I haven’t eaten a sloppy Joe since I was 9 years old, when they were an easy way for my mother to make a kid-friendly meal that appealed to my carnivorous father. Everyone at the table could customize their sandwich as they pleased. A blanket of shredded sharp cheddar, a scattering of diced onions and a few bread-and-butter pickles was how I rolled back then. But somehow the sloppy Joe fell out of our dinnertime rotation, probably because mom was trying to cut back on red meat.
The sloppy Joe is not a dish I’ve ever ordered in a restaurant, either. Why pay for something so simple that’s usually marked up so much? Lately though, several chefs have started to put their spin on the sloppy Joe. Would their versions be tasty and heartwarming reminders of my childhood or just creative ways to gouge a guy looking for a heartwarming reminder of his childhood?
My first step down memory lane was at BLT Steak, where executive chef Victor Albisu is offering the VP ($24), also known as the Sloppy Joe Biden. This is definitely not like the one Mom used to make, since Albisu uses ground Kobe beef. Everything else in his recipe is pretty much the same: tomatoes, brown sugar, vinegar and bell pepper. The sauce has a thicker consistency so it doesn’t drip off the bun, and the flavors are spot-on. I won’t make a habit of enjoying a $24 sloppy Joe, but this one is worth the splurge.
For half the price, you can order a trio of Sloppy Bob sliders at Harth, which comes with freshly fried potato chips and a mini-Mason jar full of vinegary house-made diced pickles ($12). Heat seekers should take note: These small sandwiches get a big boost from executive chef Thomas Elder’s ghost chilies, which are grown in the onsite garden. If you can handle the level of capsaicin, you’ll be richly rewarded. The fiery peppers never overwhelm the sweetness of the house-made ketchup and caramelized onions mixed into the beefy blend.
If you prefer an option that’s sweet without having any heat whatsoever, stop by Ted’s Bulletin for the Sloppiest Joe ($12.29). One look at the plate underscores how it earned its name. The buttered challah bun overflows with an excess of filling, probably enough to make two sandwiches. The first bite is quite sugary, courtesy of the Kansas City-style barbecue sauce that forms the flavor backbone of this messy interpretation. The platter comes with a few bread-and-butter pickle chips, a thatch of french fries and some mayonnaise-heavy coleslaw, so it’s probably not your best bet if you’re on the Paleo diet. However, if you’re on the “I’m hungover and I don’t care what I eat” regimen, this could be a winner.
Down the street at Lola’s Barracks Bar & Grill, the Joe Joe’s Sliders (three for $9) are a highlight of the bar menu. A little aged cheddar cheese and some sweetly tangy pickle chips ensure that these aren’t your average Joes (sorry, couldn’t resist). These make for a nice snack when you’re watching presidential primary antics on the quartet of flat-screens behind the bar. Or if you’re just looking for a quick way of pretending you’re a kid again without digging out that big box of Legos squirreled away in the garage.
Martell is a Washington food and culture writer. You can find out more about him at nevinmartell.com.