Bartender of the Month: January 2005

By Fritz Hahn
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Saturday, January 1, 2005;

Who: Sambonn "Sam" Lek
Where:The Town & Country Lounge (Inside the Mayflower Hotel)
Why we like him: A legend on the Washington bar scene, Sambonn "Sam" Lek came to the United States from Cambodia in 1974 and got a job as a dishwasher at Blackie's. Two years later, the Mayflower Hotel's Town and Country Lounge hired him (straight out of hotel/motel school); and he's been behind the bar ever since, welcoming a steady stream of regulars. (Sam says he sent out about 3,000 Christmas cards to customers last month.)

There are 101 cocktails on the menu, and "We change them a lot," Sam explains. "If some of them don't sell, we'll make new ones." Most suggestions come from customers. "Let's say you like litchis. Well, I can make a drink with litchis. Or you say you like one drink, but you say you'd like it sweeter. I can try something new." He's using this knowledge to write a book of cocktail recipes.

Sambonn "Sam" Lek is responsible for the 101 martinis on the Town & Country Lounge's cocktail menu. (Fritz Hahn - washingtonpost.com)

_____Bartender of the Month_____

Who's your favorite bartender? Tell us, and we may put him or her on the spot next month.

Read about our previous bartenders of the month.

But Sam's customers don't just come see him because he's a master drink maker. They come because he's friendly and remembers names and favorite drinks. He does magic tricks, too, making $20 bills levitate or change into a pair of tens in the blink of an eye.

Sam is also the president and founder of the charity Sam Relief. So far, Sam Relief has built six schools in Cambodia, and "in 2005, we will build three more," he says proudly. The money comes from donations from regulars, as well as special fundraising happy hours in the lounge. (You can find out more about the organization at www.samrelief.org.)

Like clockwork, you'll find Sam behind the Mayflower's bar from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Friday. Well, not always -- every July, Sam says, he goes to Cambodia to work with his charity for six weeks or so.

What's YOUR favorite drink?
Personally, I drink very little, but when I'm out with my wife, I'll drink a little red wine. But I don't drink -- my body doesn't like it.

What's the drink you make most often?
A lot of Sam-I-Am (Ketel One Citroen, cranberry juice and Amaretto), Cosmos and the Apple Tree, which is my version of an Apple Martini. We make mojitos, too -- we use the right sugar, which is why it tastes differently than everywhere else.

What was the last drink you didn't know how to make?
It's hard. We had a customer from California who asked for something, but let's put it this way -- If you go to California and ask for a Sam-I-Am, they won't know what it is. But I like to learn from my customers; if they like something, I like to learn how to make it.

What do you have to do to get '86ed?
Have too much to drink. But I usually just tell them, "Sir, you've had too much, let's have some coffee."

What's the best pickup line you've ever overheard?
Actually, I can usually tell, "Oh, you like her," or "You like him." So I'll ... do a magic trick and it gives them something to talk about.

What song do you wish they'd take off the jukebox?
[The piano player] doesn't bother me. They usually don't repeat too many songs. The thing that bothers me are customers' cell phones, when they ring and they don't answer them.

The first sign a patron's drunk is:
Blurred red eyes, the way they talk, they spill drinks.

Have you ever dated/gone home with someone you met while you were working?
Oh no, I can't. A lot of women love me a lot, but I can't do it. I'm married.

How cheap are people, really?
You get rich people and poor people. I say: You win some and you lose some. But I treat them all the same.

What piece of bar etiquette do you wish people would learn?
Be friendly, be courteous and be honest.

Give us a piece of advice.
We all have good and bad days. After rain, we can have a beautiful day.

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