When I enter one of the townhouses of West Georgetown, the hostess immediately seats me at a table adorned with a blue and white floral tablecloth, faux candles, and a hydroponic plant. The server fills the crystal glass in front of me with water, and I notice a plate with a cloth napkin and a pair of chopsticks next to it. The lights are dim; there’s quiet indie music playing (“Amoeba” by Clairo and “ocean eyes” by Billie Eilish). I feel immediately relaxed and ready to enjoy the five courses that would culminate in one of the most luxurious dining experiences of my 22-ish years on this planet.
This is, of course, no ordinary restaurant: it’s “The Lincoln Experience”—Lincoln Le’s (CAS ’24) pop-up restaurant that serves a five-course prix fixe menu of delicious East and Southeast Asian food (including Japanese and Vietnamese dishes) from the unexpected hearth of “Trap Manor.”
Shortly after 8 p.m., a crowd of Eating Society (GUES) members sits alongside me and we make Georgetown small talk—MSB and SFS caricatures (I give off SFS energy, apparently)—while studying the framed posters advertising The Lincoln Experience. We sip lychee mocktails as a virtual fireplace crackles on the TV.
The mocktail is refreshing and minty, leaving a lingering tingle on the tongue. After sufficiently savoring our libations, we bite into the sweet, citrusy, and juicy lychee resting at the bottom of the glass using our chopsticks, a treat I recommend any future patron to indulge in.
“[The mocktails] take about four hours to make from start to finish just because the syrup is made from canned lychee, but then you have to blend it and then add sugar and let it sit on the stove and simmer for a couple of hours,” Lincoln said a few days later in an interview with the Voice. “It comes in this beautiful pink color. You can’t really see it in the glasses, but it’s a wonderful taste.”
When the first course arrives—Agedashi eggplant—the conversation between me and the GUES folks promptly switches to how much we’re enjoying the food.
The eggplant is plated beautifully, carved into careful rectangles and laid into Dashi broth—a mild fish sauce used as the base for many Japanese soups—with grated daikon and thinly sliced green onions on top. It’s soft, yet flavorful, with meticulously carved lines upon the violet skin of the eggplant creating a lovely aesthetic effect. Inspired by the agedashi tofu at Hanabi Ramen in Arlington, the dish happens to be the favorite dish of the evening of our hostess, server, sous chef, busser, back waiter, and dishwasher—all of who happen to be Lincoln Le’s younger sister, Ailin Le (MSB ’27).
“I’m like a sponge. Anything that Lincoln needs me for, I’ll do it,” Ailin said. “That night I was sous chef, waiter, dishwasher, all of the above. Everything except the head chef, basically.”
At its core, The Lincoln Experience is a family endeavor. When in their hometown of Lighthouse Point, Fla., the siblings are often in the kitchen together. While Lincoln focuses on making sides and plating, Ailin is often responsible for the protein—both the catching and the cooking of it.
“I do a lot of diving and fishing. I’ve been focusing on trying to just catch my own food and then clean it and then cook it myself,” she said. “There’s a lot of lobsters and fish here. So we’ll go out and just harvest whatever we can find.”
“She just has a natural inclination for this type of stuff,” Lincoln said. “I’m very grateful for her.”
The duo also gain cooking inspiration and support from other family members, who are all “big foodies.”
“My mom cooks a lot. She cooks a lot of authentic Vietnamese food, and one of my biggest regrets since moving away was not being able to learn from her,” Lincoln said. “I still call her up sometimes asking her how she does this and how she makes a certain Vietnamese dish that I can try to recreate it here.”
The second course is steamed bok choy, and our discussion shifts to who is and who is not using their chopsticks correctly. The dish is simply seasoned, savory, and light. It’s an excellent appetizer: delectably tasty, but not so heavy or sweet that it might disrupt our appetite before the next course’s arrival.
Lincoln began cooking in January of 2021 during the 2020-21 academic year when all classes were moved online and few students lived on campus, but some—including Lincoln—moved to off-campus residences elsewhere in the DMV.
“It was my first time being away from home permanently. I didn’t like the prices of D.C., of the restaurants, so then I forced myself to cook. It didn’t go super well at the start, but eventually, over time, I found that I was really good at following directions from recipes,” Lincoln said, adding that he gained much of his culinary knowledge and inspiration from YouTube videos, Instagram accounts, and online recipes.
“About half of the stuff there I’ve found online just from perusing stuff and saving things from TikTok and Instagram, but then I put my own little twist and change it up a little bit.”
The idea to transfer his newfound culinary skills into a pop-up restaurant, however, didn’t come until he was inspired by a friend who had seen similar pop-ups on TikTok and Instagram.
“I wanted to explore more of what it takes to kind of do the fine dining aspect of food,” Lincoln said. “I needed an excuse to plate and serve for other people, so I decided to do the pop-up.”
