In 1988, Jerry Chen and his brother Joe Chen opened Yum’s II, a florescent-lit carryout serving Americanized Chinese food, fried chicken, subs, and other cheap grub with a side of mumbo sauce. Before the 14th Street corridor became one of DC’s trendiest dining destinations, the area was filled with gritty takeout shops like this. Yum’s II is one of the last remaining.
But the Chen family is adapting to the upscaled neighborhood too. A few weeks ago, they opened Da Hong Pao, a Cantonese restaurant with white tablecloths, nearly 300 dishes, live fish tanks, and daily dim sum, next door to Yum’s in the former Playbill Cafe.
“A lot of customers next door were saying they wanted a sit-down restaurant, something more upperclass where they can enjoy their meals,” says Jerry Chen’s daughter, Diana, translating for her father. “The environment’s changed and the neighborhood’s changed, so they’re giving what the customers want.”
Initially, the family planned to serve Chinese food and sushi, but ultimately felt there were too many sushi spots in the area. “There’s not a lot of good places here to eat for dim sum, so we went with it,” Diana says of their alternate plan. “My dad wanted to do something different and unique.”
Chefs from Hong Kong oversee the sprawling menu, which includes whole Peking ducks, countless noodle dishes, and every possible protein. There are so many dishes that not even the owners have tried all of them.
“A lot of Chinese restaurants in this area, they copy a lot. You do kung pao chicken, I do kung pao chicken. You do General Tso’s chicken, I do General Tso’s chicken,” says general manager Ray Wong. “But our restaurant, we have a traditional concept and things a lot of people cannot copy.”
Unlike Yum’s, Da Hong Pao isn’t necessarily bending to American tastes. Goose feet, jelly fish, duck tongue, pig intestines, and frog are among the ingredients featured. An entire menu section is dedicated to abalone and sea cucumber. Fish tanks near the entrance host lobsters, tilapia, and soon rockfish. Order one of the sea creatures and it will be plucked straight from the water for your meal.
If the sheer volume of dishes seems overwhelming, Wong explains that Cantonese menus are all about choice.”In Hong Kong-style, when you cook for the customer, most of the time they don’t have menus. They just create something,” he says. Diners say what ingredients they want, whether they want the dish steamed, fried, or sautéed, and the cooks throw it together. The lengthy menu at Da Hong Pao reflects the many possible permutations.
There are even more options from dim sum carts, which roam the dining room daily from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. with roasted meats, buns, and dumplings. “A lot of people they buy it frozen and sell it, but ours is made in house,” Diana Chen says of the dumplings.
One of the traditional accompaniments to dim sum is tea, and Da Hong Pao gets its name from a type of “very, very famous tea in China” that literally translates to “big red robe.” The restaurant also has some less traditional drinks: on weekends, mimosas are $12 a bottle with a choice of orange, lychee, pineapple, mango, and other fruit juices. The dining room also has a bar and cocktail menu with Asian twists, including a lemongrass margarita, green tea martini, and a Szechuan pepper mojito.
Even though the Chens are trying to embrace the neighborhood’s new demographic of cocktail drinkers and foodies, they also have no plans to close or change Yum’s II next door.
“They always liked that one,” Diana Chen says.
Da Hong Pao Restaurant. 1409 14th St. NW, 202-750-7307