Sarah Berghoff was out with friends and wanted to visit a brand new spot in Shaw for cocktails and Asian-inspired cuisine. Upon entry, a 1920’s style mural with an icon of Charlie Chaplin came into view. The space was elegant with a speakeasy vibe. On the wall above the bar, The Tramp played on a reel.
A tall, burly man with a big smile came over and greeted them.
“Hi, I’m Armin. Welcome to Chaplin’s. We’re a ramen, cocktail, and dumpling bar.”
“What does Charlie Chaplin have to do with Ramen?” Sarah asked.
“Well, the legendary silent film star was adored in Japan. That’s because he could make people laugh without uttering a word.”
“What a charming connection. What do you recommend?”
“If you like your spirits strong, I recommend the Tramp. It’s Bourbon with a burnt orange peel. For ramen, I recommend the ASS.”
“ASS – Asian Spicy Sour. chicken chashu, coconut milk, chicken broth, and pork butt. It’s our take on the ever-popular Tom Yum soup with noodles imported from Japan.”
Several minutes after Sarah and her friends sat down, the bartender with a cool Chaplin-style outfit served them their classy cocktails.
Armin came by again to see what they thought of the innovative cocktail menu.
“Fabulous. I can see you have broad experience in this industry.”
“Yes, I’ve worked in this business for over 20 years. At the Capitol City Brewery and most recently at the Saint Arnold’s Mussel Bar.”
“Amazing sounds like you’re a powerful force in the restaurant industry.”
“Well, the co-owners are bartender brothers, Ari and Micah Wilder – owners of Red Light on 14th Street – we’re a star-studded class.”
“You know there’s someone you should meet that’s an up-and-comer in this industry. He’s a quintessential foodie and has a finger on the pulse in this industry.”
The next day I got a call from Armin.
“So Sarah speaks highly of you. I thought I was the Big Man on Campus.”
“You’re a rockstar, Armin. All I do is promote restaurants and host some events. You’re the brains behind your brand and do all the heavy lifting.”
“Well, we sure could use some help with marketing and developing our web presence. When we opened a few months ago, we were named The Chaplin. Now his estate is threatening a lawsuit so we changed it to Chaplin’s”
“I can help with the name change and ensure that your website and social media reflects the new and improved branding.”
The following week, I met with Armin and his co-owners, brothers Ari and Micah Wilder as they gave me a spirited tour of their cozy space.
The vibe and ambience were warm and welcoming and the Laughing Gas cocktail I ordered was potent and bursting with flavors.
“We figured out a way to compress carbon dioxide with helium,” said Micah. “You’re gonna sound really funny and everyone’s gonna be laughing at you.”
I also met Chef Myo Htun, a native of Burma who cooked under a Master Ramen Chef in Tokyo for 30 years.
“Chef Myo is a tireless worker,” Armin said. “He’s worked every day since we’ve opened. We should make him a co-owner one day.”
Chef Myo served me the Tonkotsu Ramen with the broth made from boiling pork neck bones – the collagen in the connective tissue transforms into gelatin, which gives the broth its silky texture. Inside the bowl were melt-in-your-mouth chasu pork belly and soft boiled eggs with custardy egg yolk.
“Your ramen kicks ass, Armin. I would love to host our next get-together here and invite all ramen enthusiasts to celebrate Shaw’s hottest, new setting.”
“Sounds like a fabulous idea. If we could also do a fundraiser for Bread for the City, that would be great also.”
The next month on October 22, 2014, dozens of ramen and cocktail fans converged at the downstairs bar for a private event.
Christine arrived early as usual and secured a spot at the bar.
“Hey Chris, good to see you. How was the military ball with Khoi?”
“The Vietnamese-American Military Banquet was an overwhelming experience with lots of shiny uniforms, great food, and formal traditions — we had a blast.”
“I can picture that. I’ve been to a few military balls myself. They can be quite fun. “
“Met so many amazing Vietnamese Americans and they gave each of us a commemorative coin.”
“Carry it around with you — it’s a good luck charm.”
“And I wish the best to Khoi as he heads to Kosovo for a six-month peacekeeping mission.”
To kick things off, many guests were introduced to the payday adult-only dumplings — infused with Japanese whiskey. You could choose from a steamed shrimp dumpling on a whiskey sour named The Cold War, a hot pork dumpling on a lemon emulsion, or a hot beef dumpling with Japanese whiskey.
“This is what happens when a couple of bartenders open up a restaurant,” Micah declared.
