Momofuku CCDC executive chef Tae Strain has had a whirlwind year, leaving his post at San Francisco’s Michelin-starred the Progress to relocate here. He made the cross country trek with his chef girlfriend, an alum of award-winning Craftsman and Wolves in the Mission; she’s since landed at new Line hotel restaurant A Rake’s Progress.
Strain says taking command of Momofuku wasn’t the reason for the move; being closer to his family in Maryland was the real driver. Still, his next career move was set in motion years ago, thanks to memorable meal he served Momofuku founder and Ugly Delicious host David Chang at the Progress back in 2016.
Shortly after Strain started this year, Chang urged him to “destroy” the old menu — which meant moving beyond ramen and bao buns. That recent menu overhaul is now in full effect, consisting of lots of bing and sharable dishes. And a few weeks ago, he introduced another first at the three-year-old restaurant: a laid back patio dining option that aims to lure in District diners with $1 beers, seafood served by the pound, and alcoholic slushies.
Strain tells Eater more about changes on the horizon — and how he’s “pleasantly surprised” he’s spotted so many similarities with San Francisco’s dining landscape.
Talk about your longtime connection to Momofuku.
Tae Strain: When I was in New York I was living in Momo territory. Milk Bar, Ssäm Bar, all the originals were right there. I grew up eating those classic dishes I am oddly enough now tasked with destroying. But it’s a cool dynamic in that way. I met Dave a year and half ago. He came into Progress and had a really nice meal. He came back and hung out with the cooks and said thank you and that stuck with me. But we didn’t talk after that. I didn’t know much about CCDC. I randomly got in touch with the company and it happened quickly from there.
What are the latest menu alterations?
TS: The two ways I feel this menu has taken shape are bing and large format. I knew I wanted a bread program and family-style to be present on the menu. I wanted to work with dough every day. The thing I loved about the Progress and [sister eatery] State Bird Provisions is everything is done in house. It forces you to connect with food in a different way. Doing bread and bing here, we are making hundreds a day.
Describe your vision behind the new weekend patio program
TS: I was so happy to have Dave come down for the first one. He’s all about the energy and that’s what I want the patio to be about. We are serving four types of shellfish, crawfish, mussels, and clams and gulf shrimp, all going out in metal bowls. So it has that crab shack feel. They’re served on trays and it’s messy with bibs and the vibe is really good. The plan now is Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m to 3 p.m., subject to change and based on demand. I’ve talked to our seafood purveyors and it should be a strong blue crab season. The minute they are available I want them.
How have guests been reacting to the new menu?
TS: One thing that stuck out to me the first month I was here was watching how people would order and eat. So many would get bun and ramen, and their partner would get bun and ramen. When you think about it, that’s such a singular dining experience, eating a bun and moving on to ramen. Now you can share bing and potentially roasted chicken. It creates a different dynamic in the dining room, which I love because this building is so huge and airy it needs that energy.
Where’s there room for improvement?
TS: I am proud of what we’ve done for dinner and I want to apply that same energy to lunch — and I don’t know what that looks like yet. That will take time. There was such a dialogue in D.C. about Momofuku CCDC not being for D.C. That’s so much of what I am doing; I am from here and trying to connect this restaurant to this area. I love the patio because we think the seafood concept is something D.C. can get behind. We want more of that, we want people to feel that.
How do you think San Francisco’s dining scene stacks up to D.C.?
TS: I didn’t know what to expect. I just knew D.C. just got the [Michelin] guide and it’s got tons of talent, but the amount I’ve seen here has been awesome. It’s amazing to see so many similarities with San Francisco. Both are hubs and major markets in the food world but both feel really small. What is rad to me is the distinct small town feel to the chef community here. Everyone I’ve encountered here, chef-wise, has been so welcoming. I had a bunch of them in for dinner a month ago and it was very cool; most of them I didn’t know and we were all at the table hanging out.
What are some pros of the East Coast vs. West Coast?
There’s something nice about having seasons again. You value ingredients in a different way. At Progress we used Meyer lemons all year because they were available. Now it forces you to appreciate them in a different way. Ramps are great now and asparagus is not quite there yet. But great things will be happening soon.
This interview has been edited and condensed.