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Behind the scenes with Randy Thais, head bartender at SideDoor

As a lecturer at UC Irvine, Randy Thais breaks down Shakespeare and elaborate sonnets for his students. In the evenings, the Southern California native spends his time clarifying other things – cocktails and spirits, to be precise – for patrons of Corona del Mar’s SideDoor tavern.

Thais tended bars and poured in English pubs while earning a master’s of fine arts from England’s prestigious University of Cambridge. Upon his return to the States, Thais honed his craft cocktail skills. One of his latest creations is the Ugly Gentleman, a boozy rye cocktail imbued with burning maple wood smoke. “The Ugly Gentleman, that’s easily our best seller,” says Thais as he pushes back his thick, dark rimmed glasses and straightens his Paige-boy cap. “It is my opening move and my opus.” Coast caught up with Thais behind the bar. We learned how he discovered his love for poetry, when he started mixing cocktails and how he uses $10 Harry and David pears to make the best clarified rum punch.  
Coast: How did you start bartending?
Randy Thais: I hit a glass ceiling. I didn’t have a degree and without a degree you can never rise above a certain pay grade. So I went back to school even though I was already working as an electrical engineer. To do that I had to go to school during the daytime, which meant I had to find a night job.

At the time I read an OC Business Journal article on the Yard House. They interviewed one of the partners. He said, ‘There is no glass ceiling here. If you work hard enough you can become partner.’ So I worked my butt off. I also remembered they said that the partners had lunch at the Irvine Spectrum location three days a week. So I decided to work there as a food runner knowing that I would be in front of the owners. It was completely planned … The Yard House in 2003 was exceptionally busy back then. I went from no experience to working one of the busiest bars in Orange County. The volume of drinks at the time was crazy. Every bartender was averaging two hundred drinks a night.

Coast: How did you switch from electrical engineering to writing poetry?
RT: When I went to school to be an engineer you have to do a breadth of requirements. A little natural science or philosophy and some level of math, English, etcetera. My first semester there I was taking a literature class and we were going over Shakespeare. I had no idea how cerebral it was to put so much dense material into so little space. I remember it was the fourth or the fifth day and we had just unpacked “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” I ran to the counseling office and I changed my major to English and I never looked back. I ended with a degree in English, comparative literature and applied linguistics. I did my grad school at UCI thinking I wanted to teach. This has nothing to do with bartending … but now I’m a creative writing instructor, and I do lectures on Victorian literature mostly the romantic poets. But I was bartending the whole time. This is what I do.

Coast: Where did you hone your technique for preparing craft cocktails?
RT: I’ve always wanted to work the hot spots. I learned craft [cocktails] at Mesa … The people that work there are top notch. Noah Blöm from ARC, I took his spot. Koire Rogers was actually the one who told me about this spot at SideDoor.

Coast: What makes SideDoor special?
RT: There are lot of locals, but they have respect for the craft. I only work at places that are beholden the pre-Prohibition, speakeasy style cocktails. Now I get to work in a program where we get to do the most fun stuff in bartending. We get to be all cool and mad scientisty.

Coast: What spirit are you excited about?
RT: I like rye. I like the boozy stuff. The first three cocktails that I put on the menu were all rye-based. I love the spiciness. There are a lot of different flavors and characteristics. Sometimes it’s boozy, sometimes it’s sweet.

Coast: For aspiring cocktail geeks, what technique interests you now?
RT: I like the clarification process. That’s getting a lot of traction. Think: milk punches. We have a pumpkin spice milk punch that takes three days to make. You start with a cocktail that’s as dark as wood and then you mix it with boiled milk [infused] with cinnamon sticks, star anise, a little ginger powder, nutmeg, cloves, and royal Rivera pears. You know, those $10 pears that you get from Harry and David. We slice up six of those and throw them into the milk wash. You combine the cocktail with the milk wash and let it coagulate. The fat, when it boils, the molecules expand and they grab onto anything when they curdle it removes the impurities. It comes out totally clear.

Coast: How do you plan to differentiate SideDoor from other OC bars?
RT: I want to introduce people to the classics. I want to be known for the best Old Fashioned in town because it sounds so simple. If you get proven to do the classics right then people will trust you when you put pumpkin spice milk punch on the menu. We’re making really cool and eclectic cocktails. There are things that don’t seem like they would work but they do, if you have the wherewithal and keep trying.

Snacking Smarter
Toss those Space Age protein bars. Imlak’esh Organics ups the artisanal ante with its Charge boss Clusters. These raw, gluten-free snacks are made from cashews, cacao nibs and coconut blossom nectar. They look like granola bars and taste like loaded Rice Krispies treats. Available at Whole Foods. :: imlakeshorganics.com

Going Green
“You must learn the rules before you can break them,” says Take, the operations manager at SHUHARI Café. This sentiment is at the heart of the quaint matcha tearoom in Venice Beach. Owned by Maeda-en, an Irvine-based company that popularized green tea mochi ice cream and pioneered the authentic Japanese green tea import market, the café is the first matcha tearoom of its kind in the U.S. At SHUHARI, patrons sip traditional sencha and gyokuro teas brewed to order by trained tea masters. Americanized options include milky green tea lattes and hot chocolate infused with toasted soybean powder. “It’s like adding a protein boost to your cocoa,” says Take. While the hot drinks entice, the beverage not to miss is the new sparkling matcha spritzer flavored with invigorating yuzu, ginger or lemon. :: shuhari.com

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