Inside the basement of the nondescript white building in Columbia Heights, next to the 24 beer taps at the bar that’s catered to craft beer lovers for a decade, there’s new handwriting on the chalkboard menu. Next to bar basics of cheeseburgers and Buffalo wings, there are now options listed for two types of turmeric-tinted satay skewers, stir-fried char kway teow noodles, and a plate of nasi lemak, the national dish of Malaysia that features coconut rice, cucumbers, and soft eggs blanketed in a thick pool of sweet chile sambal sauce with garnishes of crunchy peanuts and miniature dried anchovies. That dish also comes with confit chicken quarters cooked in duck fat.
At Thirsty Crow, the downstairs bar component of the two-part business that’s replacing Meridian Pint at 11th Street and Park Road NW, chef-partner James Wozniuk finally gets to throw himself into the Malaysian cooking he’s been fervently studying since a beef rendang recipe sent him down the rabbit hole and onto planes to Kuala Lumpur.
Wozniuk, who has riffed on Taiwanese, Cambodian, and Japanese dishes as a chef de cuisine at Maketto and Spoken English, has partnered with Kendrick Wu — a longtime bar manager for the Hilton brothers — to move into Meridian Pint.
After the family hangout and beer bar relocated to Arlington in the spring, Wozniuk and Wu hatched a two-pronged takeover plan. Thirsty Crow would continue the venue’s tradition of showcasing local beers while selling some street hawker food that Wozniuk could use to test customers demand for funkier flavors. The upstairs portion, which is called Makan and is still weeks away from opening, will be dedicated to Malaysian cooking (curry laksa, nasi goreng, tempoyak) and cocktails that complement it.
“Downstairs, I just kind of want to keep it as an introduction,” Wozniuk says. “I don’t want to go too far out with the food. At the end of the day, it still is a beer hall. Do you want to come here and eat fermented durian? Maybe not.”
Thirsty Crow opened its doors about two weeks ago and now accepts customers seven nights a week. The setup is basically the same as Meridian Pint, but Wozniuk and Wu pushed the two pool tables to the end of the long room that’s closer to the bar and set up a lounge area with a few new TVs at the other end. Wozniuk’s buddy Takashi Nakajima painted the graffiti-art strip along the center of the room.
Since Wozniuk got a custom stove with two extra-wide wok burners installed, he’s been practically living out of the kitchen. He’s proud enough of his base sambal that he’d like to sell a bottled version. The ingredients he’ll reveal are fresh and dried chiles, garlic, shallot, and tamarind.
“It’s hot, sour, salty, sweet, and you can literally put it on everything,” he says.
Wozniuk makes two types of satay, one with chicken and a paneer option for vegetarians. Both get marinated in turmeric, coconut milk, and lemongrass. They come with cucumber, compressed cubes of rice, and a side of peanut sauce. His char kway teow has wide rice noodles sourced fresh from a local vendor, shrimp, Chinese sausage, bean sprouts, and garlic chive tossed in a wok with egg and a sauce based in sweet soy.
The chef is paying attention to detail for the Western food, too. Cheeseburgers are made with Virginia dry-aged beef on sesame seed rolls. For French fries, Wozniuk is spending extra money on Kennebec potatoes, then cutting and blanching them before they get dunked in a deep fryer.
The next step at the bar will be to add a Malaysian flavor of wing sauce, one built out of salt-cured duck egg yolks mixed with curry leaves and curry oil. “It’s pretty magical,” Wozniuk says. Spring rolls will be another staple.
Right before committing to open Thirsty Crow and Makan, Wozniuk says he was close to moving to Malaysia, where a friend had secured him a job offer. He decided he’d rather bring a taste of the Southeast Asian country to D.C. The city has been without a dedicated Malaysian restaurant since Malaysia Kopitiam left Dupont five years ago (It reopened in Centreville, Virginia, last year).
For the better part of the last 10 years, Wozniuk has been poring over books and YouTube videos of Malaysian chefs trying to decode how to get things right. He befriended powerhouse Lao chef Seng Luangrath of Thip Khao fame, and spent time with her learning how to ferment fish. She was one of several visitors to make a cameo during his latest research trip to Malaysia, a three-city jaunt with Wu that lasted nearly a month.
“Basically, I just want to make it to the best of my ability,” Wozniuk says. “I don’t want to bastardize anything. I don’t want to do anything fusion with it for upstairs. Basically just try to recreate the food that I was eating that I feel in love with.”