At a time when 14th Street in Northwest Washington conjured images of prostitutes and crack cocaine rather than organic juice joints and luxury apartment buildings, Jerry Chen made a simple gesture that would define his place on the strip.
He opened — then tore down — the bulletproof glass windows at Yum’s II carryout.
With that, whether he intended it or not, Chen became a part of the Logan Circle neighborhood. He became invested. To his customers, he became “Pa.”
That was in 1988. Now the one-mile stretch of 14th Street from Thomas Circle to Florida Avenue bears little resemblance to what it did then. Once a red light district, it is now home to high-priced restaurants and bars, including one called Red Light that offers craft beer and artisanal cocktails.
But Yum’s remains — and now, next door to it, the Chens have opened an upscale Chinese food and dim sum restaurant called Da Hong Pao. Side by side, the two restaurants, one with burned-out fluorescent lights overhead and the other with a chandelier inside the front door, speak to the neighborhood’s past and future.
“Lots of changes,” Jerry Chen said one recent afternoon, sitting in his new restaurant. His daughter, Diana Chen, translated at times for him. “Before, the buildings in this area were old, falling down. There was a parking lot where the Whole Foods is that used to cost $35 a month.”
Now, new construction is towering several stories high and parking in a lot nearby can run $22 a day.
It’s too early to tell whether Da Hong Pao, named after a valuable tea, will succeed. But its presence has not gone unnoticed by both those who speak nostalgically about what has been lost in the neighborhood and those who talk enthusiastically about what has been gained.
“It’s the story of the city,” Daniel Arrieta, 41, said.
He has eaten at Yum’s on many late nights after the bars have closed, and he has gone to the new restaurant twice. When he and his friends learned the same family ran both places, he said their immediate reaction was “Are you kidding me?” Then they thought about what it must have taken for the Chens to survive on the block and now expand.
“We thought it was awesome,” Arrieta said. “You work all these years, and then you get to open your dream.”
The dream started in Hong Kong. Jerry Chen, now 58, studied and cooked in a restaurant there before coming to the United States in 1983.
Since then, Chen has opened and closed more than a dozen restaurants, including several in Maryland. He and his wife, Janice, are from Fuzhou, China, and were classmates in
Hong Kong before they married in the States in 1984.
At Da Hong Pao, he is proud of a Cantonese-style menu that includes “goose feet with black mushroom and sea cucumber” and “special preserved duck with taro root,” along with more Americanized dishes such as Kung Pao chicken and crispy orange-flavored beef.
“I always wanted to open this type of restaurant,” Chen said. He has hired seven chefs from Hong Kong, but he makes all the sauces himself, trusting the task to no one else, even relatives. This means he works every day, without taking vacations, as he’s done for most of his life.
“The most important thing is the sauce,” Chen said. “If the sauce is not good, the plate is not good.” This is true of the garlic sauce at the new restaurant, he said, where a chicken dish might cost $15, and also true of the much-demanded mumbo sauce at Yum’s, where three chicken wings with french fries or fried rice costs $5.60.
“The price range doesn’t matter,” he said. “The most important thing is to give them good food. If the food isn’t good, no matter how cheap it is, nobody comes back.”
Zhaoyin Feng, a 26-year-old reporter for Hong Kong media who lives in the District, has been to Da Hong Pao three times. From the decor to the food, she said, “it makes me homesick.”
But the story of Da Hong Pao is not just about food. It’s about having a stake in a neighborhood that didn’t always look promising. In 1988, when Jerry and Janice Chen opened Yum’s on 14th Street, the city was on the verge of becoming the murder capital of the nation, and the street was among the ones pedestrians avoided at night.
Chen “invested a lot of money in the neighborhood, and I think he stuck it out during the hard times, when investing financially in the neighborhood was a risk,” said John Fanning, chairman of the area’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission. Fanning has lived in Logan Circle for 26 years and has seen the Chens’ children — two daughters and a son — grow from toddlers in strollers to young adults who now help, as needed, at the restaurants.
He has also seen rental prices grow, to the point that they are among the city’s highest, based on rent per square foot, according to real estate data firm Delta Associates. At The Bentley Apartments — described on their website as “conveniently located at 14th Street and everything” — a 529-square-foot, one-bedroom, one-bath apartment starts at $2,179.
In 1996, the building that houses Yum’s and Da Hong Pao was worth $315,000, according to District deed records. This year, the property was assessed at $1.1 million.
The number of restaurants around the Chens’ enterprises has exploded. At one point, the neighborhood had four liquor licenses, Fanning said. Now it has 94.
“That will tell you the substantial growth we’ve had in the neighborhood,” he said.
But Yum’s has continued to thrive even as the street has changed.
On a recent afternoon, six people stood on the tiled floor at Yum’s, waiting for their orders. Five wore hard-toed work boots and one a pair of well-worn tennis shoes. Next door, spread across two tables and the bar, five customers sat eating. Between them, there were four pairs of loafers and one pair of heels.
James Cunningham walked out of Yum’s with chicken wings, which he planned to eat for lunch before getting back to his job as a messenger.
“They’re the only one that is less expensive and still here,” said Cunningham, 60. “There used to be a fish place across the street. Now it is,” he paused to squint his eyes and focus on a sign across the road, “Urban Essentials.”
Many people mourn the grittier, quirkier, pre-gentrification version of 14th Street represented by Yum’s.
“There was a place you could get a live chicken killed. It was on the corner of 14th and S, where that big apartment building is now,” recalled Michael Johnson, a theater director who, after more than 30 years of living on 14th Street, became the last private tenant in his building to move out in January. By then, he lamented, “it didn’t feel like my neighborhood anymore.”
“It was a great place to live for a while,” said Johnson, 66. “Now it’s a bunch of young people who aren’t particularly interesting to me. But I’m sure they’re interesting to somebody. They’re making landowners very wealthy.”
But speak to Jerry Chen about his new restaurant, and he won’t talk about it as a financial investment. Instead, he wants to discuss flavors, how traditional Cantonese-style cooking aims to honor the original taste of the ingredients. Just inside the front door of the Da Hong Pao, tanks are filled with fresh lobsters, crabs and rockfish.
Diana Chen, who is temporarily helping her parents manage Da Hong Pao, has suggested they retire. But she knows they won’t. It’s not just a business for them, she said: “They put a lot of heart into it.”
“They get to know people, and they become like family,” she said. In some instances, they have served their customers’ children’s children.
After they got rid of the bulletproof glass windows at Yum’s, unheard of at many city carryouts, Jerry Chen said they were never robbed.
“People have been good to us,” he said.
And in return, he said, they’ve tried to be good to their customers. He still works the night shift at Yum’s and said it stays open long past the time other places have closed — 4 a.m. Monday through Friday and 5 a.m. on Saturdays — because customers told him they work late and asked him to extend the hours.
He said they are also trying to listen to what customers want at Da Hong Pao, which on a recent weekend had a line outside the door before noon. It’s possible that some people standing there remembered that the Playbill Cafe once occupied that space. But most were focused on being seated at a white-cloth-covered table inside 14th Street’s newest restaurant and choosing from passing carts of steaming dim sum.
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.