In the year since chef Johanna Hellrigl took over the kitchen at Doi Moi, she’s completely renovated the menu with the goal of representing a wider swath of Southeast Asia.
A mainstay on 14th Street NW for over five years, Doi Moi focused squarely on Thai and Vietnamese flavors until Hellrigl arrived as culinary director of the Fat Baby restaurant group. She brought in a broad approach that reflected her experiences working across the region as part of a democracy building organization she worked with after completing George Washington University’s international affairs program.
“To focus on just those two cuisines does a disservice to a beautiful part of the world I fell in love with,” she says.
Doi Moi’s new menu also represents Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, and Sri Lanka. It swings from $5 “drinking snacks,” like Sri Lankan breaded samosas designed to be dunked in fresh coconut relish, to an “animal style” section full of plates meant to be eaten without utensils — think slow-roasted pork ribs finished on the grill with palm sugar and fish sauce.
Hellrigl got a taste of Asia’s overlapping culinary connections while working for a democracy building organization that empowered women across dozens of countries to run for political office. In one faraway stint, that meant coordinating grassroots election efforts in Myanmar.
“All those women took me into their villages or homes, and I got to try their amazing cuisines,” she says. “It was an entirely different flavor profile and something that really resonated with me.”
The remote, coral reef-rimmed country of Timor-Leste inspired her version of duck heart skewers with piri piri sauce, which reflects the influence of Portuguese colonizers on the island. Elements of her chicken tapioca meatball soup with fresh egg noodles are influenced by both Timor and Indonesia, which sits to the north.
Prior to joining Doi Moi, Hellrigl ran her own pop-up dinner and catering business. She also led local kitchens at Via Umbria and Boulangerie Christophe. One of her first priorities at Doi Moi was making all curry pastes and sauces — and pretty much everything else possible — in-house.
“That takes a lot of labor and time,” she says. “There are a lot of shortcuts — that stuff can come out of a can, and that doesn’t cut it for me.”
In the first year as executive chef at Doi Moi, Hellrigl has put a cadre of women in leadership roles. She handpicked sous chef Amanda Moll from L’Academie de Cuisine after judging her in a cooking competition. Zoe Ezrailson (Mirabelle, Rose’s Luxury) is in charge of the pastry menu, and Hank’s Cocktail Bar alum Jess Weinstein is now consulting on drinks that incorporate sambal oelek, an Indonesian chile paste.
Here’s a look inside the dishes at Doi Moi:
Mangos join ribbons of carrots, chayote squash, and Thai basil in this rainbow-colored creation. “I feel like when you do a green mango salad, it’s super pounded so it’s a little mushy,” Hellrigl says. “I wanted to give some bright crunch and texture.” The salad comes dressed in Cambodian kampot peppercorns — considered the “king” of peppercorns — that Hellrigl can only find online.
The salad pairs well with the Our Place in the Sun cocktail that has a homemade orgeat. The syrup is made from wok-tossed, chile-lime cashews that are served as standalone munchies and thrown into green mango and banana blossom salads. Hellrigl says her bond with Weinstein has resulted in food and drinks menus that weave in similar ingredients. “We are really good friends and love the way our brains work together,” Hellrigl says. “This is the perfect interpretation when a chef and bar person can come together and make amazing drinks.”
Sassate Duck Heart Skewers (Timor-Leste)
This skewer starter, inspired by the Portuguese influence on Timorese cuisine, is traditionally made with baby goat. But Hellrigl says high quality cuts are hard to source. Instead, she went with duck hearts from a tried-and-true purveyor, D’Artagnan, to engineer her version of the grilled and basted skewer. “They have super tender flavor — not overly offal, which you can get from tongue or beef hearts,” she says. “You still get that gaminess without being overwhelmed by it.” Duck hearts, topped with crispy garlic, also contrast well with flavors of piri piri pepper sauce, peanut, and tamarind.
Ua Si Khai Lemongrass Pork (Laos)
This interactive order consists of marinated ground pork that gets fried inside a lemongrass leaf. Essential oils seep into the meat during cooking. “It’s very fun and adventurous order we have our guests do,” Hellrigl says. The simple tableside instruction? “The goal is to pull out the meatball,” she says. Diners can plunk the order ($11 for two) in a Laotian version of jaew dipping sauce. “Everything is meant for sharing,” she says.
Char Kuey Teow Noodles
The ubiquitous noodle dish found across Singapore, Brunei, and Malaysia comes with shrimp or cockles, Chinese sausage, and mung bean sprouts. Hellrigl opts for “beautiful” Patagonian prawns de-shelled in house to let their fresh flavor shine. Instead of bottled sweet soy sauce, a typical accompaniment for the dish, she makes a homemade, fermented sauce out of black garlic.
Short Rib Jungle Curry (Thailand)
While a lot of curries use coconut milk as a base, Hellrigl opted to delete the liquid in her version of this popular Northern Thai dish. Her “dry” curry is designed not to overload the dish in sauce. She soaks small green Thai eggplants in salt water to help remove their seeds. Boneless short rib gets braised in a jungle curry paste made with fresh and dried chiles, lime leaf, and Thai basil.
An order of turmeric-dusted okra, which Hellrigl fell in love with during her travels in Myanmar, is an ideal side for meat-heavy dishes. The pods get charred in a cast iron skillet, which neutralizes their slimy nature. Hellrigl adds fresh ginger and caramelized shallots for sweetness and birds eye chiles for an added kick before finishing the okra with fish sauce. “It will never come off the menu,” she promises.
Ikan Bakar Grilled Branzino (Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia)
The dish, which translates to “burned fish” in Malay and Indonesian circles, gets grilled on a banana leaf to pick up charcoal flavor without blackening the sweet, flaky branzino. The butterflied fish features red Thai bird’s eye chiles full of funky, fermented flavors on one half. Their green counterparts offer a limey, acidic taste on the other. Doi Moi makes its own warm roti canai, a popular scooping vessel across Malaysia, with the traditional technique of slapping the dough against a counter.
The Pandan Ho Ho
Doi Moi revisits the iconic Hostess snack using by a popular Vietnamese pastry, pandan chiffon cake, as a starting point. Pandan is a tropical herb that produces a flavor similar to vanilla. Buttercream frosting is made out of kaya, a Malaysian coconut jam that Hellrigl says is sort of like a coconut egg custard spread. Those two elements form a Swiss roll that’s covered with white chocolate, toasted coconut flakes, and maldon salt. Hellrigl says that her parents never let her have Ho Hos when she was growing up, and she discovered them in boarding school. “So there was a slight obsession that formed,” she says, adding, “I actually discovered pandan and coconut kaya jam while in Myanmar.”