Situated at the nightlife nexus of 14th and U Streets NW, Alice DC opens a psychedelic portal to fast-casual pho bowls upon entry, a video game corridor framed with fluorescent murals of mushrooms, and a DJ-driven nightclub with bottle service up top.
D.C. bar vet Sonny Tran is the brains behind the two-story sensory overload of a project that opens tonight next to his hip-hop standby Cloak & Dagger. Tran, who happens to be a professional breakdancer and martial artist, hired his Vietnamese mom as head chef (1357 U Street NW). She’s “one of the best cooks I’ve ever known,” he tells Eater. “[And] I’m not just saying that because she’s my mom.”
Chef Ngo Mai Oanh makes all the pho, spring and egg rolls, and specialty sauces on-site, while managing partner and Darna alum Jin Chong sends out Asian street foods like pork belly bao buns, double-fried chicken wings, potstickers, and beef lettuce wraps.
The kitchen is open Wednesday to Saturday from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. to start. The nightclub piece is open 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Thursday, Friday, and Sunday and until 3 a.m. on Saturdays. There’s also Monday hours (9 a.m. to 1 p.m.) to cater to industry friends’ off nights.
Tran came up with the idea for Alice DC a decade ago and initially planned to plant it in Cloak & Dagger. But the layout didn’t make sense, so when Tran got first dibs on the old State of the Union space in 2018 he pounced.
With no roof or foundation and crumbling walls, the whole building was in “terrible” condition and had to be rebuilt from the bottom up before renovations could commence. COVID-19 stopped the project dead in its tracks and Tran finally got the green light last year to get Alice DC across the finish line.
“I didn’t have much cash flow at the time so I had to design it myself,” he says.
He turned to some of his favorite movies for inspiration behind its eye-popping look: Matrix, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, and naturally, Alice in Wonderland. “Trippy stuff – thinking outside the box and secret doors,” he says.
An arcade machine-filled intermission past the pho bar conjures cherished memories when Tran was a kid. With a “Slurpee in one hand and money hidden in my shoe,” he’d bike to his top after-school hangout: an air-conditioned laundromat featuring a video gamer’s paradise in the back. He still recalls all the “crazy” artwork, black lights, and sounds of Pac-Man and Galaga.
He recreates that nostalgic feeling of excitement at Alice with a row of ’80s franchise favorites like The Simpsons and Teenage Mutant Nina Turtles and immersive images of Super Mario mushrooms.
The second level pays tribute to Tran’s competitive breakdancing career that’s taken him on tour with the likes of The Black Eyed Peas and Busta Rhymes. A narrow nightclub lined in Victorian-era wallpaper and velvet booths invites local DJs to spin hip hop, EDM, and hits from the ’80s onward. The winding top floor leads to a back patio deck.
“I wanted to put all that into one space. How deep does the rabbit hole go?” he says.
The original name was supposed to be Rabbit Hole, but he wanted to avoid legal issues with a California business of the same name so he changed it to Alice.
Working with his 80-year-old mom wasn’t always part of the plan. For years, she’d frequently ask her son if she could to work the door at Cloak & Dagger to stay busy (“I was like hell to the no,” he says).
When Alice got rolling again after the pandemic, he still had uncertainties about bringing her on as head chef. “Her being in D.C. at night really scared me,” he says.
“She didn’t hesitate at all and said she one thousand percent wanted to do this with me,” he says. “In the end she has been such an amazing blessing in this project.”
Mom’s menu will soon expand with hot dogs and burgers dipped with 24-hour pho broth and homemade sate sauce. For now, her signature noodle soup arrives with braised brisket and rare steak.
Alice is a team effort with Cloak & Dagger partners Jon “Gunjak” Liu (a member of Tran’s Lionz of Zion breakdancing crew) and D.C. entrepreneurs Salim Khouri and Yahya Yasini.