All photos courtesy of Rooster & Owl

InterviewsWashington D.C.

Can’t Easily Define Rooster & Owl? That’s Just How the Tangs Want It


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To capture the bountiful cuisine of America today is no easy task, one that seemingly demands years of research (and by “research” we mean metric tons of cheddar biscuits and Buffalo wings) and sprawling menus of the Cheesecake Factory variety. But in a laid-back neighborhood just north of the U Street corridor, Rooster & Owl owners Yuan and Carey Tang have risen to the challenge.

Five years after opening, their restaurant has become one of D.C.’s most celebrated destinations. Here is a Michelin-starred spot that takes “modern American” at face value, that nods to the seasons in meaningful ways, and isn’t afraid to mash up traditional dishes to achieve sublime combinations.

Take, for instance, their English pea rangoon. Dressed in a green aioli with a dab of Calabrian honey, it’s a playful spin on crab rangoon, with all the flourishes of spring vegetables. This same creative thread weaves itself throughout the restaurant’s $95 prix-fixe menu. Dishes like scallion naan sit next to a Thai papaya salad-inspired steak tartare, flecked with potato chips for a light crunch.

Carey and Yuan Tang
Carey and Yuan Tang.
Rooster & Owl dish

You’ll find Yuan Tang at the helm of this whimsy. To create a new dish with his team, he will often select a recipe at random and, in his words, go a “half-step away from what’s traditional.” Yuan’s attitude towards dining, and his penchant for offbeat flavors, developed after cutting his teeth in New York fine dining, namely at Jean-Georges, The Modern, and Dovetail, the last of which he worked as sous chef. In the dining room, his partner Carey serves as the restaurant’s anchor, working a range of duties, and occasionally calling out orders at the kitchen’s pass.

Last year, the duo opened their second restaurant, Ellie Bird, a homey spot in Falls Church. Named after their second daughter (and their fondness for feathery friends), it has quickly become a neighborhood mainstay, and more affordable alternative to their D.C. original. Opening Ellie Bird — especially in Falls Church — also represents a homecoming for the couple: both grew up there, currently raise their family in the neighborhood, and held their first restaurant jobs as teens down the block on Broad Street. (Fun fact: Yuan’s first job was at Red Lobster. Carey’s was at Applebee’s. We weren’t kidding about the biscuits and wings.)

Resy caught up with the Tangs to chat about the inspirations behind Rooster & Owl, the changing expectations that come with a Michelin star, and how they celebrated Ellie Bird’s first anniversary. Oh, and dad jokes.


This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

RESY: I read that Rooster & Owl is a reference to chef Yuan being a night owl and Carey being an early riser. Does that still hold?

Yuan Tang: Actually, it still kind of does. Most days, Carey is working during the day. And she’s now taking on the task of working brunch at Ellie Bird. And most of my responsibilities still typically happen at night for dinner services. I think it’s still true in a way.

How do you split your responsibilities?

Carey Tang: I think the best comparison is when you’ve got two kids. You can be as even in your split as possible, until one has a problem. And then you’ll pay attention to that one a little bit more.

Yuan: This movie, “Everything Everywhere All at Once”? I feel like that’s kind of life for the two of us. I needed to be at both places all the time. So, like Carey said, we try to go to where we feel like we’re needed the most. Sometimes we have staff coverage that we need to attend to, like someone is on vacation. We might be at that restaurant for the week. Another person calls out at the other restaurant, and we go there. So we’re kind of like the backup plan for everything.

Rooster & Owl drinks
Rooster & Owl drinks

What made you first want to open up a restaurant?

Yuan: From my perspective, I think Carey kind of just got roped into it. A little bit by me.

Carey: Oh, I think that’s a very humble way of looking at it. I’ve known Yuan for 19 years at this point. And at least when we first met, and I was 18, he wasn’t on a culinary team. But he has this talent and a passion for it. And it was just so inspiring to be around that. And it’s very rare for a partner to see their significant other in their work environment. You usually hear about it at home.

