“Dan dan noodles were our gateway drug of steering the menu this way,” says Owen Thomson, a co-owner of Archipelago. The dish combines chewy noodles with ground beef, peanuts, scallions, pickled mustard greens, and chili oil that brings numbing heat. Thomson says he found a guy to buy noodles from on the outskirts of Union Market, then it was onto the next task. “We figured out how to make our own chili oil and that unlocked a lot of other recipes.” The U Street NW tiki bar has been slowly rolling out a menu of Sichuan bar bites that cost between $5 and $14.
Other highlights include Sichuan eggplant made tangy with chiankang vinegar, lion’s head pork meatballs in a hoisin aioli, mapo tofu, black soy bean chicken, and wontons in red chili oil. Though inspired by other regions, the Lanzhou beef noodle soup is a must-order on chilly nights with its wide, slippery noodles, chili, radish, and cilantro. Archipelago makes the broth out of veal shanks, oxtail, and chicken, among other things.
If Chinese food at a tiki bar sounds out of place, it’s not. “They are very intrinsically connected,” Thomson explains. Trader Vic’s, one of America’s original tiki bars set the trend. “They would bring over Cantonese chefs and put them in fancy restaurants. Nobody knew that food at the time. They’d dress it up and call it Polynesian.”
Tiki bars back in the 1930s and 1940s were styled after supper clubs and white tablecloths weren’t uncommon, according to Thomson’s business partner Ben Wiley. The pairing of Chinese food like crab rangoons, egg rolls, and lo mein stuck. “That’s why you still see a lot of tiki drinks in Chinese restaurants in suburban malls like scorpion bowls, mai tais, and zombies.” Thomson points to Bethesda’s House of Foong Lin as an example.
Archipelago is advancing the trend by zeroing in Chinese cuisine from a specific province. This shift to showcasing regional ethnic cuisines is one of the biggest food trend predictions for 2018, but as usual D.C. is ahead of the curve. We already have a couple of restaurants serving Uyghur cuisine, for example.
Wiley and Thomson went down a rabbit hole reading everything they could get their hands on about Sichuan cuisine and Chinese food more broadly. “Despite the fact I hated school, I’ll teach myself anything,” Thomson says. “He’s doing the majority of the cooking but Wiley also rotates in. “After 15 years behind a bar, you’re looking to do something else.” He’s becoming well versed in all of the different Chinese vinegars and has been making his own garlic and sesame oils.
Tiki bars by nature leave a lot of room to be creative when it comes to the food. “We could pretty much do whatever we wanted back there and no one was going to call us out,” Thomson says. That said, the bar keeps food prices low because they know they’re experimenters, not experts. “The goal is for people to say, ‘That’s better than it should have been.’” Most people come to Archipelago for drinks in frozen pineapples, but Wiley and Thomson say it’s been fun surprising customers with their food.
Archipelago, 1201 U St. NW; (202) 627-0794; archipelagobardc.com