Tommy Ho, General Manager/Partner, Anvil Bar & Refuge and Penny Quarter, Houston
Houston native Tommy Ho did what most college kids who need to pay their bills do when in school – he bartended. Soon, it became more than a side job; it became something he fell in love with. So, when he finally got a job at Anvil Bar & Refuge, acing a tense training program which required blind tasting and correctly identifying 47 of 50 spirits, he thought it was almost too good to be true.
That was six years ago and he’s now general manager and partner and is responsible, also, for the recently opened (it opened in August 2019), Penny Quarter, an all-day café known for its extensive coffee, wine, and cocktails coupled with vegan/vegetarian menu options.
Symrise caught up with Ho between staff meetings to get his thoughts on hospitality, ingredients and how his Vietnamese heritage has influenced some of his cocktail concoctions.
Symrise: Tell us what makes Anvil so special.
Tommy Ho: To me, it’s the hospitality. Hospitably is the main focus of everything we do and I think it should be the forefront of any business. We feel lucky folks choose to sit at our bar and we treat them as such.
Anvil also does a really good job of making the bar not feel out of reach for people. We love having folks belly up to bar, we love slinging drinks, and we love having them watch us and have a good time.
Our range of cocktails and the way we explain them is something else that makes us special. We’re known for our 100 List, which are classic cocktails divided into categories based on the architecture of the drink. So, instead of finding drinks broken down by gin, vodka, rum, etc. we list Sour and Sweet, Herbal and Spirituous, Boozy and Alluring, Bitter and Bold, and so on. We want to break away from stereotypes of what someone might typically think of certain liquor. A whiskey cocktail, for example, doesn’t have to burn all the way down. It can be just as refreshing as a vodka drink which is why the menu is laid out to be user friendly and simple.
We also have a large variety of seasonal cocktails that rotate every quarter.
Symrise: Is there a collaborative approach to building a cocktail menu?
TH: Absolutely. This is 100% a team effort. We’re culinary focused so we often pick an ingredient and then work backwards to find the liquor that works with it. We always let our newest person pick an ingredient, give him or her a week to play with it, and then present it at a group as part of a roundtable. We then discuss what’s right and wrong with it. For us, it’s important to select a cocktail that everyone is behind.
For our seasonal menu, we always like to have at least one, of what we call, The Winner cocktail that’s very approachable where the guest recognizes 99% of the ingredients. We also always have a quote unquote nerdy cocktail where we really like to push the envelope. This is a cocktail full of weird ingredients that piques a guest’s interest even if thye don’t recognize the ingredients. It’s a great feeling when they drink it and love it.
Symrise: Do you have favorite ingredients you like to play with?
TH: I generally like fruits. I also try to work a lot with the food flavors that I grew up. [Symrise note: Ho is known for the pandan-centric Pandanime cocktail using the Vietnamese sweet soy milk he grew up drinking]. I like walking up and down the aisles of grocery stores, wondering what certain ingredients would taste like and then think about that when composing a cocktail list.
One of our bartenders recently experimented with kumquats; he had a kumquat tree in his backyard growing up and he figured out a way to make that into a sour cocktail. Those are the kinds of things we like to do. Other drinks we’ve done include working around bell peppers, sun-dried tomatoes and a dill inspired martini a few years ago.
Symrise: What’s your favorite drink?
TH: I love this question. And people ask me all the time. I think they expect a really cocktail-y extravagant answer and honestly, I’m pretty simple. I like sweet fruit forward drinks, tiki-centric (pina coladas for example), or a frozen drink. I’m also fine with a beer and a shot of whiskey.
Symrise: What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned in hospitality during the Anvil journey?
TH: I think getting out of your own head and understanding that if you treat people a certain way, they will treat you the same way back.
It takes time to learn – and it definitely took time for me -- but being a great bartender means knowing you can de-escalate any situation and turn anyone into your friend. It comes down to attitude – if you make things not about you, you’ll enjoy your job. It’s cliché to say, I know, but hospitality is really about the other person across the bar.
Something else I’ve learned that’s important: There’s no equation and no perfect answer for every situation: You have to take it one person at a time. As someone who manages people, I’m trying to let my staff know that all the time.
Symrise: Where do you see the industry headed?
TH: I think it’s getting simpler. I don’t think 8, 9 10 ingredient cocktails will do that well anymore; people want to focus on one ingredient. They also want a fresh sourced, albeit odd, ingredient like a kumquat, persimmons, beets, gooseberries, the list goes on and on. People are getting away from the whole classic bitter stirred herbal cocktail that has to be cold and dark and kindof boozy and instead want to drink lighter.
With day drinking becoming more popular, they want to start earlier but they don’t want to get drunk and that means more light-hearted sessionable cocktails. It’s all part of this natural movement to feature fresh produce and fresh ingredients. People are also more conscious of additives.
It’s why we’re seeing, especially at Penny Quarter, that lighter bodied, natural wines and lighter more refreshing cocktails are doing well.
At Penny Quarter, we are about 100 wine labels strong and are leaning a lot towards whites and rosés which are especially popular for daytime drinking.
Coffee is also a big focus at Penny Quarter where we source beans from all over the world. We use multiple roasters to give guests multiple options. Like with our bartenders at Anvil, we emphasize lots of barista feedback and ideas. We believe that excitement in being part of something and taking ownership of it translates to the guest experience.
Symrise: What are your favorite Houston spots to eat or drink at?
TH: Theodore Rex and Squable are definitely a favorite. Squable has a bread program that is out of this world. I’ve been eating at Handies Douzo quite often (its BYOB). Grab a couple of bottles of wine with Anna (the girlfriend/ bar manager of our sister bar Better Luck Tomorrow) and have a good solid date. Nancy’s Hustle is another good one.