At various points over the past six years, chef Tim Ma has rolled out holiday pop-ups that show off an earnest appreciation of American Chinese takeout. The latest, Lucky Danger, has more permanent ambitions. Ma has hired Andrew Chiou, formerly of standout Japanese skewer bar Momo Yakitori, as an executive chef to run the project that will officially debut Friday, November 27. The takeout and delivery operation is taking over Prather’s on the Alley in Mt. Vernon Triangle for at least a year, and the pair are looking for additional spaces in D.C.
Ma says the dishes at Lucky Danger are “unapologetically American Chinese.” The layout of the menu resembles a typical Chinese takeout flyer. It includes familiar favorites like spring rolls — with a bamboo and cabbage filling — along with orange beef and chicken lo mein.
There are also options that resemble what my Shanghainese parents made for me in my childhood, like tomato and egg, which Ma’s menu calls out as a “staple in many Chinese households,” and flounder with pickled cabbage (a classic Chinese condiment). Wonton soup won’t be surprising for American diners, but the winter melon in it might be a departure for some.
The pop-up’s duck fried rice incorporates confit duck legs, a classic French technique, and more modern tea-smoked duck breast, rice, and eggs. Orange beef takes its flavor from the fruit’s zest, not the ubiquitous orange glaze, applied to chunks of sirloin. The menu places hot and sour soup next to yu choy, a Chinese leafy green prepared in a traditional stir-fry with garlic and Shaoxing cooking wine. Cashew chicken can be found next to a spicy Sichuan mapo tofu.
“We wanted to have dishes that are often accessible only to Chinese people, but that Chinese-Americans love, and that Americans may not otherwise see,” Ma says.
The chef recognizes that not all diners will be interested in a steamed whole branzino stuffed with garlic, ginger, scallions, and lemongrass. But not all his dishes have to be best sellers.
“I’m a big believer in not organizing a menu just to sell,” he says. “We have to leave dishes that are true to form.”
The busy D.C. area chef has developed high-end, Western-influenced Chinese menus at now-closed Kyirisan and, more recently, American Son at the Eaton hotel. He also added an executive chef title at Prather’s, which will remain closed, and a culinary director role for Laoban Dumplings. Ma says he associates Thanksgiving with carryout. Every year, his family would go to his uncle’s house. Paul Ma would put on a big dinner and tell stories about the restaurants he ran. Later in life, those businesses would be featured in a Smithsonian exhibit.
“This concept started as an ode to my uncle,” Ma says. “I wanted to explore the food that he had in his restaurant, which was the centerpiece of the food I had growing up, and also the centerpiece of my culture and much of my family’s story.”
Born and raised in Arkansas, Ma says he was brought up American. “My parents wanted to assimilate my sister and me as much into American culture as possible,” he says. “They thought that it would help people around us look past the fact that we looked different.”
Ma says his parents tried to “Americanize us” at the table, where there was Chinese food but also lots of burgers, barbecue, pizza, and hot dogs.
As a result, Ma says he knows “American” food better than “Chinese” food. The chef is particularly fascinated by the place the two cultures meet. He doesn’t want to use the term “Americanized” because he thinks it gives off undertones of of colonization or marginalization.
This tension between American Chinese food and traditional dishes is the guiding ethos behind Lucky Danger, down to the restaurant’s name. “Obviously, ‘lucky’ is pretty common around Chinese restaurant names, but adding the notion of danger brings this yin and yang, opposing forces element to the forefront,” Ma says.
“It’s fun, light Chinese takeout in all its glory,” he adds, “but it’s also a story of migration and Americanization.”
Ma also wants to challenge common perceptions around Chinese takeout, but with a relatively affordable price. Large portions of most dishes are $16, with small portions available for $8. Takeout packages cost $40 (for two to three people) and $75 (for four to five).
“[Some people] think Chinese to go and [they] think dirty, cheap, makes you go to sleep,” Ma says. “But that’s not the food we grew up eating, and it’s certainly not the food you actually get in China.”
Ma admits that plenty of cuisines have adapted and evolved in the American canon, but Chinese food has historically been unfairly compromised compared to the Italian or French cuisines often found in fine dining establishments.
“We’re probably doing at Lucky Danger the same things that our cooking ancestors did during the Gold Rush when they first came to America — doing what they knew as their own home cooking and taking steps to refine it to a particular palate,” Ma says. “But hopefully, this time, we’re stretching that palate out a little bit.”