At the Chef’s Table: Labyrinth Bar and Kitchen

Getting lost in the Labyrinth

by Alexander Quebec

Tucked along a quiet side street in downtown San Jose, you wouldn’t know that there are a string of interesting, small hole in the wall places. During the daytime, this sleepy little street is just like any other in Downtown. The street really comes alive, however, when the sun comes down.

Flanked by Splash Nightclub and Don Pedro’s is the recently opened Labyrinth Bar & Kitchen. Occupying the former Peking Palace restaurant, the team behind Labyrinth aims to make a statement on the nightlife scene that is San Jose.

With vintage old school incandescent light fixtures and reclaimed wood furniture, the place seems like more of a relaxed and casual place. The leather couches on the side, however, give an effortless vibe of sophisticated big city nightlife.

Since opening up a few months ago, Labyrinth has hosted smaller events that have had huge crowds for this small establishment as well as a live music event with YouTube sensation Lawrence Park. Given enough time, this place could become one of the great destinations for live entertainment in the city.

But what’s with the name? Everytime I think of Labyrinth, the classic 1980s adventure starring David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly comes to mind. As my interview with the team behind the name would show, however, there’s certainly an adventure minus the Jim Henson puppets.

What’s in a name?

One of Labyrinths signature cocktails

“When you hear Labyrinth, you think of something very mysterious, I think for us it goes beyond that, the idea of Labyrinth is getting lost in our concept, our food and our cocktails.” said Tony Vu after asking him about the name itself.

Vu is a relative newcomer to the restaurant and dining scene. “This is actually my first restaurant, I was fortune enough to partner up with a few guys who were already experienced in this field, who have built up a few bars throughout the Bay Area.”

As a frequent traveler to different locales across the country, Tony was inspired to create Labyrinth after feeling a bit “embarrassed” about coming from San Jose when it came to questions from others about the nightlife and bar scene and the lack of options many diners and nighttime revelers experience.

“When I’m walking the streets of Seattle, If you’re looking at the cocktail bar scene, there are blocks of them. I think San Jose as a city, we need to allow more places like that to grow here, something classy that the city can show off.”

Tony’s disappointment hits on a touchpoint that comes up often when one brings up the fact that San Jose, a major city in the United States, does not have a prolific nightlife and bar scene as much as cities like Austin or Seattle, which says something about the quality of life one can expect to have when it comes to after hours activities. Even nearby San Francisco, a city relatively smaller than San Jose in both population and area, has a scene that compels locals to visit the city by the bay for nighttime revelry in places such as Michelin rated Bar Agricole or it’s sister bar, Trou Normand. (To be fair, however, San Francisco has had both the capability and the spirit to maintain such a scene)

We talked a little about the cocktails themselves “If you check out our cocktails, it’s very detailed, our bitters are made in house, our syrups are made in house, there’s nowhere else here that does that. If you look at the techniques our bartenders use to fix up these cocktails, it’s the experience.”

Peter Bui is the in house expert on cocktails. I picked his brain on the cocktails here at Labyrinth

“Growing up in the 2000 era, there was long islands and tokyo teas and all these LC shots, and now we see

Hamachi spoons, Lisa N. via Yelp

a shift towards whiskey drinks. “ Bui said

So, what’s good on the menu?

“Whiskey has become very popular, me and my partner, we put a lot of time reading up on how to make the perfect whiskey drink. One of our popular drinks is the Old fashion, we like to make it the way that Charles Baker made in in 1980s, pre prohibition style, you make it with syrup, you make it with rye cocktail, and a pretty balance of bitters and citrus”

“Another one are the mules, we like to put a little twist in the mules, Japanese whiskey is coming up right now, we made two variations of the mules, one is the japanese whiskey with spiced pear and ginger beer, the other one is vodka with a coconut sake and some ginger beer.”

“Our last seasonal drink that we just took off the  was called the Tequila Mockingbird, thats a derivative of the margarita, made with tequila that was founded by a guy from the 88 company that’s made with kumquat syrup, fresh lime juice, as well as fresh lemon juice and syrup.”

