Photo: Farrah Skeiky
Photo: Farrah Skeiky

Himitsu’s Secret Sauce

Himitsu has racked up more than a dozen national and local awards, nominations and recognitions in their first year of business, from a James Beard nomination and a spot-on Bon Appetit’s Best New Restaurants list to multiple 30 under 30 and 40 under 40 nods for co-owners Carlie Steiner and Chef Kevin Tien. All of it has left many wondering: what’s the secret sauce? If you ask Steiner and Tien, they’ll tell you that it might literally be sauce.

“I’d say it’s probably about 80 percent Kevin’s sauce, and 20 percent everything else we do,” Steiner says with a laugh. “Really though.”

Whether it’s a sharp vinaigrette on a crudo or a rich XO cream on a “gnocchi,” Tien is constantly hearing customers rave about his sauce.

“We say the sauce is boss here,” he explains. “I’m a sauce guy, I guess.”

Of course, that’s just the sauce on the plate. The backbone of the 24-seat restaurant in Petworth is the inventive, Japanese-inspired food from Tien and Steiner’s esoteric yet approachable beverage menu that jumps from fino sherry to nori-infused daiquiris. As first-time restaurant owners, Tien and Steiner have been open to growth and change.

“In the first year, I think it was mostly about finding who we are as a restaurant and then really solidifying that identity,” Tien says.

For instance, Tien’s menu used to feature nigiri and maki rolls, but he quickly dropped those in favor of more unusual crudo creations.

“There’s a lot of really good sushi restaurants in DC,” he says. “We should really just focus on ourselves and how we’re going to be different.”

Steiner sees the changes they’ve made as drastic, but she takes heart in the feedback she’s received from regular diners who make up about 50 percent of the restaurant’s clientele.

“A lot of them say while we have grown and perhaps gotten better throughout the year, they feel like our integrity is the same. They feel like it’s still been us from day one. It helps that we’re kind of a bunch of weirdos,” Steiner says of their quirky characters and unexpected pairings.

“We’re not an American restaurant; we’re not just an Asian restaurant,” Tien adds. “This restaurant is Carlie’s personality; it’s my personality.”

To focus on making food that expressed that personality, Tien removed header labels from his menu to avoid pigeonholing dishes into expected categories. As a result, he often turns out plates that may sound uninspiring on the surface, but end up blowing diners away, like humble charred carrots or a wedge salad.

“Pro tip: if you would never order this in another restaurant, you should order it at our restaurant,” Tien says.

When the standouts get a little too popular – like the karaage fried chicken – Tien tends to take them off the menu.

“I don’t want our restaurant to be known for one single item. I want our restaurant to be known for multiple items, and for overall really awesome food [and] really awesome beverages. Someone made a missing flyer for the fried chicken and hung it around the neighborhood – that’s how much they missed it. But I’ll never bring it back.”

Even without the beloved chicken, people are still willing to stand in line for Tien’s food and Steiner’s drinks. With only 24 seats, Steiner explains that they simply can’t take reservations.

“It will not work with this space. We’ve run the numbers. We know it won’t. Our system allows us to have people in the seats from the second that we open until we close, and if we don’t have people in the seats from the second that we open until we close, we don’t make enough money.”

She’s this frank when she explains the situation to guests who wonder about the no-reservations policy.

“It’d be different if we had a larger restaurant,” Tien adds. “If we were a 70 to 100 seat restaurant, then yes, of course we would love to take reservations.”

But don’t get your hopes up – Himitsu isn’t expanding.

“It’s loveable the way it is,” Steiner says.

So, your best shot at snagging a table is showing up at 5 p.m. on a Tuesday or Wednesday.

“You’ll just walk right in and dine,” she says.

Despite the lines and the praise, Steiner and Tien haven’t let the success get to their heads.

“You never get used to it,” Tien says. “But we try not to think about it. We come to work. We focus on what we could do better. We never try to think about the accolades.”

For Steiner, the real test is what she overhears around town.

“I’m so excited when […] some random conversation is happening and they’re like, ‘Oh, I went to Himitsu and had the best time.’ That’s an accolade,” she says. “[We’re] trying to not get too ahead of ourselves and realize that we’ve only been open for a year, and we have a lot more to learn and a lot more to grow. I think the more that a restaurant receives, the higher the expectations [and] the more we have to then put into not being stagnant.”

In many cases, they feel the weight of expectations even more because of their age.

“We actually had a guy come in here the other day, and he was interested in doing a collaboration of sorts, and then he’s like, ‘Oh, can I talk to the chef?’ and I came out [and] talked to him,” Tien says. “And he’s like, ‘Man, this place really is run by a bunch of kids.’ I was so taken aback.”

Steiner says they’ve made a few minor changes – like removing the emojis from their menu – to compensate.

“We’re really trying to stay true to ourselves, because we are millennials [and] we are young, but that’s not what we want to be known for. We want to be known for being a badass restaurant, not for being a restaurant run by kids.”

True to millennial form, Steiner and Tien are also determined to use their restaurant’s acclaim for good.

“We have a voice […] that we’re obligated now to use,” Steiner says.

In 2017, they gave back to causes like Planned Parenthood, Chefs for Equality, relief efforts for Hurricanes Harvey and Maria, and more.

“It’s kind of amazing how much we’ve raised for a small restaurant for all these different things,” Tien says.

They plan to double down on that commitment to give back to causes they care about in 2018.

“If it’s the right thing to do, we will do it,” Tien says. “It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s the right thing.”

At the heart of it, they haven’t let public perception change who they are as a restaurant.

“People kind of dig the whole, ‘Look at these weirdos doing this weird thing,’” Steiner says. “We might not follow all the same rules and we might not play the same games as everybody else, and maybe that’s refreshing.”

Learn more about Himitsu at www.himitsudc.com.

Himitsu: 828 Upshur St. NW, DC; www.himitsudc.com