Behind the Sili-con Valley

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We sat down with Mary Palac of San Jose’s Paper Plane to chat about her work, San Jose’s cocktail scene, shochu, the Philippines, and her cocktail for February’s Daijoubu Box, the Sili-con Valley!

S&S: How did your journey lead to Paper Plane?

MP: George Lahlouh, the managing operator, was one of my first bar managers during the early days of the San Jose cocktail scene. I’ve always enjoyed working with him, and when a few of my other former teammates helped open Paper Plane, I knew it was going to be an amazing program. I jumped around the Bay Area a bit working at other cocktail programs, but once there was an opportunity to join the team at Paper Plane I jumped at it, and it’s been home for the past 4 years. 

S&S: How would you describe the craft cocktail scene in San Jose?

MP: The cocktail scene in San Jose is growing every year and there is a tremendous amount of potential here. Because this area is so closely tied to the tech industry, food and drink will only get better from here on out as young professionals continue to move out here for opportunities. 

We’re also a very humble community. There is an incredible talent pool in San Jose that often gets overlooked because of our proximity to San Francisco. But it also means that we are a super tight-knit community, and we show true appreciation when we get opportunities.

S&S: Is there a technique or ingredient you’re currently fascinated with?

MP: I am loving the use of Asian ingredients in cocktails—which is probably why I’m so happy to be in this month’s box!—flavors that are so familiar to me but seem exotic to most, like pandan, sesame, ube, even fish sauce. I think these kind of ingredients are so flavorful and they add so much depth and complexity to cocktails.

S&S: What inspired you to create the Sili-con Valley?

MP: Once as a dare, a friend grabbed a bottle of Datu Puti and mixed a little with a shot of gin and it was actually delightful. I also love savory cocktails and we often don’t see too many of them.

I don’t think too many people are familiar with Datu Puti or even white pepper—most people will be used to black pepper. These ingredients are important to Asian/Filipino cuisine, and to me they remind me of home. Like fresh lumpia dipped in vinegar, or a piping hot bowl of Egg Flower Soup.

S&S: Is adding savory elements to a cocktail something you have a lot of experience with?

MP: Honestly, no, but I have always wanted to make more savory cocktails. Outside of a Gibson and a Bloody Mary there aren’t a ton of iconic savory drinks. I also love umami, and would love to play with those style of flavors in cocktails. 

S&S: What music do you think captures the feel of the Sili-con Valley?

MP: Bay Area Hip Hop, like E-40 (he co-owns a Filipino restaurant because he loves the food so much).

S&S: Are there any food pairings that you’d recommend to go with it?

MP: Datu Puti is typically used to combat the richness of fried foods such as chicharrón and lumpia, so this a great cocktail for comfort foods.

S&S: What’s your specialty?

MP: In terms of cocktails, I’m very much a believer in finding the right cocktail for the right person. Sometimes people ask me this question and I’ll reply back with, “Well, what’s special to you?” 

Outside of cocktails, I think the technique I’m most associated with is speed and efficiency, since Speed Rack and BARMANIA winner are titles I’m proud to hold. I’m very much a supporter of trained free pourers, which I am, because they often get a bad rap in the cocktail world.

S&S: What is your creative process typically like during recipe formulation?

MP: I’m a simple cocktail creator: I typically try to make my drinks with as few ingredients as possible. I’ll usually draw on a classic for inspiration; for instance, my cocktail for the Daijoubu Box is based on the brininess of a Gibson. From there I’ll list out other flavors that just sound delicious to me, and plug them in one by one until I find a good balance.

S&S: What types of flavors or ingredients do you generally reach for to pair with shochu?

MP: I think the floral rich flavors of shochu marry well with bright flavors, like citrus, acid, spice, even fruit. 

S&S: What’s the best drink you’ve ever had?

MP: One of my favorite drinks I’ve ever had was actually a nonalcoholic drink at Existing Conditions called Serendipity. It had clarified tomato and passion fruit and was this awesome cross between fruity and savory. I loved it for several reasons: it was absolutely delicious, the hospitality was extraordinary, and I love that the team puts as much thought and effort into their nonalcoholic selections as they do their cocktails.

S&S: We’ll have to try it! Have you visited the Philippines recently?

MP: The last time I visited the Philippines was when I was 17, but I’m dying to go back as my father and several family members are still there. 

S&S: Any drinking culture trends that you’d like to see catch on in the US?

MP: I know that the Manila cocktail scene has been blowing up lately, as with many Asian cocktail scenes. I’d love to explore and see what they’re up to, as they have access to really unique produce and ingredients, and I’d love to see more Filipino ingredients brought stateside. 

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