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    AsiaSF: Transcendent for Nearly a Quarter Century

    By David Landis, The Gay Gourmet–

    “We’re your Dreamgirls…we’ll make you happy.”

    That’s not just a lyric from the hit Broadway musical. It’s a mantra for the talented performers at San Francisco’s longstanding institution, AsiaSF, and how they end each show. A groundbreaking transgender restaurant, cabaret, dance club, and bar South of Market, AsiaSF has been transcendent for nearly a quarter of a century.

    The Gay Gourmet has been a regular at AsiaSF for nearly that whole time, and transcendent isn’t just an adjective: it was the name of the popular reality TV show starring “the Ladies of AsiaSF.” It’s also an adjective that describes the trajectory of this small nightclub that dared to give transgender women respect and a job, long before that population made headlines or it was the “trendy” thing to do.

    For the uninitiated, AsiaSF is a modern supper club: think elevated dining and a show, where your transgender servers lip sync while you sip craft cocktails and dine on upscale Cal-Asian cuisine. It starts outside the club. You arrive on a red carpet in front of the venue’s “step and repeat” banner, perfect for those Instagram moments. From the time you are greeted at the door by one of the welcoming hostesses, you’re in for a transgender treat.

    At AsiaSF, I’ve had celebrations (my 50th birthday party), taken international and out of town guests, escorted family members, and introduced cognoscenti to what truly was an “only-in-San Francisco” (now also Palm Springs) experience. One of the differentiators at AsiaSF is that the transgender women who serve you then perform on the runway stage. The result? You get to know that person, you create a bond, and it tears down stereotypes.

    I remember taking my young-ish niece Jessica, then an aspiring actress from the Midwest at the time. Our server, Kitty Litter, asked Jessica what she’d like to drink. “A Coke, please,” she responded tentatively. Without missing a beat, Kitty responded, “Will that be liquid or solid?” It took a second, and then a big grin broke out over Jessica’s face. That’s when this Uncle Mame knew he had done his job well.

    So, who’s the mastermind behind this innovative idea of bringing great food, wines, cocktails, and entertainment together? Actually, it’s a trio: Larry Hashbarger, Skip Young, and Aaron Nelson. I had the pleasure of speaking recently for the San Francisco Bay Times with my longtime pal Larry to enlighten us about all things AsiaSF.

    Gay Gourmet: What inspired you to open AsiaSF? Was it the first transgender restaurant of its type in the country?

    Larry Hashbarger: It’s not one easy answer. It came from a lifetime of experiences when I was in my 20s, and being exposed to different cultures and lifestyles. My years at Macy’s (Larry headed up special events for Macy’s) in the entertainment/fashion business made me realize that I loved producing shows. In 1995, I opened Club Asia in the back of Townsend where Club Universe happened. I had been travelling to Thailand, and had been inspired by nightlife experiences there. Club Asia was a great, gay Asian Friday night experience, but for all ethnicities. During a Macy’s Passport fashion show, I had my first experience with a trans person. I met a male model, Isaac, who became Isha. I accompanied her through her transition, traveling to Thailand during her re-assignment surgery. She then started performing at Club Asia. AsiaSF came about from the inspirations of that. There was a place in New York, Lucky Chang’s on the lower East Side, that had transgender waitresses who performed. I visited in those years when I went to New York for Macy’s. I loved it. But I thought, could we do this not just for an LGBTQ+ audience, but open it up to a broader audience? We’re probably the longest all-trans restaurant/nightclub/cabaret that is still around.

    Gay Gourmet: What pushed AsiaSF into the limelight?

    Larry Hashbarger: When we first opened in April of 1998, it was a different world; the word transgender didn’t exist, there were no cell phones, and no internet. For the first 6 weeks, we asked people to come have dinner with us. Food reviewer Michael Bauer visited from The San Francisco Chronicle. He had the power back then, before Yelp. I didn’t realize that we were going to be the main article in the Pink section the following Sunday. The buzz started with his article, “AsiaSF Is Anything but a Drag,” and he gave us 3 stars.

    We were working with Taste Catering, and he loved the food. We were totally packed at the height of the dot com craze. We were open 7 nights a week. Everybody came, and I always wanted to attract everybody. It was a little “taboo” for people in the early days. Now, people celebrate birthdays, bridal showers, anniversaries, and more. A whole new generation of people has discovered AsiaSF.

