Spicebird is a delicious invention with roots in Malaysia and Peru

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Even a decade after he first tried it, James Wozniuk can nonetheless style the sauce, as if he had been again on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, standing subsequent to the seller who bought him the grilled hen and the little baggie that jiggled with the accompanying condiment. The sauce has been etched into his everlasting reminiscence not simply due to its part components — together with mustard powder and black vinegar, substances identified to make loud and sophisticated statements — but additionally due to the setting.

Wozniuk — a Southerner by temperament, a Malaysia-infatuated chef by selection — was between analysis journeys in 2013. Employed as chef de delicacies for Maketto on H Avenue NE, he had already frolicked in Cambodia, digging into dishes that may affect Erik Bruner-Yang’s then-forthcoming restaurant. Wozniuk was headed to Vietnam for the subsequent leg of his journey when he discovered himself with a 15-hour layover in Kuala Lumpur. He determined to make use of the time to discover the meals scene of the Malaysian capital, which finally led him to the road vendor.

The stand was little greater than a brick pit layered with smoldering charcoal. Dozens of hen wings — complete ones, with the guidelines nonetheless hooked up — had been scattered throughout a wire display laid over the coals. Wozniuk recollects the smoke that hung within the air. The wings that glowed “vibrant, vibrant crimson” from their marinade. The locals on motorbikes who would pull up, seize a bag of hen and sauce, and greedily velocity off with their meal in hand.

Dressed casually, with flip-flops on his toes, Wozniuk remembers how good all of it felt as he dug right into a meals tradition then unknown to him, even when a drop of sauce landed on his foot. “An ant actually walked over and bit my toe,” Wozniuk tells me. “I used to be like, ‘D—, even the ant likes this sauce.’”

That sauce is the middle of the universe at Spicebird. It’s the shining star round which every part else rotates and attracts vitality at this ghost kitchen inside Makan, Wozniuk’s trendy Malaysian restaurant in Columbia Heights, which explores the various influences of the nation’s delicacies. The sauce was additionally, for a few years, a puzzle that Wozniuk couldn’t remedy.

“I imply, actually, from that first go to, I began testing, simply to sort of re-create it,” the chef says. “I simply couldn’t get it. It was all the time barely off. It wasn’t the place I wished it. It was in all probability, possibly two months earlier than we began Spicebird, I might say, once I simply lastly received it dialed in.”

Spicebird is just not Wozniuk’s try to re-create the grilled hen he encountered on the streets of Kuala Lumpur. It’s extra of an amalgamation. It’s pollo a la brasa as filtered by means of an American chef with a jones for Malaysian cooking. It’s in contrast to every other roast hen in Washington.

However first issues first (or second, because the case could also be): Spicebird is an idea with out a residence, with out a house so that you can sit down and benefit from the hen that Wozniuk and crew put together within the Makan kitchen. Spicebird is a migratory invention, designed to be savored wherever you discover a perch. It might be a desk in your kitchen. It might be the closest bench outdoors the restaurant. It might be the motive force’s seat of your car, as you fish out bites from the carryout bag whereas navigating D.C. visitors, the hen’s aromas slowly filling the cavity of your automobile. (I’m not confessing to distracted driving right here, in case you’re questioning.)

The hen at Spicebird is cooked in a combi oven, not a rotisserie over glowing coals. So don’t anticipate any smokiness, despite the fact that the chook does, at first look, give a exceptional impression of Peruvian pollo a la brasa. Brined for twenty-four hours, the halal hen is enveloped in a rub whose 15 or so substances remodel the pores and skin into one thing scabrous, charred and unnerving. However like so many issues in life, appearances are deceiving. The chook, with out sauce, is an ingratiating chew, aromatic and barely candy with star anise, cinnamon, clove and cardamom.

Wozniuk calls his signature condiment “KL sauce,” and despite the fact that it’s certainly one of three dipping choices out there, it’s clearly the one to glom on to. After I first began speaking with the chef, he was hesitant to disclose a lot concerning the sauce, preferring that clients get their training firsthand, with the condiment proper at their elbow. However as we settled into the dialog, Wozniuk determined there was no hurt in unveiling the key that took him years to suss out. The Malaysian sauce’s most vital ingredient, he found, was a secondary sauce smuggled into the combination: Worcestershire, the British pantry staple that made its technique to Malaysia by way of colonialism.

As soon as Wozniuk disclosed this data, every part type of clicked into place. Previous to the reveal, I had targeted my consideration on the sauce’s most conspicuous traits: its acid and its warmth, the lime juice and the chook’s eye chiles, which mix to gentle up the hen like Clark Griswold’s home on Christmas. However after studying concerning the Worcestershire sauce, I went again for one more chew and understood one thing explicitly that I may grasp solely intuitively earlier than: The sauce deepens the flavour of every part that Wozniuk had added to, or extracted from, this chook. The KL sauce is the wand that makes the magic occur.

As a result of Spicebird borrows from each Malaysian delicacies and Peruvian hen, the edges that accompany the principle attraction do the identical. You may’t go improper with any of them, whether or not Peruvian staples reminiscent of steamed rice and fried yuca (double fried for a pronounced crispiness) or the Malaysian-inspired sides reminiscent of berempah potatoes (as spicy because the Malay identify implies) and the wood-ear-and-pulled-chicken salad, a dish that zigs, then zags, with its functions of fish sauce and coconut French dressing.

Spicebird is a type of covid-era creations that might have a life effectively past the pandemic. It’s a ghost kitchen for now, however Wozniuk envisions a day when he may develop Spicebird into its personal fast-casual. Each chef, after all, has the same dream: to create a counter-service idea tantalizing sufficient to seize the general public’s creativeness — and simple sufficient to copy with out a ton of oversight. Spicebird could be that sort of idea.

3400 eleventh St. NW, 202-730-2295. spicebirddc.com.

Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday by means of Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.

Nearest Metro: Columbia Heights or Georgia Ave.-Petworth, with a brief stroll to the carryout.

Costs: $3 to $33 for all objects on the menu.

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