Whiskey Soda Lounge
115 Columbia Street, Columbia Street Waterfront District
I took a seat at the bar. Tables line the wood-paneled walls here, tables and booths where you can sit under drooping strands of colored Christmas lights and kitschy signs that say things like “White Cock”—things that aren’t supposed to make you laugh so much as smirk. But because I was alone, I sat at the bar, which is small and L-shaped, with room for eight or so stools. A man and a woman—a couple—were already there, and we were close enough that I could listen in on their conversation, which was good because that was what I’d wanted. I hadn’t brought a book.
Whiskey Soda Lounge is a bar/lounge run by the team behind Pok Pok Ny, and it functions as a sort of holding pen for all the people who used to have nowhere else to go on this once desolate, still pretty empty stretch of Columbia Street while they waited for a table at the in-demand restaurant. The drinks menu at both places is pretty much identical, but the food on offer doesn’t overlap much (except for Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings), so Whiskey Soda Lounge feels less like a stopping off point and more like a destination—albeit one with a decorating scheme that mixes old-school Brooklyn social club with 70s basement rec room.
And much like what’s on offer in many a basement rec room, there’re only a couple of beers on tap (Evil Twin Low Life pilsner and a rotating selection) and a small selection of bottled beers, mostly from Asia, including Singha, Saigon, and Beer Lao. Plus soda. The soda, though, is made in-house, a mixture of seltzer and Pok Pok’s flavored drinking vinegars, many of which are also included in the mixed drinks, like the tart and refreshing Apple Gin Rickey, featuring (obviously) apple drinking vinegar.
“What is it that you want?”
I looked up from my menu when I heard the question, thinking it was the bartender, but it was the man sitting near me.
“You always ask me what I want. But what is it that you want?” he asked again. He leaned in toward her, and she reflexively moved closer to him before pulling back again, bracing her foot against the rail at the bottom of the bar.
“I want,” she said, craning her neck, scanning the room, lowering her voice to a whisper that I could still hear, “not to feel so bad anymore. I want... I want to just be friends again.” It was then that I noticed his wedding ring. Obviously.
The bartender set down a Hunny in front of me—grapefruit juice, honey drinking vinegar, and tequila in an oversized tin martini glass that has the heft of a communion chalice—and I sipped it while eating and looking at the menu. There was a lot of meat. What was it that I wanted? I started with the cryptically named Chicken Three Ways, which is really just peanuts flavored with lemongrass and shallots and is the kind of salty, savory bar snack that’s impossible to stop eating, even to the point of licking your fingers once it’s gone. I was worried that the portions at the bar would be small, as a reminder that a more extensive menu awaits at Pok Pok, so I ordered myself two other dishes. But they came bearing a lot of food, and so I wound up with one plate piled with deep-fried pork ribs, accompanied by a salad of cabbage, peanuts, ginger, and chilies so hot that one bite makes you want to hit someone, and another heaped with shredded, grilled flank steak laced with salt and MSG and served with an addictive, intensely flavored chili-galangal dipping sauce, both plates big enough that I wished I had someone to share them with (only not really, because then I would have had to share).
I managed to eat everything though, because it was all just that good and I like meat and I loved the chili-galangal dipping sauce. I didn’t think I could eat anymore, but I got another drink so that I could continue eavesdropping. It was one of the specials—there’re always a couple of drinks and a few dishes that’re new every day—called a Liquado. Comprising fresh watermelon juice, cachaça, lime and mint syrup, it was just as tasty as every other cocktail I’d had—but, like all the other drinks, not too strong. That’s fine when you’re really trying to appreciate all the flavors, both bold and subtle, but not if you want to, you know, get drunk. I sipped my drink. It wasn’t a night to get drunk.
“I’m not leaving my wife for you. Why would I do that? You’ve told me over and over that you might not be there once I leave.” I couldn’t tell if his face was red, because the room was so dim, but his face sure sounded red.
The bartender set a plate down in front of him that was piled high with chicken wings, big and plump, lacquered with fish sauce and covered in fried garlic. They looked amazing. The man shifted the plate so that it was in between him and the woman.
“These are hot,” she said, putting the tips of her fingers in her mouth. “And I know what I told you. That’s why I just want to be friends. Can’t we do that? Or is all you care about sleeping with me?”
She was younger than the man, but not much. But still they didn’t look like a couple. They both reached for a wing. She bit into hers. He waited and said, “That’s not all I care about. Why are you being stupid? I hate when you’re fucking stupid.”
She said, “JesusChristthesewingsaredelicious,” like it was all one word. He took a bite. “What the fuck, these are the best wings I’ve ever had.” I asked the bartender for wings. And Jesus Christ, they were the best wings I’ve ever had. Get them spicy, because they’re not so spicy at all. The intensity comes from the fish sauce and all that fried garlic and, man, you’re a better human than me if you don’t suck your fingers clean and then scrape at the scraps on the plate, trying to get every last bit of caramelized goodness into your mouth.
“I have to go pick up my son,” the man said. He asked for their bill. They split it, the woman taking out her wallet grudgingly. “I guess we’re really just friends,” she said. I kind of hated her then. Before, too, but mostly then. They left, and I paid, and before I left the bartender asked if I lived around here. “No, not really that close. But I’ll come again.”
Outside, in the quiet of Columbia Street and the waterfront, the man and woman were standing and arguing in front of a Subaru, no chicken wings to distract them. The woman walked away and the man got in the car and turned it on and drove away. The street was still. I wished maybe I was a little drunker, but I knew it was probably better that I wasn’t.