    These young people are embracing everything they see here because they have friends who are trans, gay, lesbian, and non-binary. AsiaSF is about living your authentic life, your truth. It doesn’t matter what your sexual orientation or gender is. People say to me, “Thank you for opening this place. You don’t know what this place means to me.” And they’re from all walks of life.

    People often haven’t had an experience with a transgender person. Once you do, you’re touched. You realize that they’re just like you: the same dreams and desires that everybody else has. When we opened, we were pioneers in terms of creating a safe place for trans women to work. We’ve created employment opportunities for a marginalized community that is discriminated against. Now, they can enjoy all the things we take for granted: getting an apartment, buying a car, and raising a family. I’m so proud of that. We’ve been trailblazers: moving the needle one person at a time.

    Gay Gourmet: How did you make the experience different?

    Larry Hashbarger: One of the key reasons for success is because guests get to talk to the performers. I used to meet Broadway casts after shows and it made it special. It’s the same thing with AsiaSF. You get to meet your girl and laugh with her. You feel like you know that person and it makes the performance more rewarding. It’s like watching a friend sing. You’re rooting for them. The other part is we have really wonderful Cal-Asian cuisine. Every dish is inspired by a different Asian country.

    Gay Gourmet: What’s the message you want to impart to AsiaSF guests?

    Larry Hashbarger: One of the unique things about AsiaSF—the SF is so significant in the name—[is that] we couldn’t have ever opened this in any other city than San Francisco and been successful. We want to thank San Francisco and the Bay Area for being warm and embracing. Celebrating diversity is important, as is understanding how diversity enriches your life. The differences we have make us all better as people. Supporting the transgender community is good for our country, and for individuals. That’s the message of AsiaSF. San Francisco is always going to be home.

    Gay Gourmet to Bay Times Readers: I’m sure you’re wondering. How is the food? In my estimation, Michael Bauer got it right. At AsiaSF, the food soars; it’s as uplifting as the transgender performers. A big differentiator for me is that the food at AsiaSF is every bit as delicious and innovative as some of San Francisco’s best restaurants. The wine list shines not just with California offerings, but international varietals as well. And the cocktails? Suffice it to say there’s a cocktail named for each of the entertainers. They’re as tasty as each talented server, with names like Jasmine’s Tarantula (a kind of blue margarita) and Brandy’s Gin Blossom.

    The way it works is, if you’re in a group, you can pre-order a menu that is then served family style. For smaller tables, you order a “Menage a Trois,” three courses that are served between shows. Some personal menu favorites of mine are the super-fresh, top-grade blackened tuna sashimi, as good as you find in Japantown; the “Asia-dilla,” the restaurant’s take on a quesadilla, with smoked duck or shiitake mushrooms; porcupines: shrimp and scallops deep fried with water chestnuts and a plum dipping sauce; mussels in a red curry kafir lime leaf broth; or the cold sesame soba noodles, flavored with cucumber, tofu, and green onion topped with a Chinese sesame sauce. The spare ribs with tamarind glaze have the right amount of tang, but are tender and fall off the bone—always a crowd favorite. My husband loves the filet mignon (cooked a perfect medium rare), served with a Korean dipping sauce. The orange lamb, tender and juicy, with coconut jasmine rice also hit the spot. For dessert, we tried the new banana lumpia (a nod to Filipino cuisine) and the green tea cheesecake—dense yet not heavy, but still reminiscent of a New York-style.

    What’s new at AsiaSF? Well, the pandemic (and a seismic retrofit) allowed the venue to re-design with a light show that wows. The LED light walls now can be programmed with the show, and the results are stunning. There are a bunch of talented new performers, including Ghalia, Amiya, Chantel, and Belin. But longstanding Trina is the mother of them all, still stealing the shows after all these years. Also new is the Palm Springs (PS) outpost. I haven’t been yet, but I’m told the shows and the food are as good as San Francisco. The PS location has the added bonus of an outdoor patio and pool.

    https://sf.asiasf.com/

    David Landis, aka “The Gay Gourmet,” is a foodie, a freelance writer and a retired PR maven. Follow him on Instagram @GayGourmetSF or email him at: davidlandissf@gmail.com Or visit him online at: www.gaygourmetsf.com

    Published on July 28, 2022