Andrew Chiou could tell his hands had gone soft. When he started making scallion pancakes for Lucky Danger, the hit American-Chinese takeout operation he founded with busy chef Tim Ma, Chiou could feel the heat as he blended boiling water with flour to make an elastic dough. He had lobbied to add the pancakes to the menu since Lucky Danger debuted from a thrown-together pop-up kitchen in November, and he wanted to form them the right way, so he refused to use a mixer. Chiou’s pain is D.C.’s gain. The pancakes are one of several new dishes Lucky Danger sells out of a new kitchen in Arlington outfitted with proper equipment and more room to cook.
Before the takeout and delivery shop opens today in the Westpost development (1101 S Joyce St, Unit B27), Chiou had to rebuild a tolerance for heat in his fingers and palms. “They’re back up to par, back up to speed now,” he says, ready to knead pancake dough and flip woks full of new additions to the menu like General Tso’s chicken and moo shu pork.
Chiou and Ma’s move outside of D.C. speaks to Lucky Danger’s glow-up. Although the partners talked about opening multiple locations from the jump, they started out with one weak wok burner from a used kitchen supply store that they installed inside Prather’s on the Alley in Mt. Vernon Triangle. In his new kitchen, Chiou works with a three-burner range built with its own washing system and special concrete insulation to keep him cool.
Lucky Danger will make all of its D.C. orders out of its new location just across the Potomac River. Chiou says that “nothing changes” for regulars in the city. Northern Virginia customers will have to place to-go orders from a kiosk at the restaurant for the first few weeks, but the kitchen plans to add online ordering and lunch hours for its new base shortly thereafter.
Lucky Danger has garnered plenty of attention, charming Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema and snagging a lead role in a New York Times piece about chefs across the country who are paying newfound respect to American-Chinese food, the business is still sticking to takeout and delivery. Ma previously told Eater that a fast-casual iteration could be the ceiling for Lucky Danger as a brand. Meanwhile, Ma says he’s working on building a new restaurant in the Prather’s space that will focus on dim sum with French cocktails, with the hopes of opening by the end of the year.
For Ma and Chiou, spending 10 months of conceiving and refining Lucky Danger have brought opportunities to consider the roots of their recipes and talk through the emotional attachments to their cooking — both on a personal level and for customers.
“This is full circle,” Ma says, referring to the restaurant his parents ran in Conway, Arkansas, when he was a kid. “This is how my family started in America.”
For the most part, Lucky Danger doesn’t want to reinvent the classics. Ma and Chiou know they cater to customers who bundle specific dishes for takeout orders that, in some cases, span back multiple generations. But there are a few exceptions, like a pig ear salad with celery and jicama, or a duck fried rice with confit legs and tea-smoked breasts, that nod to home-style American-Chinese tastes or French techniques culled from culinary school.
The new moo shu pork is “Lucky Danger-fied,” Chiou says, because he uses a stovetop steamer to lightly smoke the meat before slow-roasting it and serving it with in-season baby corn and other vegetables, homemade pancakes, and hoisin sauce that he’s doctored up with a “very specific” ratio of five spice. He uses fresh orange peel in his General Tso’s chicken, applying vinegar and soy to his sauce to keep it from caramelizing the way it does in Lucky Danger’s popular orange chicken.
Chiou says as Lucky Danger has grown, he and his staff have had more time to develop their “wok hei,” a term that describes the mastery of imparting different flavors from the heat and seasoning of the pan. The chef, who previously owned acclaimed Japanese place Momo Yakitori and consulted for Kitsuen ramen on H Street NE, says he’s rebuilt his muscle memory for Chinese food, but in one respect, he’ll always feel like something of a novice.
After culinary school, Chiou landed an apprenticeship under a chef named Tony who shared his Taiwanese heritage. Tony owns First Emperor Chinese Restaurant in Richardson, Texas, outside of Dallas, where Chiou learned how intricate American-Chinese cooking could be. Tony’s menu offered more than 300 dishes, and he would sometimes serve 500 people in a day, all by himself. He was so particular that he would only let Chiou cut vegetables for awhile. The chef paid his pupil only with pairs of shoes, because they shared the same size. As time went on, Chiou learned to study Tony’s movements, hoping to pick up a bit of his perfectionism.
Although he’s found success developing his own wok hei, Chiou still feels a little bashful comparing himself to Tony. “I haven’t even told him I’m cooking American-Chinese food, because he would laugh,” Chiou says.