For classically trained chefs Tim Ma and Andrew Chiou, opening a Chinese takeout restaurant wasn’t about reinventing the classics, nor was it about serving “Americanized” Chinese food. Rather, the menu at Virginia- and Washington, DC-based Lucky Danger honors takeout favorites right alongside dishes the Chinese American pair grew up on, drawing on their backgrounds to explore the intersection of two cultures and how their upbringings in immigrant families shaped them.
“We experienced a lot of racism in Arkansas back in the ’70s,” Ma, co-owner of Lucky Danger, says of his formative years. “My parents thought that if we were very American, people would get past how we looked.” As a result, Ma wasn’t taught to speak, read, or write in Chinese. He wasn’t taught much about Chinese culture, except for the food his mother would sometimes make at home. But there was always a large, food-filled celebration for Chinese New Year.
“It was the time we got to see other Chinese-Americans in the community—there weren’t many of us,” Ma says. They’d gather to eat traditional celebratory foods that symbolize good luck for the coming year—like nian gao, sweet glutenous rice cakes, for prosperity and long noodles for longevity— and give out traditional red envelopes filled with money to family members and friends.
One year in particular was pivotal for Ma. “In my teens, at a Chinese New Year celebration, my mom introduced me as her American son,” he recalls. “It was her way of explaining I didn’t speak Chinese, that I was Americanized.” That moment was so impactful, it became the name of Ma’s future restaurant: American Son was open in Washington, DC, from 2018 to July 2021. There, Ma’s culinary path took shape. “I’ve tended more toward the cuisine I didn’t know much about, so I’ve explored more of the Chinese part of cuisine than the American part,” he says.
Because of the language barrier, Ma couldn’t communicate much with his grandparents, so he didn’t grow up cooking with them. By learning and cooking Chinese cuisine later in life, Ma’s culinary journey has taken him into an exploration of his own family as well as his heritage.
Growing up, Chiou’s Chinese New Year celebrations were large gatherings of family and close friends. “Everyone had kids my and my sister’s age. It’d be potluck style, with everyone bringing a few dishes,” he recalls. One of the dishes that stands out was a whole black bass in a pungent chile sauce, always brought by a Taiwanese chef and family friend named Tony. “That’s his American name, I actually don’t know his Chinese name,” Chiou says.
Chiou, who went on to train at the Culinary Institute of America and helm a Japanese yakitori restaurant, first learned Chinese cuisine working for Tony at his family’s favorite takeout spot. Nowadays for Ma and Chiou, Chinese New Year is celebrated at home with small gatherings of close family. Ma’s parents, uncle, and cousins live in Virginia, so they’ll meet at someone’s house for a potluck dinner. Because of his hectic restaurant schedule, Chiou hasn’t been home to Texas in nearly a decade, but his parents make the trip to visit him and his sister, who also lives in the Virginia-DC area. Last year was Lucky Danger’s first Chinese New Year in business, so they served up big platters of celebratory dishes and handed out red envelopes.
To craft a Chinese New Year menu that celebrates each of their heritages as well as the holiday itself, Ma and Chiou draw from their memories celebrating, both with big communities in the past and their quieter gatherings with family nowadays. Many appear on Lucky Danger’s menu, like the broccoli beef, cashew chicken, and crab rangoons. Some are recipes that “every Chinese-American family has their version of,” Chiou says, like the tomato egg and congee—Ma makes his with long grain rice, while Chiou grew up with short-grain congee because his grandmother grew up in a Japanese neighborhood “and was surrounded by sushi rice,” he explains. His blue catfish is a take on the tradition of serving a whole fish, cooked in the same sauce as Tony’s black bass—though this chopped iteration is a bit more accessible to the home cook, he says. Taken as a whole, these celebratory recipes are the culmination of their years exploring their particular intersections of Asian American culture through the lens of Chinese American cuisine.
A New Year’s Feast from Lucky Danger
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