I was so fortunate to work with Yuan in restaurants and see him come to life. And it’s just irresistible to want to be part of someone or something that is just grounded by such passion and such talent. Yes, perhaps it’s roped. But it’s such a privilege.

Yuan: For me, it started a long time ago. I actually grew up in a restaurant family. My grandparents had a restaurant in Hong Kong, and my parents had a Chinese takeout when I was growing up. When I graduated from college with an accounting degree, like every Asian kid wanting to please their parents, I wanted to do something stable and financially sound. So I didn’t go into the restaurant business, but after about five years, I realized that’s where my passion was. I was always cooking at home, I was doing dinner parties, I was going out of my way to find out how to cook something. So that’s what I just decided to do.

I see our cooks who come from a wide range of backgrounds, bringing their upbringing, bringing their training, all coming together to fuse something perhaps nostalgic, and then some cool technique. So I think that really represents what I look for in modern American cuisine. — Carey Tang

How has Rooster & Owl changed since the beginning? What’s been its evolution?

Carey: When I think back over our five years, every year has been unprecedented in its own way. The first year was our opening year, and incredibly challenging to navigate. Our second year was COVID, the first year of COVID. Unprecedented, very challenging to navigate. That third year was right as things were coming back from COVID. It was a sort of ambiguous, changing landscape every month. Vaccines came out, outdoor dining became a little more anticipated. And then 2022, which was our fourth year, was an extreme, exciting growth year. 2023 was when we opened our next restaurant. And it really changed how we had to split our time, delegate and encourage the professional growth of our colleagues.

For me, the biggest change is watching individuals grow, for example, from line cooks to executive sous chefs [like Tori Pajak]. Overseeing one restaurant to overseeing two restaurants. I think it’s outstanding for us to get out of their way in their professional growth. Yuan, what about you?

Yuan: The way I see our evolution? We first started Rooster & Owl with a very limited budget. No one had heard of us, no one knew who we were. So we started off as, in a very literal sense, a mom-and-pop shop. We were doing everything ourselves. It was hands-on. You know, fixing the toilet, cooking, managing the books, answering phone calls. But then, we were really lucky to get recognition from local media. And then we became really busy overnight. And then the pandemic put a stop to all of that. We had to just pivot, pivot, pivot.

Then we received a Michelin star, and that also changed the restaurant. Now, instead of a local mom-and-pop shop, people started coming in with higher expectations. It pushed us to become better. And then, of course, as Carey said, opening a second restaurant also changed the dynamic. We have to learn how to become leaders, and delegate, and figure out how to be in two places at once.

At different points, your restaurant has been called a neighborhood gem, a mom-and-pop, a Michelin-starred restaurant, and an experience of the thrill of fine dining in a casual way. How would you describe your restaurant?

Carey: I will call our cuisine modern American. And I know that term has been diluted a little bit. But for me, I see such a collaborative experience on the culinary side. I see our cooks who come from a wide range of backgrounds, bringing their upbringing, bringing their training, all coming together to fuse something perhaps nostalgic, and then some cool technique. So I think that really represents what I look for in modern American cuisine. Not necessarily Chinese food, but perhaps using a Chinese ingredient with a French technique. And usually, our courses are grounded in something that is nostalgic, or familiar, or approachable.

We designed a four-course format that’s a choose-your-own-adventure. We have four courses, and each guest can choose one option. And we have the option of adding on any course at any point in your experience. So for us, that really fits any kind of dietary restriction, any kind of hunger level, while still experiencing a progression of a tasting menu —which, I think, for me is usually a more traditional format, where everyone gets the exact same thing every course. Instead, it can be more experiential and more adaptable. And you can have a different experience each time.

I think if diners would go to restaurants with more of an open mind, they would find themselves enjoying themselves more. — Yuan Tang

How did you become curious about different cuisines?

Yuan: My cooking is probably just a culmination of everything I’ve learned in my life, my experiences, my training. A lot of the ingredients that I use are things I grew up with. And a lot of the flavors are things from my childhood, and a lot of the techniques I learned are from Western kitchens or French or Italian kitchens. So I utilize what I’ve learned at all these different places and, in a way, put it all together to make the cuisine.

