Fort Worth native Tricia Alley was exposed to margaritas at El Torito and learned to make a proper classic at Barru in Montrose. When we met, she was transitioning from Providence to Eva. Alley soon segued to First & Hope and Rolling Stone and is now the bar manager at Black Market Liquor Bar, where she worked with consultants Steve Livigni and Pablo Moix to build the first comprehensive cocktail program in the San Fernando Valley. We recently sat down in a Black Market booth before the doors opened on June 27, and Alley better explained her background and approach behind the bar.
How did this opportunity come about for you?
The simple answer would be networking. More specifically, I was working an event with Pablo one day and I just mentioned something about ice, like, “What kind of ice do you use at La Descarga?” He said, “Actually, do you want a job?” I don’t know the process in the brain, or how he got there, but I said sure.
Kind of a non sequitur, but it worked out?
Yeah, it worked out. He said, “There’s a spot in Studio City.” And I said, “Oh my god, I live there. I’ve been dying for something to go in there.” There you go.
They’re amazing, and they really like to run a venue like a collective, like a brand identity, even though they’re obviously leaders, and I’m the specific leader at this venue for our bar team, the head bartender. They really invited us to all contribute to the program, so far as what drinks are going on the menu and how we want certain technical areas to be handled. It’s great because then we all have ownership of it. I think it’s more professional and it’s kind of next level of professional to be working toward an identity like Black Market, rather than the individuals involved in it. That’s going to happen anyway, which is great for all of us, but I think we’ll all be more successful as a collective.
What do you look for when hiring somebody to work behind your bar?
Experience is great, of course, but in that experience, sort of the tenets of faith that I have about it are great attitude, someone who’s nice, flexible and adaptable, with guests and with their colleagues. Someone who actually has a good palate and good taste, so they’re not only connected with the product in one way or another, but enthusiastic about it. And theory. I like somebody who has theory because it’s just easy. Not that I don’t like developing people, because that’s fun too, but you can only develop one person at a time. So someone who has good theory and has a language I can use to connect with them.
What was the approach in putting together the cocktail program here? Did you consciously work to differentiate Black Market from other programs in town or in the Valley?
We’re setting a new bar in the Valley. There really isn’t a cocktail bar, so that’s exciting. We’re kind of writing our own ticket, but we are definitely thinking of the cuisine, and the wine and beer. We’re just setting ourselves apart, because we really don’t have a common brand of beer on the menu, because you can go across the street or next door and get that. We’re kind of – as Sal, one of the owners – said, we’re trying to challenge and expand people’s palates and interests. I like that approach because I like to feel like I’m contributing to a lifestyle and industry, overall. That’s exciting for me.
Why do you think there hasn’t been a marquee cocktail program in the Valley before?
I wouldn’t know. I think there are probably people doing market studies – with PhDs or Master’s degrees – on certain communities. If you look at the Valley, it seems to be at a stage where some things are turning over to something new. That would probably be the simplest answer. There haven’t been a lot of new places in the last five years, unless it was a breakfast joint.
How did you become so interested in cocktails initially?
Initially initially, I used to make my mom a bourbon and soda when I was like 11 years old. She said I made it the best for her. To hear her car drive up – I free poured obviously at 11 – and I just enjoyed that. I’d make the first one a little stronger because I knew she wanted to relax. The next one I’d make a little more refreshing because she was ready to have her thirst quenched. So that was kind of a really early experience for me. And I grew up in Texas, where it’s a little bit more European style, where people are more comfortable with alcohol around the house. It’s not uptight.
What brought you to Los Angeles?
My parents. We actually moved here when I was 13.
What part of the city?
I first moved to Northern California for a year, and then we moved to Orange County. I went to high school in Buena Park, and after high school I moved to L.A.
What was your first bar job?
My first bar job was actually in high school and I wasn’t a bartender, I was a hostess. El Torito, the Mexican restaurant, and they took a lot of pride at that time in their margaritas. I didn’t have that experience at all. I wasn’t a teenager who drank, but I saw it. I found it interesting.
As an adult, or as a professional, the place that really got me excited, I was the general manager for. It was called Barru Martini Lounge, so that will give you an idea of the timeframe. It was like 2004 or 2003.
Where was it?
Montrose, California. I lived there for about 10 years. You know where that is?
Exactly. It was on Honolulu. It was really cool. We used all fresh juices, and our head bartender was into classics, so I never made an improper Manhattan unless a guest requested it. We were stirring them and we used bitters and it was super fun.
Did you become interested in cocktails or spirits first?
Spirits, definitely. Cocktails, secondly, because I had a love of tequila and fresh margaritas before I was bartending. I’ve always loved whiskey. I think I loved Irish whiskey before I loved bourbon, which is kind of interesting.
What was the most recent cocktail that you developed and what was your approach?