have a whole pitcher of it set to go. The ginger-rum drink is a nice choice if you're going to sit for a while, and the Caracas is good at the end of the night."
So you look like you get a lot of people in here. "Oh yeah, and I make all the drinks, even for next door." (Sambar is attached to Le Gourmand restaurant.) That being said, it's worth noting that Le Gourmand and Sambar together are about the size of a postcard. Sambar alone is about the size of the postage stamp, so getting it busy isn't hard. Keeping things moving is.
Watching Jay, I can see he's used to the pace. He hasn't actually stood completely still since I walked in, but despite the crowds, and the fact that he shifts between treating me as an FBI investigator (very carefully) and an old pal (very amicably), he is always enthusiastic. I get the feeling enthusiasm is his M.O. and it's made him very popular. He seems to know eight out of ten people that walk in, and most of them seem to have come in at least partly to see Jay.
So what's the weirdest thing you've had to do as a bartender here? "I can think of a lot of dirty things, but I probably shouldn't tell you those. I may have to consult with my colleagues."
Oh no fair! I knew you were a cheater! But for your drink-mixing skills I'll let it slide.