Do you have a favorite dish at the restaurant?

Yuan: We change our dishes quite often, so it’s hard for me to pick a favorite. But I really like it when we come up with a dish that hits on something that’s familiar, yet a step away from tradition.

For example, there’s one dish that I’m quite excited about on the current menu. We’re trying to figure out how to make a steak tartare dish, which, as you know, is a pretty common dish. Everyone has a version, so we kind of decided that we wanted to pair that steak tartare with a Thai papaya salad flavor. We ended up doing just that; we use green papaya that we marinate with fish sauce, lime juice, a little palm sugar, and then we garnish the whole thing with a bowl of potato chips that we make in house, and season with scallion and malt vinegar powder. So it has a little bit of that sour cream and onion vibe going on.

And when you eat it together, it looks like a dish that you’ve seen in many other places, and it’ll bring back whatever memories you have of eating it. But then when you taste it, it’s completely different.

Carey: Can I add one? It’s also on our current menu — it’s our caviar service. Again, caviar is a very commonly used ingredient. And in our case, we serve it with these brown-butter steamed buns, which have swirls of toasted brown milk powder inside. They look really dramatic. Instead of like a classic potato product, it’s this cool steamed bun. And on the side, we have celery-root crème fraîche, and these Korean pickled daikon radishes, and a little mignonette that’s mixed as a condiment. So it has these echoes of a traditional caviar service. It’s served with Champagne, before the meal. But you have these unexpected elements that look outside the tradition. And it’s just such a joy to start the meal with them.

Rooster & Owl fried chicken
Rooster & Owl fried chicken

So diners come in expecting one thing but they get something totally different.

Yuan: I think the perfect term to describe that is pleasantly surprised.

What do you hope people will take away from your food, or dining out in general?

Yuan: I’ll give you one example. And I go back to this example quite a bit with my staff. We do have guests that come in because it is a Michelin-star restaurant, they come in and expect certain things. People might come in and want a Caesar salad. Of course, we can make it. But I think if we were to honor that request, it would take away the experience of what we’re actually trying to do.

So I typically encourage our servers to let them know a little bit about what we do. And I think if diners would go to restaurants with more of an open mind, they would find themselves enjoying themselves more.

How has Ellie Bird been this past year?

Carey: For me, it’s about brunch. This is our first foray into brunch service. They can get a very negative rap in the industry. For me, I have really enjoyed working them just because I haven’t before. They’re very different.

We also now have an outdoor dining area, which I’m really excited about. And with Ellie Bird getting the recognition that it has so far, it allows us often to meet some needs for diners that we can’t serve at Rooster. Like if they’re a larger group that we can’t accommodate in the modest space at Rooster, we can then look across the river.

What’s a fun fact diners should like to know about either of you? Before you answer, I want one person to answer for the other person.

Yuan: This is something most people don’t know — Carey is actually very multi-talented in many areas of the restaurant. She isn’t just doing the front of the house. Typically, she also does a little bit of kitchen work as well. If you guys come in for brunch at Ellie Bird, you’ll actually see Carey on the pass instead of me.

Carey: Here’s a fun fact for Yuan. I don’t know if you’d say this by yourself, but I think there can often be a reputation for a chef to be very serious and lead the team with authority. Those who work with Yuan know that he’s actually very silly and has a terrific sense of humor. He’s known for his dad jokes, and there are countless dishes that I can think of off the top of my head that actually were started with jokes, or plays on words. And those bring levity to the restaurant.

I don’t want to put you on the spot, but can we end with a dad joke?

Yuan: Let’s see – is there an appropriate one that I can tell? Okay, here’s a food one that’s appropriate.

Why did the chicken cross the street? Because chicken Caesar salad.

Jess Eng is a food and culture writer. She contributes to the Washington Post, The New York Times, TASTE, Eater, and more. She also founded and hosts the fermentation-focused podcast Ferments Live. Follow her on Instagram. Follow Resy, too.