Bun’d Up chef Andrew Lo grew up watching his family and their staff play mahjong after hours at their Cantonese dim sum restaurant in Kansas City, Missouri.
“You close down the restaurant and you all play mahjong together,” recalls Lo of the convivial routine. “My family is Cantonese, and in Hong Kong, you often finish a meal, pull off the top of the table, and there’s a mahjong board underneath.”
Lo and Bun’d Up founder Scott Chung are taking the idea of post-dinner games one step further for their next business venture: Sparrow Room, a mahjong parlor and speakeasy-style dim sum bar opening on Thursday, January 27. During the day, customers can order Taiwanese-style gua bao buns at fast-casual Bun’d Up in Pentagon City. Come evening, they can head to the emerald-hued, 40-seat bar discretely tucked behind the restaurant for mahjong games, colorful cocktails, and Cantonese bar fare.
Bartenders Micah Wilder and Hunter Douglas, who are behind the drinks at DC spots like Mercy Me and Zeppelin, designed the cocktail menu. Many of the drinks are influenced by Chinese flavors, such as a Bamboo Manhattan with five-spice-infused rye, or a frozen Peacock Daiquiri with rum, dragonfruit, and calamansi (and if you’re in need of a caffeine boost for the games, there’s always an espresso martini). Lo’s food menu is designed with grazing in mind—think shrimp dumplings, turnip cakes with Chinese sausage, or chili-dusted popcorn chicken. Larger plates include ma po tofu or crispy pork belly.
The name Sparrow Room nods to the game’s original Chinese name—“the sound that sparrows make when they take to a tree. It reflects the sound of the tiles chittering and chattering,” Lo says. Still, the bar won’t be strictly Chinese. Lo and Chung, whose family is Korean, often pay homage to their Asian-American roots at Bun’d Up and their traveling barbecue pop-up, Wild Tiger BBQ. “I’m very Asian-American with an emphasis on the American,” says Lo. He plans to celebrate mahjong’s role in the United States, both in Asian-American and other cultures.
Mahjong is having a moment, partly because the national spotlight on AAPI culture has revealed both positives and negatives (like the Texas company owned by three white women that peddled a culturally insensitive version). But Lo sees traditional mahjong as a pasttime anyone can enjoy. The chef began teaching mahjong lessons when he worked with Burmese food stand Toli Moli at Union Market. He’s planning to continue weekly mahjong nights on Wednesdays from 6 to 8 PM—a tradition he started at Bun’d Up. Experts are also welcome to book tables (reservations will launch soon on Tock).
“Mahjong was taken out of China in the early 20s, and it was ingrained in Jewish community,” says Lo. “In the ’50s, you see a lot of ads of American housewives playing mahjong at the pool. We’ve got a lot of interest for mahjong nights from our Asian friends, and also interest from the Jewish community. It’s a game people have always played, but maybe they didn’t talk about it as much.”
Sparrow Room. 1201 South. Joyce Street. Arlington.
*This story has been updated from an earlier version.