I’ve tried all three, and Micah told me to tap on the brakes. So I was happy to entertain guests to see which one they preferred.
BJ McDuffie sampled The Cold War. “Mmm, the shrimp shooters are savory and boozy–a perfect combination. I’m ready for the next one.”
I ordered a Payday from Margaux behind the bar. “How was Drink the District BJ?”
“Meh, could be better — it was a scorching, hot day. But this is even hotter.”
“So, what have you been up to lately?”
“Bowling, bocce, and brunch — that ’bout sums it up.”
“Have you been to Alba Osteria in NOMA? They serve an awesome brunch and have a bocce parklet outside.”
“Not yet, but I’m a fan of Roberto Donna.”
“How about Myo Htun – what do you think of his culinary skills?”
“By the juiciness of these dumplings, Chef Myo ranks up there with José Andrés and Richard Sandoval.”
As expected, our resident comic made a showing.
“One of my favorite indie chefs is Erik Bruner-Yang,” said Wayne Manigo. “And with my cooking skills and an endless supply of ramen, I could give Toki Underground a run for their money.”
“What if you’re a butterfly, but you’re too busy being a caterpillar?”
“Mine is Chef Anh Luu, who cooks Cajun/creole with Vietnamese ingredients,” Christine said. “And I like my ramen spicy, so I’m here to kick some A.S.S.” While she waited, she ordered the Cure, and Micah blow-torched a piece of rosemary on her fruity cocktail.
“Yeah, I know it’s all presentation, but I swear it does taste better,” she said.
Wayne took a taste of Christine’s Cure. “Please pour me a damn drink !! Do not put any herbs and spices in my cocktail that is only for food and also don’t light the dam thing on fire either!”
Armin put a hand on Wayne’s shoulder. “What makes Chaplin’s stand out from all the rest is the personality of our bartenders. People come from near and far just to have Jake (Jacob Simpson), Said, or Margaux pour them a drink, ask them how their day is going and tell a kickass joke. You’re hired.”
Margaux Donati mixed a Vagabond cocktail. “We love you boss. You’re a true friend.”
It was also good to see Deb Santos again.
“Hey Big Shot, how’s your growth?”
“A long, hard struggle and still tripping.”
“That’s normal. It’s important to show some self-compassion for your blunders. Don’t regret the things you have done as much as the things you never did. It’s better to get up and do something rather than nothing, and right now, you’re the big-time host of this fabulous party, so you should be grateful.”
“I can always rely on you for wise advice Deb. Still haven’t cut back on my drinking though.”
“Alcohol is a depressant and keeps us at a lower vibration. Try limiting yourself to two drinks and take small sips and plenty of water in between.”
“Limiting myself to two drinks is like telling my pitbull, he can’t eat my ice cream.”
“What if you’re a butterfly, but you’re too busy being a caterpillar?”
When Sarah arrived, I was pleased to show her my new business card. She liked the running Orangutan logo popping out on a yellow background. But when she turned it over, she nearly flipped out.
“Whoa, you put my picture on the back!!”
“Well, you said you wanted to see the picture of us at Toro Toro.”
“But not on your business card.”
“But, your face is more interesting than mine,” I explained. “No worries, you’re not the only one — I also put Kanita and Jackie on there, too.”
“Well, I’m honored to be promoting your website,” she replied in jest.
“And I’m honored to have you serve as our de facto brand ambassador. After all, you introduced me to Armin and Chaplin’s.”
Later that evening inside the Opium Den, Armin and I were slurping on some ASS.
“So what do you do for fun?” He asked.
“Besides running and drinking, I like to go paddleboarding on the Potomac. I normally launch from the Slip Inn on (Joint Base) Bolling.”
“Right on bro. I love boating myself. We like to take the Chaplin’s crew and launch from Edgewater (MD).”
“So the neighborhood is continuing to change. What are your plans moving forward?”
“Perhaps adding a sushi joint next door or building an American diner across the street.”
I took a sip of the Kid cocktail “Would it be another Hollywood-inspired name?”
“Yes, Shawshank Diner comes to mind–one of the best movies ever made..”
“And Shaw is one of the city’s hippest up-and-coming neighborhoods,” I said.
“Indeed, my beloved community is still very much on the move. This is why I love this city.”
“I’ll drink to that — another round of yummy shooters, please. Take it easy on the whiskey.”
I looked over my shoulders and could swear I saw the stern eyes of Deb keeping me in check.