Bar Napoli's Han Tran: Featured Bartender of the Week
Welcome to Girl Walks into a Bar, a weekly Gut Check feature that spotlights local bars and bartenders. This week Kelsey Whipple profiles Bar Napoli's Han Tran. Below is a Q&A with Tran, followed by the recipe for the Summer Breeze.
Han Tran is a welcome rarity. He's a spiritual bartender. He's also a multi-tasker: As the petite drinksmith stands behind the expansive bar at Bar Napoli (7754 Forsyth Boulevard, Clayton; 314-863-5731), he is telling Gut Check a story about a trip to the Grand Canyon, creating three drinks simultaneously, introducing himself to a new customer and cracking a joke with a regular. "When you're at the Grand Canyon and a part of all that beauty, you know there has to be some sort of creator," Tran says. "You see how small you are."
Inside the stately if not quite beautiful atmosphere of the bar and restaurant combination where he was worked for almost ten years, it would be easy to feel small in all the bustle. Tran, however, doesn't let you. He is a creative and outgoing bartender who enjoys the extra time it takes to concoct a new creation based on his customers' drinking preference. He seems equally happy to hand another woman a glass of water, but it's tough to tell behind a smile that never falters. If you have the good fortune to order a drink from Tran on the four nights he works weekly, be sure to start a conversation -- if he doesn't first. The twenty-year St. Louis native began his life in south Vietnam, and he has no end of stories to share to augment your own.
Describe your bartending style in three words. I'd describe it as just freestyle. I have no set style. I pretty much go with the situation. What you like is more important than what I like, and I remember that. The most important thing about being a bartender is that you see it all and you hear it all, but you don't remember it all. It's your customer's night, and if they have a good day or a bad day, all that matters is that they enjoy every moment that they're here. It's their time. I spend my time finding out what my regulars want and who they are. I see a lot of things, and there's so much for me to learn. The best thing about being a bartender is being on this side of the bar. I learn so much from everyone who comes in. When you share with someone, it will come right back to you. That's my philosophy.
My bar is the only bar in St. Louis where ... we really focus on the people who come here. Everybody can make a drink. It's not that hard. But not everyone can make a friend.
Girl walks into a bar, orders a ____. She just earned my undying admiration. Whiskey is usually impressive. If a girl comes in and knows what she wants in general, not even what brand, I'm good. Men are very specific here and know exactly what they like, but if a girl orders a Crown and coke I look at her like, "Oh, hello." Surprisingly, men order more fruity drinks here than women. They order a cosmo or a pommegranate martini or an apple martini, and I see them doing it. As long as you don't order a beer with a glass, I'm OK.
Most dumbass -- or strange -- drink anyone has ever asked for. Someone came in once and asked for "the French Connection." I said, "This is the US, and I have no idea what the French Connection is." It turns out it's Grand Marnier and cognac, and it was an interesting drink to make. It's nice when someone throws you a drink you've never heard of before, though it happens only rarely.
Other than your own bar, where do you go to get a good drink? And what do you have? I go to BB's on Broadway when I go out. It's cash only, and they have these amazing jazz and blues bands play in house. They're great. You can walk in in shorts and a T-shirt, or you can walk in in a tuxedo. You blend in. You can order a cheeseburger or a bowl of soup. They also hire local bands to come in and play and promote themselves. A lot of them start there and work their way up. When you're there, you can be yourself. That's what I want to be.
I'm a beer boy. I'm a simple man, and I can drink right out of the bottle. I drink Bud Light. At Napoli, it can be fun sometimes to drink with customers, but it's different. You have to refrain, so you can still give them all you've got the whole night. It's all about them, not about me.
If my friends and I simply must have a round of shots, what should they be? I always ask people what they like and then help them create something from there. For guys I will usually just serve Southern Comfort with lime, something straightforward, but for girls I try something like tangerine vodka and a splash of Red Bull. I sometimes give people the Han Bomb, which is really popular. It's Hypnotiq and Three Olives Cherry with a little Red Bull.
What's the most exciting or memorable event you've witnessed while tending bar? I don't share stories about my customers, but a lot of crazy things happen with the staff alone. Once I was teasing my boss, the owner here, and he got upset so her tried to chase me. I jumped right over the bar, and I said, "You can't catch me!" I'm a monkey like that.
Tell me one thing most people don't know about bartending. It sounds simple, but it's all about the people. My dad told me when I was eight years old that the day you stop learning is the day you die. I had no idea what he was talking about, but I do now. As a bartender, you learn so much from the people you talk to, and you have to remember that the whole thing is about them. You can have a shitty day, but you have got to smile. You can't bring that in here because you can't let the people know that part. It's not about the bartender. It's your job to be a true friend, and how many of them do you get?
(best in a 9-ounce glass)
2 ounces Bacardi Limon
a few drops of St. Germain liqueur
6.5 ounces club soda
chopped mint leaves