Hawker Fare is a large, loud, colorful, noisy, explosion of a Thai restaurant on Valencia. Holy Mountain is the bar up the long stairs to its second floor. There was a moment when, walking up to the heights, it seemed as though I had entered an oasis of calm, sheltered from the noise and chaos of the restaurant below.
I was wrong. It seemed that way because Holy Mountain is less noisy than Hawker Fare. But it still gets loud, sometimes very loud. Not only does significant sound travel up from the restaurant below, but the room has virtually no acoustic dampening, so everyone at the bar can hear everyone. While it has a traditional bar, it is mostly composed of booths and tables good for larger parties, which means groups come up here to drink together. Nothing wrong with that, but the combined effect means that whatever the first impression, Holy Mountain is not so much a separate bar as an annex of the restaurant, just with a different drink menu. It’s not an oasis: It’s a housing complex next to the airport.
The website for Holy Mountain calls it a “rustic” space, by which I think they mean “not fancy,” but the more apt description would be to call it a spartan tiki bar with a décor inspired by the 1973 surrealist film masterpiece Holy Mountain, and New Orleans’ carnival, as interpreted by the creators of Pokémon. The décor behind the bar, the pictures on the wall and, to a lesser extent, the menu, all keep stepping up to the occult but ending up cartoonish.
The cocktails were a mixed bag: We started with a margarita, which tasted oddly watery despite no excess water being used in the preparation, and a Pentacles (gin mare, yellow chartreuse, simple, smoked thyme), which was delicious. All the house originals are named after tarot cards, which are an obsession of Holy Mountain (the movie) director Alejandro Jodorowsky. I’m divided, honestly, between appreciating Holy Mountain (the bar’s) relatively relaxed attitude about its theme, and wondering why – if it’s really inspired by Jodorowsky – it’s so damn tame.
Because for something, anything, inspired by Jodorowsky, it is really tame. If you’re really inspired enough to name your bar after the movie and make your drinks tarot-themed, why aren’t you going all-in? I mean, it’s a weird film. Just listen to the summary of the movie’s plot from Wikipedia:
A man (later identified as the thief) representing The Fool tarot card lies naked in the desert with flies covering his face like excrement. He is befriended by a footless, handless dwarf representing the Five of Swords, and the pair travel into the city where they make money entertaining tourists. Because the thief resembles Jesus Christ in appearance …
I think that gives you the idea, except for the part about having an alchemist turn the thief’s shit into gold, which you should probably know about too.
Hey, it’s the bar’s reference, not mine.
The most intriguing item on the menu by far is the “Death Punch,” which serves four to six and has no ingredients listed. Ordering at the bar, we asked about it. We were only aiming for a description and maybe some ingredients, but when we mentioned it the bartender’s eyes lit up.
“Oh yeah!” she said, “I should try that, and find out what it is today!”
She got a large bottle of it out of a fridge and poured three shot glasses for us. As she explained it, the Death Punch is a joint production of the various bartenders, all of whom add various ingredients and change it up routinely. That night it was a spicy, herbal, earthy, flavor with a light cinnamon aftertaste on the front of the tongue. It was great. I would have totally ordered it if I’d had more people with me, and I love this concept, which was obviously a labor of love.
Along with the Death Punch, ordering food from Hawker Fare downstairs is the best thing about Holy Mountain. Reviews have raved about the food, twists on recipes from the Lao Isan region of Thailand, and they’re absolutely right. That night we ordered off the happy hour bar bites menu: The chicken and white beans were moist and flavorful and delicious, and the Prik Khing green beans with smoked bacon were hot and delectable. The plates were big, sharing was easy, and each was well worth the $10 price.
We washed it down with an Ace of Cups (Bank Note scotch, ginger, honey, lemon, star anise, turmeric ice), which wasn’t quite clicking – too much of the sweet collected at the bottom of the glass – and The Hanged Man (Four Roses bourbon, sibona amaro, lustan vermouth, chocolate bitters, angostura bitters, and smoked cinnamon), which was just superb. The night’s cocktails left me with the feeling that there are certain flavor profiles – savory and bitter and herbal and spirit-forward – that Holy Mountain really gets, and others that it doesn’t quite care about.
With a name and a reference like Holy Mountain, you expect there to be depths. There are not. It’s an odd case of false advertising, because what’s there is actually really good for what it is. The sweet spot at Holy Mountain is showing up with a few friends, ordering food from downstairs and Death Punch to drink, and being noisy. That’s a good night out. You’d think they’d want people to know about that.
Despite its name and decorations it’s not really an interesting or artsy bar, which doubtless would have disappointed the man whose movie inspired it all, and further confirms my theory that themes in San Francisco bars are mostly shit that does not turn to gold. Holy Mountain’s not actually a place Jodorowsky could have done tarot readings. But whatever: Death Punch, great food, be loud. As long as you’re not looking for a quiet oasis or a surreal night, that’s a winning formula.