Midnight Snack: Tom Bergin's with Eric Tecosky | KCET
Midnight Snack: Tom Bergin's with Eric Tecosky
Los Angeles' historical restaurants, and structures in general, may be scarce, but one of the mighty few is Tom Bergin's Old Horseshoe. Opened in 1936 by Tom Bergin himself, the Irish tavern is known as L.A.'s original sports bar due to its popularity with horseracing bookies, which explains the horseshoe-shaped bar and paintings of gallant thoroughbreds in the main dining room. After several changes in ownership through the years, its most recent renovation last May preserves the tavern's cozy, old-fashioned ambiance, but revamps its menus to include Reuben balls (!) and drink offerings from imported whiskeys and craft beers to traditional Irish coffee.
A bartender at Jones Hollywood, the inventor of the famous-in-colleges Surfer on Acid shot and owner of Dirty Sue Premium Olive Juice, Eric Tecosky, has been resting his tired, bar-keeping feet on one of Bergin's barstools for the last seven years. We take a seat and talk about the current cocktail climate, Bruschetta Martinis and twirly mustaches.
Rebecca: Great late-night spot. What brought you here?
Eric: I used to live in the neighborhood and I'd seen this place, it's been open for 75 years, but it wasn't really on my radar. Finally I decided to come in one night and try it, and it became a three-night-a-week spot.
Rebecca: I love the dark wood and the shamrocks on the walls in the bar.
Eric: When they renovated, they didn't change the space, they wanted to bring it back to its former glory. They wanted to invigorate it.
Rebecca: It shows.
Eric: It's nice to have a piece of history to come to. Cary Grant used to bring his girlfriends here and sit at table 204.
Eric orders a Jack on the rocks and I opt for the Irish coffee, recommended to me by the neon green shamrock outside. To start he orders the cheese plate, two homemade soft pretzels and two plates of Reuben balls.
Rebecca: Reuben balls?
Eric: Reuben balls -- like a Reuben sandwich, but balls. If I see balls on the menu, I have to order them.
Rebecca: It's going to be a very special night. Is that your favorite?
Eric: No, the Irish stew. I survived on that stuff for about seven years.
Rebecca: Sounds heavy.
Eric: I'm a meat and potatoes guy so when I see stew on a menu, which you don't see a lot these days, I gravitate toward it.
Rebecca: Must be especially comforting after a long, late shift.
Eric: If I got cut early enough for it to still to be open, on the way home I'd regularly veer this way instead of my house and come in for a drink and Irish stew.
Rebecca: Then bed?
Eric: Yes, that stuff will knock you out.
A platter of cheese, crackers and a honeycomb arrives along with two fist-sized rye pretzels and two orders of Reuben balls: Fried balls of pastrami with Russian dressing for dipping. We split the balls with our forks and the savory meat releases steam. They are tender on the inside and crunchy on the outside, with the added tang of the dressing. You can make many things into a ball, but a sandwich that feels like a hug from grandpa? Get out of town!
Rebecca: These are the best.
Eric: They are really good.
Rebecca: So apparently you're the inventor of Surfer on Acid?
Eric: Correct. It always made me scratch my head how it got around the country. It's not like I was going around the country saying, "I made this drink!"
Rebecca: Why is it called Surfer on Acid?
Eric: I was working at a club on Sunset in the early '90s and a bunch of young twentysomethings came up to the bar and ordered "Surfer on Acid." I had never heard of it, so I asked them what it was. They let me know that they invented it at a party the night before. It was banana schnapps, Bailey's and a bunch of other crap. When they left I decided that their shot was never going to take off, but it was a good name. So, I "borrowed" the name and added it to what I was calling "ET's Awesome Shot," which was the Jägermeister-based shot now known as Surfer on Acid.
Rebecca: What is it exactly? I had it several times in college, which is why I can't remember.
Eric: It's equal parts Jäger, Malibu rum and pineapple juice. Considering the current cocktail climate, that's my mark of fame, the most lowbrow drink.
Rebecca: Current cocktail climate?
