Everyone’s favourite tequila basement has a secret ingredient: Rob Kariakin
He’s smart, he’s cool and he makes a killer margarita. Could Rob Kariakin actually be the perfect man? Maybe! Kariakin has been heading up the beverage programme at Los Sotano since they opened in 2017 – and it’s all thanks to an Uber driver.
Read on to meet the man behind the cocktails, and find out how this Los Angeles man ended up in Hong Kong, and why tequila will always hold a special place in his heart.
What’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened to you while working the bar?
Err… how family friendly do my answers have to be? Let’s stay (relatively) safe: I once worked in a club that had a door to the storeroom in the back corner by the bar. It was where you’d expect the toilet to be, so guests were constantly walking in and then immediately walking out again. One afternoon this veeeery drunk girl went in and didn’t come back out. So, I walked around the bar, opened the door, and there she was… squatted down, doing her business. But the worst part was she wasn’t alone: two meters above her on a stack of extra chairs was a busboy trying to get something from the top shelf, beside himself trying to get her to stop.
What inspired you to get behind the bar?
It was actually accidental: when I was at UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles] I lived in a co-op. The rent was lower, but you had to work a few hours a week. Most people got stuck in the kitchen, but somehow, I lucked into the Monday night shift at the secret pub in the basement. I was too young to legally drink alcohol (let alone sell it) but the entire bar was illegal, so that was the least of their worries!
How did an LA boy end up in Hong Kong?
Thanks to an Uber driver, of all things. Three years ago, when our owners decided to open Los Sotano, they spent two weeks in NY, Miami and LA looking for inspiration. On their way to the airport to fly back to HK, they got hungry and the Uber driver recommended they check out the cool Mexican spot where I worked. Fortunately, it was a Tuesday at 5:30, so I wasn’t the usual three-deep at the bar. We ended up talking for an hour and a half, and a few months later I was here.
What’s your specialty drink?
Well, margaritas are the obvious answer: half of our menu is different variations that change with the seasons. But secretly, it might actually be tiki drinks. We almost always have one tiki-inspired drink on the menu, I’ll just make it out of something unexpected: tequila, mezcal, banana-infused vodka, whatever.
Do you have a favourite drink on the menu at Los Sotano?
The current tiki drink, Buffalo Soldier: Buffalo Trace Bourbon, a Spanish liqueur called Licor 43, fresh lime and grapefruit, house made falernum, and the Colonel’s secret herbs and spices. It’s tropical without being overly sweet, and you’d never guess it was a whiskey cocktail if I didn’t tell you.
Have you always been a tequila fan?
Believe it or not, tequila was the first thing I got drunk on. You have to understand, California was Mexico until the 1840’s, and Mexican culture never stopped being a huge factor. Put it this way, in LA half of the radio stations are in Spanish. So, tequila (and tacos) are basically seen as a local thing.
What’s the best part of your job?
The creative aspect. We change most of our menu every season, ostensibly to take advantage of the fresh produce and tastes available then. But also, because I’d be bored out of my mind otherwise. If you walk in on a slow night (or even a not so slow one when I’m chasing an idea), chances are you’ll see me tinkering with cocktails for three, six, or even nine months into the future. And if you’re nice enough, I may even let you be my taste tester.
What’s the best way to make a barman your best friend?
Patience, trust, and generosity: wait your turn if we’re busy; listen to our suggestions if it looks like we know what we’re talking about; and express your thanks with a tip or a drink. Oh, and just generally don’t be a jerk.
What’s cool about the bar programme at Los Sotano?
We take our drinks seriously, but not ourselves. Hong Kong seems to largely divide into “cocktail cathedrals” where the drinks are amazing but the vibe is like a library, or really fun spots where the cocktails are all neon coloured sugar bombs, and you’re better off sticking with a beer. We’re here for when you want a good drink and a good time.
What’s the best piece of work advice you’ve ever received?
From my freshman roommate who was a few years older: “Drink until you get a nice buzz, and then just keep it right there.” Doesn’t sound directly work related, but I can’t tell you the number of co-workers I’ve had who could barely stand by the end of a shift. Look, we all got into this business because we enjoy alcohol, but you need to be able to do your job.
We have to ask – why is the bar called “Los Sotano” and not “Los Sotanos”?
We always figured we’d open more than one, each with the same soul but their own personality. So, we wanted a way to tie them together without doing the corporate thing and naming them all exactly the same. Collectively they’re Los Bars: each is “Los” followed by something about the location. The original here is in a basement, so Los Sotano. The one we opened in Bangkok a year ago is hidden behind a neon sign on the top floor of a building, so it’s Los Ático. Plus, the owners don’t speak Spanish and just thought it sounded cooler that way. Lol!
Basement, 21 D’Aguliar Street, Lan Kwai Fong; +852 2970 3779