The third course arrives: chicken dumplings for most of the patrons, with a vegan mushroom dumpling option. (“I have a vegan option for everything on the menu,” Lincoln later wrote to the Voice). The made-from-scratch dumplings are sprinkled with sesame seeds and rest in a concoction of soy sauce, black vinegar, and chili paste. The dough is soft and chewy, while the chicken filling is savory and, when dipped into the sauce at the bottom of the bowl, has just the right level of saltiness. Like the previous two courses, it’s divine.
As one might presume from the methodically crafted menu, preparing for a night of pop-ups—Lincoln generally offers 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. dining options—is a multi-day event.
The day before, he buys the ingredients, mostly from Good Fortune Asian Market in Virginia and Costco. Sometimes a CVS or Michael’s run is necessary to get other supplies for the dining set-up.
The following day, beginning at 9 a.m., is spent preparing food, mixing mocktails, and transforming the house.
“It doesn’t look like a restaurant all the time, so I have to strip the walls of everything, put everything in boxes, hide them in the corner, and take out the tables. There’s a table from the backyard I have to bring in and an extra chair from my room,” he said. “When it’s restaurant day, everything gets transformed.”
As we finish our dumplings, I hear the sound of meat sizzling from the kitchen, which is separated from the dining area by a curtain. Soon, bowls of white rice beneath sprinklings of sesame emerge, followed by heapings of shaking beef—a dish consisting of steak, peppers, and onions on plates of leafy greens. Lincoln later told the Voice he learned how to make the dish from his mother, and that it was among his favorite dishes she cooked. The meat is juicy and perfectly cooked, while the peppers and onions are a welcome addition to the dish, incorporating an element of crunchiness into the entrée’s textures. Lying on a bed of mixed greens, the flavors are almost dreamlike. The beef is delicious, especially when combined with the sesame rice.
Each pop-up has a similar fixed menu, but Lincoln sometimes changes the dishes slightly. This semester, however, he plans on reinventing it, incorporating other dishes into the menu. (Lincoln later emphasized to the Voice that the dishes served at the pop-ups so far represent just a fraction of the “rich depth” of Vietnamese and other Asian cuisines). There have been four pop-up dates thus far, each of which accommodated 16 people (eight at 6 p.m. and another eight at 8 p.m.) but Lincoln is open to expanding the restaurant’s capacity. He plans to host more this semester—likely “one or two a month” on the weekends.
The pop-up feels tailored to Georgetown students. Not only does the outstanding cuisine provide a welcome reprieve for students tired of dining at Leo’s and Epi’s day in and day out, but the distinctly undergrad vibe is also thanks to the location itself. Infamously nicknamed “Trap Manor” by prior tenants, Google classifies the house as a “Historical Landmark.” Lincoln’s residence also has a dozen overwhelmingly positive Google reviews, which Lincoln encourages patrons to write.
“Five stars, and if it was out of five million I’d sit here scrolling for hours until I’d filled every single one,” Dashiell Barnett (SFS ’25) wrote in one review, adding in jest that he “shed a tear in my soy sauce.”
While he doesn’t envision the Lincoln Experience continuing after he graduates, Lincoln does see himself preserving his love of food; the head chef told the Voice that he hopes to one day write for the cooking section of the New York Times. “I do love food and I do love making new recipes and stuff,” he said. “I want to be able to provide that for a bunch of other people.”
“The dream is to develop and share recipes,” he added. “I want to be able to do that because I don’t see a lot of easy Southeast Asian cooking that people can do when they’re in college.”
The final course is black sesame ice cream, for which Lincoln emerges from the kitchen, where he has been dutifully cooking all evening, to personally scoop dollops into our bowls. Although the texture is slightly grainy due to a small blip in the hourslong preparation process, the flavor is exquisite—not too sweet, but enough so that my taste buds are content. Made with coconut milk, the vegan ice cream is a satisfying conclusion to the evening’s dishes.
Lincoln and Ailin don’t do the pop-up with the primary purpose of making money; they do it because they love it.
“It’s really fun for us,” Ailin said. “This has been Lincoln’s dream for a little bit. And then he made it come to life, which is pretty impressive.”
“Food is very important to us. It’s more than just nourishment for our body,” Lincoln said. “I cook because it helps with my mental health, and it gives me an excuse to just not think, you know?”
At The Lincoln Experience, I, too, experienced the gift of being able to “not think” for a little while; the food was so wonderful, and the experience so immersive, that it felt like I was at a professional restaurant, not in a fellow Georgetown undergrad’s living room. Not only was the food heavenly, but getting to chat with strangers (the night I attended, all patrons were seated at the same long table) and meet the siblings eager to share their food service talents was a mouthwateringly satisfying, genuinely Lincoln experience.
Suggested donation for the five-course Lincoln Experience is $40. Pop-up dates for this semester include Jan. 29, Feb. 11, March 13, and March 24, with more tentative pop-up dates later in the semester. Advanced reservation required: http://Bit.ly/lincexperience.