The chefs of Moon Rabbit innovate in several ways: using baijiu in their drinks, hosting festivals to celebrate AAPI month and advocating for the AAPI community.
When you walk into Moon Rabbit and pull up a chair at Thi Nguyen’s bar, you’re likely to hear a story about one of the many cocktails inspired by her homeland of Vietnam.
Take, for instance, the Ticket to Tây Nguyên. This is a bright pink cocktail that gets its color from pomegranate juice. The drink is an ode to Vietnam’s lush tropical forest — the Central Highlands region known for producing pomegranates. The first sip transports you there with bright, bold flavors.
Part of the secret to this cocktail is its primary spirit baijiu, distilled in China. Combined with curry leaf cordial, pom syrup, lime and bitters, you get a refreshing drink, especially when D.C.’s heat and humidity hit hard this summer.
“I wanted something you can sip, savor and enjoy, to experiment and reflect who I am,” Nguyen says. “This is also a drink that involved a bit of trial and error because baijiu is complex.”
She is working as a bartender alongside Chef Kevin Tien to make an experimental summer menu, pushing the boundaries of traditional Vietnamese fare. Together, they share their AAPI heritage at Moon Rabbit through food and drink, and beyond, in community outreach, engagement and events.
This includes a special celebration for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. From May 19-20, Tien will host a night market at The Wharf: the Everything, Everyone, All the Food at Once Fest. The sold-out event features acclaimed talents of D.C.’s AAPI food community, including Erik Bruner-Yang (Maketto), Tim Ma (Lucky Danger), Victoria Lai (Ice Cream Jubilee), Julie Grant (Kaliwa), Patrice Cunningham (Tae-Gu Kimchi) Scott Chung (Bun’d Up and Sparrow Room) and Jerome Grant (Mahal BBQ), as well as live art performances and musicians.
“As a first-generation American, born in Louisiana, but who has also lived in Texas, Washington and California, I have this blended upbringing,” Tien says. “Being Vietnamese is [also] about blending many people and cultures together. Vietnam is such a big blend of so many folks. From French to Indian. It has Thai, Chinese and Cambodian influences, too.”
Nguyen credits her immigrant experience as a major influence in the drinks she makes behind the bar. She says she’s constantly thinking about the people and places who inspire her today.
“When you eat or drink [at Moon Rabbit], we’re not trying to be traditional Vietnamese,” Nguyen says. “I think what you get are a lot of the flavors. Everything is presented collaboratively. I really want our cocktail program to embody the same thing. I think people have a lot of perceptions when they go to their favorite Asian restaurant or Vietnamese restaurant. So we’re trying to do something a bit different and have some fun with it.”
Her bar menu is just one of the many pathways to talk about AAPI heritage, including the story of baijiu — a delightful spirit frequently produced by family-owned, small-batch producers.
What is Baijiu?
As a spirit, baijiu is so complex because it can be made from various ingredients, including fermented grains like sorghum, rice, wheat or barley. It has a sweet note and a fiery finish, running between 40-60% alcohol by volume.
It is also one of the most-consumed alcohols in the world, but somewhat difficult to find in Washington, D.C., unless you know where to look.
You can find it on the cocktail menu at Chang Chang in Dupont Circle or Reren Lamen & Bar in Chinatown. Nguyen also says baijiu is rapidly on the rise worldwide because it offers a range of expressions, from fruity and floral to umami flavors.
The bottle Nguyen uses is called Ming River, and it is an original Sichuan baijiu that uses traditional distilling methods passed down for over 20 generations. The process is extremely time intensive.
This baijiu is harvested from red sorghum grain and fermented in earthen pits with naturally harvested yeast cultures native to Luzhou, China.
After two months, the mash is unearthed and distilled in small batches using a traditional Chinese pot still. From there, the spirit is aged for two years before it’s batched and bottled.
On the first sip, there are floral notes, like a gin, then distinct peppery spice on the finish. But don’t confuse this clear drink with other spirits. Baijiu has incredible range, making it a versatile player in Nguyen’s cocktail repertoire. She recommends first tasting the spirit on its own to allow some of the intricate flavors to wash over and linger on your palate.
“This is a spirit that allows you to be really creative, and it’s why I like to use it on the menu at Moon Rabbit,” Nguyen says. “In the Ticket to Tây Nguyên, you get something tropical, in the tiki style, for an easy and approachable drink.”
Tien and Nguyen are not only collaborating on drinks at Moon Rabbit, they are also finding ways to talk about and advocate for the AAPI community, including events focused around food and drinks in D.C.
Tien has partnered with Chef Tim Ma for an initiative called Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate, which brings chefs from D.C. and around the country to host dinners, fundraising more than $500,000 for nonprofits that work to support the AAPI community.
It is work that comes as anti-Asian hate crimes are increasingly on the rise in the U.S., and when AAPI LGBTQ+ youth face an outsized risk of suicide. (Last year, a survey from The Trevor Project found 40% of AAPI LGBTQ+ youth seriously considered suicide.)
“Some of the events we’re doing in the future will focus on Asian mental health,” Tien says. “Because we know the suicide rate is really high within the Asian community. And we can normalize talking about our feelings, asking for help and speaking up against things like AAPI violence. A lot of Asian communities are insular, and we want to focus on community building.”
Nguyen is an active collaborator in this space. As part of the LGBTQ+ community in D.C., she participates in community building to support the AAPI community. This includes organizing a community conversation uniting several AAPI creatives on May 16 at Dacha Beer Garden in Shaw — an event free and open to the public.
“The idea is that we can bring people together to learn, collaborate and help break stigmas,” Nguyen says. “We are creating a space where we can highlight the incredible diversity of our community and explore all the creativity behind what we do.”
Don’t miss Tien’s Everything, Everyone, All the Food at Once Fest at The Wharf on May 19–20. Read more about it here.
D.C. Bars to Support During AAPI Heritage Month
At Chang Chang, the bar program was built around cocktails highlighting baijiu. One of the unique ways to try this spirit is in a drink called the Mr. Q Daiquiri. It calls for Ming River Baijiu mixed with Don Q Rum, Maraschino liqueur and grapefruit. 1200 19th St. NW, DC; changchangdc.com // @changchangdc
Daru is a self-described “Indian-ish” restaurant and bar that takes inspiration from many categories of spirits. This includes a chai-based cocktail mixed with Old Port Deluxe Rum and the Board of Bengal — which calls for a single malt Indian whiskey, Benedictine, sweet vermouth, allspice, banana and black walnut. 1451 Maryland Ave. NE, DC; darudc.com // @daru.dc
Rooster & Owl
Beverage Director Chris Sang pairs cocktails perfectly to this Michelin-starred menu. Those who fancy an espresso martini can try something new with his Red Eye From Tokyo. It’s a drink that calls for coffee-washed gin, Baileys, toasted sesame and cardamom. 2436 14th St. NW, DC; roosterowl.com // @roosterandowl
Recently named one of North America’s 50 Best Bars, this U Street bar is led by Christine Kim, featuring cocktails made in-house from hyper-seasonal ingredients. Find classic cocktails from around the world here, including daiquiris, pisco punch and spicy palomas. 926 U St. NW, DC; servicebardc.com // @servicebardc
Want to discover more about D.C.’s innovative and ever-changing drink culture? Join the District Fray community for exclusive access to beverage experiences citywide. Become a member and support local journalism today.