Owen Thomson has an elevator speech ready for anyone who asks why Archipelago offers Chinese dishes on the small but arresting menu at this U Street tiki bar. Old-school tiki rooms like Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s, Thomson will tell you, were among the first to employ Chinese chefs at white-tablecloth restaurants, forever sealing the connection between Americanized Chinese dishes and the tropical cocktails that define tiki culture.
Had he more time, Thomson might do for you what he did for me one slow weekday night as I was perched on a bar stool: He handed me a copy of “Trader Vic’s Pacific Island Cookbook,” a 1960s-era artifact in which Victor J. Bergeron, founder of the Polynesian-themed chain, reveals himself to be a forefather to Anthony Bourdain (presumably minus the war zone and strip-club visits).
I realized I had a woefully incomplete picture of Bergeron. I mean, when viewed through our modern sensibilities, in all their wokeness, Trader Vic’s can come across today as little more than an early cultural appropriator, a once-dominant restaurant empire that exoticized other cultures to titillate American diners. But Bergeron’s cookbook lays out the deeper motivations behind Trader Vic’s. It shares his stories from Tahiti to Texas (the book’s subtitle is “With Side Trips to Hong Kong, Southeast Asia, Mexico, and Texas”!), detailing Bergeron’s fascination with countless international cuisines.
The more you read, the more you realize that Bergeron was not a culinary tourist. The level of knowledge in his book could have come only from visiting kitchens, attending ceremonial feasts and talking to chefs. He demonstrated familiarity with, if not authority about, fermented black beans, Chinese five spice, Chinese barbecue pork and even monosodium glutamate, or MSG, which he wholeheartedly embraced as a flavor enhancer. He published a recipe for Barbecued Pig Chinese Style, in which the first direction is to “select a small pig, 18 to 20 pounds. Remove most of the shoulder bones and split the chine bone down the back from the inside, taking care not to cut the outer skin.”
This guy was not a dilettante. Bergeron was a true believer. But he was also a realist who knew that 1960s America was not yet ready for authentic Chinese cooking, even if chefs could find the ingredients they needed (which they largely couldn’t). “Chinese dishes are very popular in this country,” Bergeron wrote, “but there are many which if served exactly as they were originally created, simply wouldn’t be accepted.”
In some ways, Thomson and Ben Wiley have inherited the mantle from Bergeron. The co-owners of Archipelago (Joe Ambrose is also a partner) are bartenders by training, experience and reputation. But now they also serve as chefs at their tiki bar, though they’re loath to call themselves such. They’re too modest — and too friendly with professionally trained toques who might bristle at bartenders who adopt the title of “chef.”
Regardless, Wiley and Thomson — like Bergeron before them — have an insatiable curiosity. They entered the bartending world through a back door. Both were schooled in other fields: Wiley has an undergraduate degree in history and Thomson in archaeology. Thomson even has a law degree that he’s never used. As you’d expect, their thirst for knowledge didn’t stop just because they decided to sling drinks for a living. They’ve channeled their skills into researching and developing a menu that bows respectfully in the direction of China, while making modifications that befit their tiki bar concept.
The mapo tofu offers a fine example: The blocks of firm tofu do not come swimming in Sichuan chile oil, as they would at Xi’an Gourmet or some other spot, but instead are mixed with Chinese broccoli and scallions and then sprinkled atop a bowl of white rice that serves as a sponge for the spicy-and-numbing oil. It’s a brilliant, bar-friendly interpretation. But even when the Sichuan oil assumes a role more central to the dish — as it does in the appetizer of pork wontons in red oil — the sauce is mindful of its audience. It purrs more than growls.
Thomson and Wiley make almost everything in-house, including the pork-and-tofu lion’s head meatballs (garlicky little orbs drizzled with hoisin aioli), kung pao wings (a bar classic reimagined as potent Sichuan finger food) and even the Sichuan oil (which leans harder on the sweet cinnamon and star anise than the anesthetic Sichuan peppercorns and chile flakes). One of the fiercest items on the menu is the hot chicken steam buns, a clever and nuclear Taiwanese take on Nashville hot chicken. Make sure to have a mai tai at your elbow.
Although the menu lumps every dish under a general “food” heading, some plates are clearly designed as appetizers and others as entrees. In the former category, the Sichuan eggplant won’t be mistaken for Peter Chang’s signature dry-fried eggplant dish; this one plays to the nightshade’s softer and silkier textures, different but delicious. The Xi’an spiced potatoes is another appetizer, sort of like Chinese skillet potatoes, but heavy on cumin and paired with a black-vinegar aioli dipping sauce.
The dan dan noodles approach entree status, each thick, toothsome strand almost painted with chile oil and topped with an unorthodox ground-beef mixture that substitutes for the traditional crumbled pork. The dish has a pine-needle coolness that somehow suits the Day-Glo, palm-tree aesthetic of this place. The black soy bean chicken, by contrast, has heft, a bowl that believes in the power of fermentation to ratchet up a dish’s savory qualities. I could have eaten three orders of it.
One thing to consider about Archipelago: It is a bar of many personas. One night, it could be a mosh pit of tiki tipplers. The next, it could be a tropical dead zone, just you and the bartender discussing the finer points of aged rums and tiki glassware. Personally, I prefer the quiet nights, not because I enjoy watching a bar suffer, but because I can listen to Thomson and Wiley as they quietly step into their roles as tiki archivists. Before you know, you might have an old cookbook or a Trader Vic’s menu from the 1980s sitting in front of you. Either one pairs perfectly with a banana daiquiri.
1201 U St. NW, 202-627-0794, archipelagobardc.com.
Hours: 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday; 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
Nearest Metro: U Street/African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo, with a short walk to the bar.
Prices: $5 to $15 for all dishes.