Eric: Yes. When I started bartending 20 years ago, the fanciest drink I made was a Cosmo and now, everywhere you go, even borderline dive bars now make muddled drinks and mojitos. Now people know how to make proper Old Fashions and Manhattans and it's popping up everywhere. Funny that my claim to fame is Surfer on Acid and it's a college drink.
Rebecca: Well people remember it ... sort of.
Eric: Yes, I wear it proudly.
Rebecca: So the current cocktail climate might make fancier drinks, but it takes an hour to get those drinks.
Eric: That's the biggest downfall -- bartenders taking 15 minutes to get you your drink. They think they're the center of attention like, "look at my twirly mustache!"
Rebecca: Yes! Those guys.
Eric: Look, at the end of the day what makes a place successful is the customer's experience. Bartenders are just really a cog in the wheel. Without the consumer, what are we? There is a small percentage of the population who want to go to those bars and feel like a "foodie" or a "drinkie," but most people want a bar where it takes two minutes to get their drink because they're going to need another one soon.
After getting our fill of the starters, Eric orders his usual Irish stew and I opt for the mushroom pie.
Rebecca: What's the most popular drink in L.A. these days?
Eric: Right now Old Fashions are really popular, probably because of Mad Men. There's a big resurgence of classic cocktails, Old Fashioneds, Manhattans, and martinis are always popular.
Rebecca: Dirty martinis are my favorite. Speaking of which, tell me about Dirty Sue.
Eric: Up until recently, bartenders were dumping out the brine in the olive jars into the drinks. The problem was, no one refrigerated those jars and they'd start going bad immediately. Bartenders would put their hands in the jars too, making it truly a dirty martini.
Eric: And they'd use up all the olive brine and the olives themselves would sit there drying out. So Dirty Sue is just pure, premium olive juice in a bottle.
Eric's stew arrives in a simple, white bowl with a spoon. Chunks of lamb, potatoes and celery simmer in an herbed broth. My mushroom pie looks like a chicken potpie on the outside, except the chicken is mushrooms and the crust is mashed potatoes. The mushrooms, peas and carrots settle in a brown sauce beneath a crisp yet fluffy layer of potatoes. The only way this meal could be better is if we were eating it in cold, blustery Ireland.
Rebecca: So bartending for twenty years and counting, you've probably seen lots of drunk people doing lots of drunk things.
Eric: You see a lot of fun stuff behind the bar, you can't work one shift without seeing something amazingly fun. Whether it's a blind date you're overhearing or hands going under the table, a lot of wacky stuff. People don't recall to themselves that they're out in public sometimes.
Rebecca: What's your favorite drink to make?
Eric: Jack and Coke, Budweiser. I'm really good at making Budweiser. Honestly, if it's not super busy, I really enjoy making people drinks. Like, if you came in one day and said, "Hey, ET, I really want something spicy, I love gin," that'd be really fun for me to make something and have you love it.
Rebecca: You're a booze chef.
Eric: There are drinks that have made it onto the menu at Jones that came from customers. Like if you want something with cherry tomatoes, you got it.
Rebecca: Do you actually have a drink with cherry tomatoes?
Eric: The world famous Bruschetta Martini.
Rebecca: What's in it?
Eric: Basil, tomato, olive, garlic, vodka and a little bit of black pepper and salt, and it really tastes like liquid bruschetta.
Rebecca: That sounds fantastic. I'm going to get it next time I'm at Jones.
Eric: To me, this is what I do. I have other ambitions, I have Dirty Sue, I consult and have other side products I'm working on, but when I'm at Jones why not do the best of what I'm doing.
We finish off with the fresh coconut pie, the house favorite, which, as it turns out, is also my new favorite. The filling is dense and not too sweet, the cream is light and the crust is flaky. I consider returning the next day just for the pie, but then I remember the Reuben balls. If a comfort meal is what you need, take a seat at a barstool or Carey Grant's booth 204, and ask for the Reuben balls, Irish stew and a slice of the delightful coconut pie.