At Fast Gourmet, fill 'er up
By Justin Rude
March 4, 2011
It sounded like an urban folk tale: Somewhere on 14th Street, north of U, a gas station cafe was serving gourmet sandwiches. It became a topic of rumor and exaggeration among both late-night eaters and U Street lunch crowds.
Well, the gourmet gas station sandwich shop is no folktale. It sits at 14th and W streets NW, and it's called Fast Gourmet.
To get to the restaurant, diners must enter the gas station, pass the pump register and sidestep a row of Ikea shelves that marks the entrance of the cafe. Beyond the typical grungy gas station is a high-ceilinged, green-accented dining space with a handful of tables, bar seating on the large north-facing window and a lone television, often tuned to soccer.
Brothers Juan and Manuel Olivera opened the restaurant in October. They were clued in to the location by an investor, then spent a year wrangling with the city over permits needed to install a kitchen within the gas station.
A mid-February lunchtime excursion finds a delightfully mixed crowd: a couple clearly dressed for the office sit across from two men wearing dusty dungarees and work boots, while a pair of fashionable young women waiting for an order look as if they have walked out of a midday nightclub.
On the menu: The sandwich list is divided into three sections, the largest of which is labeled "Urban Taste" and features competently made favorites including meatball, steak, pulled pork, Cuban, falafel and chicken salad. A trio of wraps - lamb (which is more of a pita sandwich), shrimp and chicken Caesar - makes up the second group.
The third category, ambiguously labeled "Flair," is home to a small selection of Latin American classics and is the most deserving of your attention. The Oliveras are Uruguayans by birth, and their homeland's unofficial national sandwich, the chivito, leads this list. The chivito is not a sandwich that shows restraint: It layers beef tenderloin, roast ham, mozzarella, bacon, olives, mushrooms, onion and a sliced hard-boiled egg in a soft roll, then it is all pressed and heated. It's flavor-forward, juicy and absolutely delicious, the kind of sandwich that inspires cravings in the middle of the night.
Other choices on the "Flair" menu are also impressive, including the Milanesa, a flat-pounded, breaded and fried strip steak joined by hard-boiled eggs, green olives, lettuce, tomato and mayo.
Beyond sandwiches, there are also a few nice surprises. The empanadas look almost factory-made, but the crispy pastry gives way to well-seasoned and delicious fillings, including Black Forest ham with mozzarella and fontina or a savory bechamel-and-corn filling. Coleslaw is elevated with lemon grass, and plantains and yuca show that the kitchen has perfected its frying beyond empanadas and strip steaks.
Meats and sauces are cooked daily; the pork is marinated for 24 hours before roasting. Overseeing the kitchen operations is the elder Olivera, 31-year-old Juan. The chef drew on his short-order experience while creating the menu, which he said he wants to feel like an international diner.
What to avoid: I didn't have as much luck with salads as I did with sandwiches. The Greek salad was limp; another featured baby spinach, bacon, dried figs, onions and less-than-stellar blue cheese.
At your service: Dine-in and carryout customers order at a counter in the back of the dining area. Food is brought out to the left of the register, and soft drinks are served in Mason jars. On my first visit, two neighbors engaged me in conversation, one man even telling me that he was from Uruguay and comes to Fast Gourmet for lunch because the chivito is "just like the one from home."
After hours: On Friday and Saturday nights, Fast Gourmet serves sandwiches until an almost unimaginable 5:30 a.m.