On an early evening in Steep’s courtyard in Chinatown’s Mandarin Plaza, the atmosphere is lively but not raucous. Diners chat while sipping on cocktails made with tea-infused spirits and snacking on Asian bar bites like dried shiitake mushrooms and crispy sakura shrimp. Music plays softly as waiters deliver wooden snack platters to tables encircled by raised box planters and red lanterns.
The low-tempo vibe was created as an extension of the Chinese teahouse Steep, which opened in 2019. Steep isn’t the kind of place that serves boba. Instead, folks participate in a relaxed kung fu tea ceremony, brewing leaves in elegant Chinese teapots at their tables, and grab a quick bite to eat. During the day, Chinatown visitors often wander into the plaza to check out surrounding restaurants, like chef Wes Avila’s Angry Egret Dinette and the 50-year-old Chinese Friends Restaurant until it closed in August.
Steep After Dark or SAD (the acronym is a tongue-in-cheek nod to happy hour) was initially launched as a pandemic pop-up by Steep’s owners Samuel Wang and Lydia Lin in August 2020. Guest chefs like Shawn Pham (previously of Ototo and Yangban Society) created dishes like a Vietnamese chicken salad and grilled skewers over Japanese binchotan charcoal, while Chinatown bar General Lee’s head bartender Philip Ly made tea-based mocktails. It became a permanent nighttime fixture in summer 2022 when a liquor license was secured. While tea-infused cocktails appear on some bar menus around town, including at the now-closed In Sheep’s Clothing, SAD’s dedicated menu is like no other in Los Angeles right now.
“We really wanted the space to be used for socializing,” says Wang. “Now people can bring their friends over to sit and talk over drinks — with no loud music — just like how our tea shop is during the day. But instead of drinking tea, you’re drinking alcohol.” Lin adds, “It’s a continuation of slow living to slow drinking.”
Earlier this year, Wang traveled back to his hometown of Taipei, Taiwan, to research cocktails for SAD’s bar program. He found that almost every bar served a tea-based cocktail. The concept of tea cocktails folded into Lin and Wang’s desire to create a space for alcohol consumption but without a party-like atmosphere. Lin, who is Cantonese and hails from Guangzhou, China, says they’re trying to dispel the misconception that Chinese drinking culture is excessive by showcasing lighter cocktails in a more relaxed environment. Lin says that traditional Chinese drinking culture is something more akin to hanging out with friends over tea: “We actually just have a couple of drinks and some snacks, and sit and have a conversation.”
The cocktail program is helmed by head bartender Huy Pham, who previously worked as a whiskey curator at Bar Jackalope, the speakeasy whiskey lounge at Seven Grand in Downtown. Pham cold brews four spirits using the same variety of tea leaves the shop brews during the day. On the menu is a black tea whiskey, oolong rum, pu’erh tequila, and chrysanthemum vodka. These tea-infused spirits form the base of the cocktails, and no other tea is mixed into the drinks.
Guests can get classics like an Old Fashioned, whiskey sour, Tom Collins, or highball, but the most inventive drinks are SAD’s original creations. The Far Eastside is made with chrysanthemum vodka, along with cucumber, sesame oil, lime, and simple syrup. Lin and Wang liken it to a liquid form of the cucumber salad one might find in a Chinese restaurant. Pham found inspiration for the drink while traveling to New York and discovering a sesame oil-tinged cocktail at Double Chicken Please. “Our Far Eastside cocktail speaks a lot to what we want to do, which is use Asian ingredients that aren’t always seen in cocktails,” says Wang.
The River Delta is Pham’s version of a tiki drink made with Southeast Asian flavors. It’s a mixture of oolong rum, mango liqueur, and coconut cream. Also worth noting is the Gold Flake, which pairs black tea whiskey with lime and Sichuan peppercorn syrup.
While Lin says Steep is first and foremost a teahouse, the food menu contains a number of creations that speak to the inventiveness of the team. She herself works in the legal field by day, and loves cooking and hosting dinner parties in her free time. Her passion has expanded into SAD’s evening xia jiu cai, or small bites menu. She’s curated an umami snack platter — with the aforementioned dehydrated mushrooms and shrimp — and a vegan version, with items like marinated bean curd and dried fruits. “In Chinese culture, a [tiny] snack always goes along with [a sip of] tea and liquor,” Lin says. “Usually, there’s a mixture of sweet and savory items.”
For a more substantial meal, the menu includes Wang’s family recipe for braised pork over rice with marinated egg and pickled daikon. The bowl is topped with shaved black truffles from Italy. Lin updated a cold dish of qianlong cabbage with shredded chicken and fried garlic to go along with the mustard-dressed napa cabbage. The result is a refreshing and creamy salad. The only dish that utilizes tea in the recipe is Lin’s silken tofu that swims in an oolong dashi and is topped with soy-marinated ikura.
The team is in the midst of researching and developing new drinks and food items for the winter season, with hopes of bringing in guest chefs and bartenders once a month. They’re currently experimenting with infusing spirits with ceremonial grade tea, and incorporating more tea into savory foods.
Steep is a part of a recent influx of restaurant and shop owners in Chinatown — like Pearl River Deli and Sesame LA — operating in a neighborhood that is quickly transforming. In recent years, Chinatown has been experiencing rapid gentrification and changing demographics. The neighborhood’s median income is almost $23,000, according to the 2008 U.S. Census, while a luxury studio at Jia Apartments on Broadway costs over $2,000 per month to rent.
Cognizant of Chinatown’s changing dynamics, Lin and Wang give back to the community in several ways. Wang, who is a graphic designer, published a Chinatown guidebook called Chart in August that highlights new and legacy businesses as a way to increase foot traffic to the neighborhood; the book contains both English and Chinese descriptions. The book’s profits are donated to the arts program at Chinatown’s Castelar Elementary School and East Wind Foundation, a nonprofit that helps preserve Chinese cultural heritage among local youth. In March 2021, Steep organized a charity sale in Mandarin Plaza and raised $18,000 for nonprofits Stop AAPI Hate and Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California.
“What we want to do is keep [SAD] very Asian American to continue the synergy of the Asian American culture to get people together,” Wang says. To that end, it seems like they’re well on their way.
Steep After Dark takes place from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.