When Ice Cream Jubilee’s Victoria Lai was a kid in the ’90s, her parents always kept roasted barley tea in the fridge.
“Growing up in Texas, it looked like sweet tea, but it wasn’t sweet tea,” she recalls with a laugh. “It wasn’t ‘normal.’” In time, she would come to see the Asian flavors she grew up with as “just as much a part of Americana as ice cream.”
Years later in D.C., Lai would leave her job as a Department of Homeland Security attorney and open her first ice cream shop in Navy Yard. And she’d go on to create an ice cream flavored with roasted barley tea, which has nutty overtones she says are “reminiscent of Sugar Smacks [now Honey Smacks] cereal milk.”
Boricha Roasted Barley Tea is now one of six pan-Asian flavors featured in Lai’s $16 ice cream tasting to ring in the Lunar New Year at all three Ice Cream Jubilee locations on Water Street SE, T Street NW, and at Tysons Galleria.
At Ice Cream Jubilee and other D.C. eateries with blended Asian influences, Lunar New Year, which falls on Tuesday, has joined the ranks of holidays marked by tasting deals and menus. These specials can range widely in value, but centering them around holidays like New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day gives restaurants a boost during the year’s slowest months.
And for Asian restaurateurs, the holiday feels more personal.
“We celebrate [Lunar New Year] because I’m of Chinese descent and it ends up becoming part of our history,” says Chef Erik Bruner-Yang, the restaurateur behind D.C.’s Maketto, Brothers and Sisters, Paper Horse, and Spoken English.
At Maketto on H Street NE, Bruner-Yang plans to extend his $35 Restaurant Week deal for the holiday. But at Spoken English, one of his two new restaurants inside The LINE Hotel in Adams Morgan, he is offering a new $80 five-course tasting menu that will remix traditional dishes like noodles and dumplings alongside curated mala spice-infused cocktails.
“It’s a good opportunity to do something that is not on our normal menu and highlight types of food that you should eat [for the new year],” Bruner-Yang says.
For Lai, her Lunar New Year tasting flight is a low-risk way to test new flavors, even if they aren’t tied to the holiday.
“How many people just want chocolate chip ice cream?” she always wonders. “How many people want something they’ve never tried before?”
Buoyed by nationwide trends, one of last year’s Lunar New Year flavors—Matcha Green Tea—was so popular it became a starting flavor on Lai’s year-round menu. This year, she has high hopes for her yuzu sorbet.
New year’s customs can vary by family, faith, and country of origin.
As a kid growing up in Vienna, Va., Korean American chef Danny Lee celebrated the Lunar New Year with tteokguk, a soup of sliced rice cakes, which symbolize longevity and renewal.
At his latest venture, CHIKO on Barracks Row, he’ll usher in the holiday with no less than a full week of a tasting menu based on the cuisine of the Korean royal court, plus late night and brunch events and daily specials centered on a whole roast pig. It’s an undertaking, but Lee says the menu is tailored to be “heavily representative” of traditional Korean and Chinese culture, which favors noodles and the rice cakes Lee grew up with.
Chinese American chef Tim Magrew up celebrating the holiday eating in banquet halls or at church. This year, at his new restaurant American Son inside the Eaton Workshop hotel, he is offering a limited-run menu inspired by the food served at his uncle’s suburban New York restaurant in the 1980s.
Back then, his uncle’s menu was considered avant garde. Ma describes his own offerings, which include a pizza-like version of a Chinese whole roasted duck with traditional trimmings, as simply “Chinese American.”
My menu “is more to expose people who don’t see [New Year dishes] normally,” says Ma. “Our patrons are a little less familiar. Really it’s an introduction.”
Will the experimentation disappoint diners who crave tradition?
“Chinese people who celebrate Chinese New Year aren’t going to restaurants like mine,” Ma says. “They’re doing what I did: Going to banquet halls or celebrating at home with their family.”
In the District, home to a Chinatown-nearly-in-name-only, diners have limited options to celebrate Lunar New Year with a grand, traditional meal. So for District residents who want to treat Lunar New Year like a bonafide holiday and offer at least a head nod to tradition, these menu specials offer alternatives.
And for chefs who wind up working longer hours during the holidays, some Lunar New Year rituals end up meaning more than the food.
This Saturday, Bruner-Yang will continue his tradition of hosting a customary lion dance at Maketto and his restaurants at The LINE Hotel. The tasting menus are for the diners, he says, but the lion dance, which blesses his businesses, is for him.