Sporting a bandana and stubby facial hair, Alex McCoy is keeping an eye on several roiling stock pots in the kitchen, each cooking down broths for curry. He's just days away from opening Alfie's, his homage to northern and northeastern Thai cooking, and he's explaining why he gave the place a decidedly Anglo name.
"Naming this place was really hard, because of the nature of it," says McCoy, the founding chef at Duke's Grocery, who will be debuting Alfie's tonight in the former Mothership space at 3301 Georgia Ave. NW.
"I didn't want to pretend this is a Thai restaurant with a Thai name, like I'm making up some story," McCoy continues. "I am an American dude who has spent a lot of time in Thailand. I'll never be Thai, and I didn't want to make it seem like I was trying to be patronizing in that way."
At the same time, McCoy wanted his latest venture to reflect his own relationship with, and passion for, Thai cooking. Alfie's was the cryptic solution.
The name is a sly reference to the many trips McCoy has made to Thailand, where he has regularly met up with friends from Australia, located just south of the Southeast Asian country. These are Australian surfer types, so laidback they can't seem to call anyone by their given name. One is a dude from Melbourne named Alfred. They all call him "Alfie." He apparently hates it.
"So this is Alfie's. It's personal," McCoy says of his Thai joint. "It's a funky little spot."
Alfie's is not some fleeting concept that McCoy pieced together after a short, whirlwind trip to Thailand. It's a project he's been contemplating virtually from the day he first landed in Thailand in 2010, way before he co-founded Duke's Grocery or appeared on the "Food Network Star" or designed the menu for Crisp Kitchen and Bar in Bloomingdale.
Long a fan of Thai cooking, McCoy realized he had much to learn once he first tasted the authentic stuff in Bangkok more than five years ago. As soon as he got off the plane, McCoy headed to a spot where an old woman was preparing green curry.
"It was immediately apparent to me that I knew nothing about Thai food," McCoy remembers. "Everything that I thought Thai food was was completely different. That was kind of the start of this love affair."
By his own count, McCoy has visited Thailand at least a dozen times. He has even developed a method to help with his culinary education: McCoy will stalk cooks who make dishes that he particularly likes. He may visit these cooks daily, in fact, until " they [feel] comfortable taking me into the kitchen and letting me see what they're doing."
The method apparently works. McCoy has a solid working knowledge of regional Thai cooking styles. He can rattle off terms, ingredients and preparations as if he were explaining how to grill a hamburger, not the importance of toasted rice powder (called khao khua) in northeastern Issan cooking.
Because he's been embedded so deeply in Thai culture, McCoy is not interested in taking shortcuts at Alfie's. All the curry pastes, egg noodles and stocks are made from scratch. McCoy eventually wants to follow in the footsteps of Andy Ricker, the celebrated chef behind Pok Pok in Portland, Ore., and make his own Thai-style coconut milk, which is not as rich and creamy as the overly reduced stuff found in the States.
"The curry paste, for me, is the most important thing we do because there are two commercially available brands of curry paste in this country . . . and 99 percent of Thai restaurants use one of those two curry pastes," McCoy says.
"I would say that there's really only a handful of restaurants in this country that make their own curry pastes from scratch," he adds.
McCoy's opening menu is small (see below). There are fewer than 20 dishes total split between snacks, salads, entrees, sides and desserts. The menu will change regularly, maybe even daily, McCoy promises. Most will focus on preparations from the north or northeast, with occasional outliers such as the gai yang, or grilled chicken, from Ubon Ratchathani on the eastern side of Thailand. There will also be some "expat" dishes, the kind of food designed for travelers and foreigners living in Thailand.
"The main dishes here are Issan-based," McCoy says. "It's the least represented region of Thailand in terms of travel and in terms of restaurants. To me, I think they make the best food."
Fabian Malone, formerly at Dino's Grotto, will handle the beverages at Alfie's (see menu below). Malone has engineered his own take on the iconic Southeast Asian tipple, the Singapore Sling, which he makes with gin, Benedictine liqueur, cherry liqueur, pineapple, lime, grenadine and bitters. He's calling it, at least for now, You My Boy Boon!, a cheeky reference to the alleged creator of the drink, Raffles Hotel bartender Ngiam Tong Boon.
But don't look for a ton of themed cocktails. "Alex was like, 'Look, you don't have to make everything Asian.'" Malone says. "I'm having fun with it."
How long Alfie's remains at its location in the Parkview neighborhood is anyone's guess. McCoy and his partners, Marc Dosik and Hunter Campbell, originally hoped to open Alfie's on Upshur Street NW in Petworth, but the China American Inn property needs more renovations than expected. So the partners have taken the former Mothership space. It could become the permanent home of Alfie's or the concept could move into the Petworth space.
The partners are keeping their options open.
"We kind of have the space as long as we want," McCoy says of the Georgia Avenue location. "We have a lease. I wouldn't say it's an open-ended lease, but we definitely have it until September."
Alfie's, 3301 Georgia Ave. NW, opens Tuesday, Feb. 2. Reservations can be made on OpenTable.