An interview with Chef Alex McCoy: a focus on authentic flavors and a casual atmosphere

Chef Alex Mccoy (courtesy of Alex)

I spoke with Alex McCoy, one of the three founders of the new Southeast Asian restaurant coming to 845 Upshur Street, to talk more about his goals with the restaurant, some menu ideas, the ambiance, and his thoughts on Petworth. (Local business owner Marc Dosik and restauranteur Hunter Campbell are the other two partners.)

Already a rising star chef in the DC restaurant scene, Alex McCoy’s prominence rose a little bit higher when he recently spent some quality time on TV as a contestant on the 11th season of Food Network Star. Before that, he previously ran the successful Dupont area restaurant Duke’s Grocery, which he left to open the new Upshur Street restaurant.

Courtesy Food Network

“Petworth has so much character,” Alex said, talking about why he chose this area for his latest restaurant. “I love the mix of people in the area, and I don’t think the feeling we’re trying to create would translate well downtown. It needs to be a neighborhood establishment.”

The menu will spotlight the Southeast Asian flavors and dishes that Alex is passionate about in his travels through Thailand, Laos, Bali and Japan over the years. He’s traveled extensively throughout the area, and recently spent a month in Asia after he left Dukes at the beginning of the year.

Alex and his girlfriend Isti participating in a water cleansing ceremony in Bali (courtesy Alex McCoy)

Alex then went on to appear on Food Network Star, and when he didn’t take the top prize on the show, he spent another three weeks back in Thailand looking for more of the spices, flavors and dishes that he use to feed his passion for experimenting with Asian cuisine.

And why Thai specifically? “Thailand has a beautiful and wonderful culture,” Alex answered. “I have an affinity with the culture and the food and want to introduce that to people here.”

To make sure everyone who will work at the new, as yet unnamed restaurant will share his perspective, he took the staff to Thailand for three weeks recently to taste the food and get a feeling for the culture.

“Authenticity and quality are important to me,” Alex said, describing what he’s hoping to achieve with the flavors and the dishes. “Perfection is something that I seek, although I know it’s unattainable. I can still work to ensure as much authenticity as possible.”

“What separates good Thai from others is utilizing the right ingredients and not substituting for easy-to-find produce when the real thing matters. It has to have the fresh chopped, vibrant flavors. We’ll be grinding the seasoning in the mortar and pestle every day. It’s more work, but the end result is so much better.”

Northern Thai laab lanna (courtesy Alex McCoy)

Laab, muu yang and veggies (courtesy Alex McCoy)

“The idea of our menu is to introduce people to the dishes and flavors they might not find in this country and create unbelievable, crave-worth dishes.”

He wasn’t wiling to be specific with too many of the dishes, but once we started talking about the types of food he's thinking of offering, Alex’s enthusiasm and passion was obvious. We talked about some of the types of food that has inspired the menu, like gai yang chicken, a whole roasted and grilled chicken served with sticky rice and a papaya salad. 

He talked about northern Thailand foods like laab lanna and the large bowls of noodles that they’ll make fresh in-house. There will be specialties like sour sausages (made in-house), grilled seafood and other famous regional dishes. “We’ll be grinding our own curry every morning,” Alex enthused. “These will definitely be crave-worthy dishes.”

Alex said the menu won’t be huge and won’t be expensive. “The menu will change often,” he said. “The curries will rotate and we’ll try new things.” 

Alex is taking some of the inspiration for the restaurant from the times he spent at Australian-Thai restaurants that catered to foreigners in Thailand. 

“The restaurant will have a ‘traveling’ theme,” he said, talking about the look and feel of the restaurant. “You’ll come in to find some of the best Thai food possible, mixed with Western dishes and Australian sandwiches and burgers.”

Group of Alex's friends in Thailand (courtesy Alex McCoy)

Sandwiches and hamburgers in Thailand? “There are lots of Aussies working on the coast,” Alex said. “And they have this amazing burger culture that they brought with them to Thailand.” He described hanging out with Australians at bars and eating incredible food that was a mash-up of Thai and Australian flavors. 

The idea is to bring this fun and flavorable experience to Petworth, while being sensitive to the knowledge that there are bars in Thailand that are the opposite of what he’s trying to share here. Alex addressed some of the concerns that a couple people raised about the “ex-pat” bar idea, and how it might be taking advantage of the darker side of the tourist industry in Thailand. 

“This isn’t a seedy bar, we’re not emulating that part of it,” he said to me when we spoke. “This is about the culture and flavor of the ex-pat community. Thailand is known as the ‘land of smiles’ and people travel there for the food and the culture. The restaurant is about embracing the positive side of that foreign community and seeing through a traveler’s eye. There’s nothing more inclusive than people from all over the world mixing together and sharing.”

He commented previously on the blog that “the vision of Southeast Asia that I have seen as a traveller over the many years of traveling throughout the region, is a place of unbridled cultural beauty that attracts people from all over the world. Our focus is on the artists, the musicians, and the travelers who come to the region and who, in many cases, stay in the region because of this beauty. The bar will not be named ‘expat bar’ and we don’t have a name selected (I think there is much confusion because of that name). I think people will be pleased with the final product; everything will be tasteful and inclusive of all people and cultures.”

Japanese Katsu sandwich (courtesy Alex McCoy)

Inside the restaurant you’ll find "a fun, funky bar that looks like a work in progress,” is how Alex described it. “Very laidback and upbeat,” he said. “It’ll be bar-oriented with a focus on street art, antiques and a homey atmosphere.” Alex described vibrant indoor and outdoor spaces using common tables that people can share stories and meals. And they're excited about the “beer garden” they're planning on opening up in the back patio sometime next year.

“We want this restaurant to be a local, community hang-out,” he said to me. “Some place you’d go after work, meet people and share experiences.” 

As for what’s next for Alex, he said he’s looking to move into Petworth. “It’s hugely important to be involved in the neighborhood. Petworth is a fun neighborhood, and we want to embrace the community with the restaurant and be an important part of the neighborhood. I look forward to putting roots in Petworth.