Chef Kevin Tien made a national name for himself in the tiny Japanese-inflected kitchen of Himitsu. A couple years after his departure and the restaurant’s subsequent closure, he’s reclaimed keys to the exact same Petworth space with friend, colleague, and fellow chef Caleb Jang to open a Korean-inspired restaurant called Magpie and the Tiger. After quietly launching last week with fried-chicken sandwiches from Tien’s other business, Hot Lola’s, the new spot will debut its own takeout-only, family-style set menu beginning Wednesday, January 12.
Tien and Jang first met seven years ago while working the back line at (now-closed) Momofuku CCDC in CityCenterDC. Jang continued to be Tien’s right-hand man at Himitsu, where he was responsible for many of the dishes. He then followed Tien to Emilie’s in Capitol Hill, followed by modern Vietnamese destination Moon Rabbit at the Wharf.
“I was like, man, he has to be tired of just helping me open stuff, so let’s open something for him,” Tien says. So while Tien continues to lead the kitchen of Moon Rabbit—and prepares to open a second Hot Lola’s in Rosslyn this spring—Jang will spearhead the menu of Magpie and the Tiger, infusing his Korean-American heritage into dishes that might not always fit neatly in one genre.
“It sounds very cliche but I can’t avoid it: just making delicious food is the goal of Magpie and the Tiger,” Jang says. “The most comfortable cuisine that I know is Korean/Korean-American, but I’m not going to limit myself.”
The opening menu—”omicron pivot edition”—pays homage to Chinese-Korean dishes that Jang grew up eating. The $70 set, which feeds two to three, will include acorn jelly salad with a sesame-soy vinaigrette; vegetable-and-noodle-stuffed steamed buns; noodles with black bean sauce; and sweet and spicy garlic fried chicken. (“His chicken is way better than all the other versions I’ve done,” Tien says.) Hot Lola’s sandwiches will continue to be available throughout the day.
Jang plans to later highlight a “kitchen sink” tteokbokki (rice cake) dish mixed with fish cakes, ramen noodles, sausage, and more. Because the restaurant doesn’t have its liquor license yet, the team is working on some non-alcoholic cocktails to pair with the food.
The plan is to offer takeout only for at least the first month to maintain safety during the latest Covid surge, then eventually open the snug dining room with a menu of more composed small and large share plates. Non-alcoholic cocktails will continue to be a focus along with their boozy counterparts, and they’ll offer wine, plus soju and makgeolli (a milky fermented rice wine) from small-scale Korean producers.
The name Magpie and the Tiger references a Korean folk painting motif; the tiger is “the protector” and the magpie is a good luck omen, Jang explains. The newly made-over dining room will be full of plants and “hidden details” related to the two animals.
“The best thing about Himitsu was when you ate there, it was very intimate and everything was very personal,” Tien says. “Whenever you have the chance to sit in that dining room again, you’ll get that personal feeling.”
Magpie and the Tiger. 828 Upshur St., NW.