Bun’d Up chef Andrew Lo grew up watching his family and their staff play mahjong after hours at their Cantonese dim sum restaurant in Kansas City, Missouri.
“You close down the restaurant and you all play mahjong together,” recalls Lo of the convivial routine. “My family is Cantonese, and in Hong Kong, you often finish a meal, pull off the top of the table, and there’s a mahjong board underneath.”
Lo and Bun’d Up founder Scott Chung are taking the idea of post-dinner games one step further for their next business venture: Sparrow Room, a mahjong parlor and speakeasy-style dim sum bar tucked away behind Bun’d Up at Pentagon Row. During the day, patrons order Taiwanese-style gua bao stuffed with fried chicken or bulgogi beef at the fast-casual restaurant. Come evening, they can head to the dimly-lit, 42-seat bar for mahjong games, cocktails, and dim sum-style fare like dumplings, beef noodles, steamed buns, and turnip cakes.
The name Sparrow Room nods to the game’s original Chinese name—“the sound that sparrows make when they take to a tree. It reflects the sound of the tiles chittering and chattering,” explains Lo. Still, the bar won’t be strictly Chinese. Lo and Chung, whose family is Korean, often pay homage to their Asian-American roots at Bun’d Up and their traveling barbecue pop-up, Wild Tiger BBQ. “I’m very Asian-American with an emphasis on the American,” says Lo. He plans to celebrate mahjong’s role in the United States, both in Asian-American culture and others.
Mahjong is having a moment right now—partly because the national spotlight on AAPI culture, both positive and negative, like the Texas company owned by three white women that peddled a culturally insensitive version of the game. But Lo sees traditional mahjong as a past time anyone can enjoy. Lo began teaching mahjong lessons when he worked with Burmese food stand Toli Moli at Union Market. He’s already launched weekly mahjong nights on Wednesdays at Bun’d Up—the ticketed event ($30) includes a lesson, a time for open practice and free play, and three bao buns (cocktails are extra). When Sparrow Room opens, Lo says he plans to continue lessons as well as running tables for experts.
“Mahjong was taken out of China in the early 20s, and it was ingrained in Jewish community,” says Lo. “In the ’50s, you see a lot of ads of American housewives playing mahjong at the pool. We’ve got a lot of interest for mahjong nights from our Asian friends, and also interest from the Jewish community. It’s a game people have always played, but maybe they didn’t talk about it as much.”
The Sparrow Room is slated to open in November. In the meantime, you can book tickets to mahjong nights at Bun’d Up here.
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Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.