As for what he prefers in his glass, Bui replies “I’m A big fan of sazeracs, I love the New Orleans style drinks, made with a rye whiskey or a sazerac rye with and a absinthe we source from San Francisco, we like to keep it local, some bitters and bits of orange zest.

He goes on to explain where they source their ingredients from “We source all of our raw materials from an herb company in San francisco, to make everything from tonic waters to bitters. It makes sense logically because we’re curious minded people, so we like to experiment a lot.”

Curiosity might kill the cat, but if done right, it can also lead to some amazing things. If the food is just as enticing as the drinks, we’re certainly in for a treat.

Meanwhile, in the kitchen…

Pork Belly Bao (my personal favorite from the menu). Lisa N. via yelp

Thomson “Tommy” Nguyen, the executive chef, is a seven year, self taught veteran of various kitchens around the South Bay such as Yuki Sushi in Willow Glen and Alexander’s Steakhouse. Upon meeting him, I was amazed at the level of energy and the positivity he gave off, a quality that culinarians of the most successful eateries around the world embody.

“Like yakitori, my mian cuisine would be Japanese. I’ve worked at a lot of sushi restaurants [called] izakaya, like a Japanese pub, trying to use more of those kind of ingredients, like Japanese influence, but more street food of California.” Nguyen replied on the kinds of food Labyrinth was serving. It’s evident in the menu I’m handed, the menu selection reflects his culinary experience with dishes such as The Hamachi Shots and Pandora’s Potatoes (baby pototoes accompanied by a delicious Aioli sauce, which I highly recommend, the Aioli is spicy, but the spiciness doesn’t linger for long and wear out it’s welcome)

As I was curious about his background, I asked him about it, but would have never expected what I was hearing “I actually started at the mall. My mom got me the job, she used to be the cashier across me at a restaurant at Valley Fair Mall, not the nice part, the little kiosk.”

“i Started there, learned at how to do the cutting, i sucked at it a lot. I used to be so nervous, so I practiced

Cupid’s Wings. Vicky H. via yelp

on getting better. After that I tried to go to culinary school, but one of my good buddies asked me if I wanted to work at Sushi Kai in Milpitas. I worked at Sushi Kai for a year, then went to Yuki Sushi.”

I was kind of curious how a self taught chef, much less a self taught professional, how would they know how to gauge how successful they are when you’re self taught? “It’s when you know you can do the job better than anyone else, you feel like “oh, I’m done with this position, I need to train someone to take this position…Everything you do, you get better at it if you keep cutting everyday, I would get faster, I’m gaining that skill.”

“I was working with old school, traditional chefs,” Vu said of his experience working in the various kitchens. “The chefs there don’t teach you, you have to watch them. They taught me a lot [through observation].”

Chef Nguyen’s experience, combined with grit and his determination, will certainly benefit this newly opened establishment. What remains to be seen, however, is how will the after hours crowd respond to the experience that Labyrinth provides.

Final thoughts

Going back to the last point about the nightlife scene, I asked Vu why one should pay a visit to Labyrinth

“It’s the experience. I think it’s about time, every big city around the world has a cocktail scene except for us. It’s time for the city to transition to something a bit more classy. Everybody knows, give me that Hennessy shot, that Patron shot. But to tell them to sit down and sip on this glass of cocktail and tell me how you feel and what you taste, I think San Jose’s new to something like this, a lot of people [here] haven’t had the opportunity to enjoy a really good cocktail.”

With a certain eagerness and determination in his voice, Vu dares to fight against the idea that San Jose’s nightlife scene cannot become better than what we have now. It’s often said that if you want to see change, you sometimes have to be that change you want to see, and Tony is certainly up to accepting that challenge. Every so often, the establishment needs to have someone take a stand and infuse some new blood into the system to keep it fresh and relevant.

From the experience from my visit and my talk with the team, Labyrinth might just be the infusion of blood the city needs to jumpstart its nightlife scene once more.

The Deets

Located on Post St in Downtown San Jose, Labyrinth is open Thursday through Saturday from 5PM to 1:30 AM and Sunday from 5PM to 12AM. Cash and major credit cards are accepted. Bring your ID’s as this place is 21+

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