At ABC Pony, the ’80s- and ’90s-themed pasta place celebrating its grand opening in Navy Yard tonight, D.C. tastemaker Erik Bruner-Yang wants to show that Asian immigrants in America have as much of a right to red sauce as anyone else. By using ingredients like Filipino spring roll wraps, Japanese glutinous rice dough, and Hong Kong-style XO sauce, the chef-owner and his staff are assimilating Eastern traditions into the template of a casual Italian restaurant.
“Obviously we’re impacted by generations of all types of immigrants, so let’s create that kind of new neighborhood-type place,” Bruner-Yang says.
The chef loves to eat Italian food when he’s off work. His Taiwanese mother used to serve a weekly spaghetti night where rice would be on the table next to noodles. He already wanted a pasta shop of his own when the opportunity came to move into the base level of the Novel South Capitol, a new luxury apartment building at 2 Eye Street SE. It was a sensible landing place for an all-day hangout that opens for coffee at 7 a.m. daily. To fit the mold of a neighborhood Italian joint, Bruner-Yang said serving free bread and olive oil was a must. Pastas run for $16 to $19, and cocktails are $10.
A handful of breadcrumbs is a standard garnish replacing the fried garlic and shallots that rain over plates at his other restaurants (Maketto, Spoken English, Brothers and Sisters). A deli case holds a rotating selection of antipasti, including charcuterie like prosciutto and an “anchovy of the day.”
“It’s like my dream restaurant: just bread, cheese, and anchovies,” Bruner-Yang says with a laugh.
In some dishes at ABC Pony, the melding of Italian and Asian cultures is barely noticeable, like how XO traditionally made with dried seafood and pork augments the fishy identity of a single anchovy melted into a plate of spaghetti, fried capers, and gremolata, a play on both aglio e olio and puttanesca. The name of the egg drop soup might be the most Asian part about it; a meaty broth fortified with cheese rinds contains whisked egg and pecorino cheese in a riff on stracciatella alla Romana that doesn’t deviate from its home-style roots until it’s poured over a bowl holding jalapenos, cilantro, and ribbons of raw celery root.
In other places, the Italian-Asian marriage is brasher, like in an appetizer of cigar-shaped, fried lumpia that are stuffed with melting burrata and fennel-spiked meatballs. A small bowl of spicy tomato sauce connects the spring rolls to their mozzarella stick forebears. Head-on, shell-on shrimp are wrapped in mochi and fried before being topped with pecorino and served with spicy tomato sauce for dipping, pulling from fra diavolo and Chinese salt and pepper-style shrimp at the same time.
The all-day menu is split into three simple sections that Bruner-Yang designates as hot appetizers, cold appetizers, and pastas. The middle includes straightforward salads like a Caesar, with apples and hazelnuts, and an artichoke salad (marinated and grilled) with spinach and small grape tomatoes that have been par-roasted and concentrated with salt and sugar. Because much of the menu is meatless, ABC Pony will eventually have blue-plate specials like roasted chicken, fish, or prime rib.
After a decade and a half on the D.C. restaurant scene, a run that started as a founding chef at pioneering ramen shop Toki Underground, Bruner-Yang isn’t leading the day-to-day charge in the kitchen anymore. He offered the chef de cuisine job at ABC Pony to two candidates and was surprised when both accepted, so he ended up hiring both. Bruner-Yang also partnered with prolific D.C. restaurateurs the Hilton brothers, who are assisting with operations.
Chris Yates, most recently a sous chef at esteemed all-day cafe Ellē in Mount Pleasant, brings Italian heritage and expertise to the table. The egg drop soup is modeled after a stracciatella his mom used to serve. He can give his new partner, Paolo Dungca, lessons about regional varieties of bolognese sauce. Dungca, who delved into his Filipino background at Kaliwa and Bad Saint, has schooled Yates on lechon technique and also has history making pasta at Restaurant Eve.
Bruner-Yang says he’s been letting the co-chefs lead, stepping in to edit dishes and keep them from forcing the Italian-Asian idea when it feels unnatural.
In typical Bruner-Yang fashion, the theme for the design and the food comes from an abstract idea he had to boil down for customers. At Brothers and Sisters in the Line hotel, he set out to open a restaurant that showed how Japanese culture appropriates from the West, then found that tough to do over 200 seats.
At ABC Pony, the Italian-Asian mission gives him broad license to play around and fits into an idea of American identity he says was sparked by a scene full of confrontations between a Korean shopkeeper, an Italian pizza shop owner, and black neighbors in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.
“That right there was like, ‘OK, that’s the concept,’” he says. “And then, how do we make that fun? Because it’s super heavy.”
That’s where the retro theme comes in. For Mother’s Day, Bruner-Yang bought his wife a VCR that came with a huge library of VHS tapes. He was struck by how his 5-year-old daughter had never seen the outmoded technology, and how cool she thought it was. Hoping to be hip without becoming a hoarder, he lined the wall at ABC Pony with the VHS collection and a bunch of kitschy toys that harken back to the childhood days of his generation.
There’s a Coca-Cola fountain from 1975 that will mix soda concentrate with overproof vodka for cocktails that hop on the hard seltzer bandwagon. Bruner-Yang’s prized piece of memorabilia is a movie poster for Big Trouble in Little China (1986) that was hand-painted by promoters for roadside shows in Ghana. Like the restaurant, the poster captures a piece of Americana with a foreign brand of camp.