The $20 Diner: Duke’s Grocery and the elevation of D.C.’s sandwich culture

(Dayna Smith/ For the Washington Post ) - Sandwiches from Duke's Grocery, a two-story sandwich shop inspired by the free-wheeling culinary scene in East London.

(Dayna Smith/ For the Washington Post ) - Sandwiches from Duke's Grocery, a two-story sandwich shop inspired by the free-wheeling culinary scene in East London.

Not so long ago, the act of buying a sandwich in the District was, essentially, an admission of defeat: We were either too busy or too lazy to actually find something good to eat. So off we’d slink to Subway for a footlong of pre-portioned luncheon meats; it was a cheap fix and easily accessible, given the sheer number of these quasi-delis that dominate our neighborhoods, like so many snakeheads in the Potomac.

Washington native Alex McCoy remembers those days (though he doesn’t confess to Subway slumming). The chef and co-owner of Duke’s Grocery preferred to satisfy his bready cravings at the Tastee Diner in Bethesda, which he still recalls fondly for its homeyness and complete lack of pretension. To McCoy’s way of thinking, neighborhood eateries — though perhaps not the Tastee itself — define a city’s food scene better than any imported celebrity chef and his flimsy, house-of-cards attempt to establish a gastronomic stronghold.

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“Take away the big-name chefs and what do you have?” McCoy asks. “You have the neighborhood joints,” places operated by cooks who have honed their craft over generations.

Duke’s Grocery is McCoy and co-owner Daniel Kramer’s stab at a neighborhood sandwich shop entirely dedicated to scratch cooking, at once elevated and accessible. The shop’s location on the 17th Street strip, next to Komi and Little Serow, almost qualifies as a deep bow to chef Johnny Monis, whose restaurants, while more sophisticated in style and approach than Duke’s, remain firmly rooted in the neighborhood — unlike, say, the museum-like Zaytinya.

The concept that drives Duke’s is really an anti-concept, in that it’s defiantly open-ended. The operation draws inspiration from the cafes of East London, where McCoy has spent many days enjoying chef-driven dishes exuberantly cobbled together from the different cuisines that have taken root there. McCoy is clearly attracted to this kind of kitchen liberation, which I’d argue is more a cooking philosophy than a cuisine.

Regardless, Duke’s is part of a new generation of sandwich shops in the District: A place that carefully constructs its bread-based creations, top to bottom, while desperately trying to hide its craftiness under a veneer of calculated nonchalance. You can count Sundevich, Taylor Gourmet, Stachowski Market & Deli and the recently opened G among these more craft-conscious shops.

McCoy is not a formally trained chef, but as the son of a man whose job required a ton of international travel, he has visited a great many countries. McCoy has worlds of flavor locked inside his brain and often releases them into his sandwiches, which rotate daily. (Check the chalkboard near the entrance for that day’s shareable plates and “sarnies,” a British slang term for sandwiches.) His sandwiches are as much influenced by Argentine or Vietnamese street vendors as by those freewheeling cooks in East London.

McCoy’s banh mi, built on a soft (if not crusty) French baguette from Lyon Bakery, overflows with thick slices of charred pork, pickled daikon and carrots and what seems like an entree salad of cilantro leaves, many with their stems still attached for texture. As with almost every sandwich at Duke’s, you’ll strain to wrap your mouth around this mountainous creation, but you’ll be thankful you made the effort.

The trick comes in trying to secure a full bite, so you can appreciate the whole strata of flavors built into McCoy’s sandwiches; too often I found myself gobbling down stray chunks of meat, delicious but decidedly incomplete. It was like picking the meat out of a taco and leaving the rest behind.

The mechanics of eating aside, I found much to admire on my plates at Duke’s. The “Ruby on rye” (mine, oddly, was served on thick griddled slices of sourdough) is a Reuben variation in which McCoy’s “salt beef” provides a wider spectrum of flavors than your standard-issue corned beef. The “banger sarnie” tucks garlicky, coarsely ground wild-boar sausage into a (crusty this time) baguette, itself slathered with a refreshingly untraditional chimichurri sauce spiked with mint and roasted poblanos. The twin-patty “proper” burger — topped with bacon, gouda, housemade pickles, garlic aioli, sweet chili sauce and tomatoes — packs more flavor between two buns than should be allowed by law.

The shareable sides (warning: your tablemate may ignore this designation and hoard the white truffle mac and cheese, a gooey mass of shells coated in gouda and gruyere, slightly sweetened with caramelized onions) hold their own against the sarnies.

My favorite is McCoy’s pickled beets, so soft to the bite, and paired with even softer curds of buffalo mozzarella, the entirety of which is brightened with lemon zest. Likewise, McCoy’s dressed parsley salad acts as a finishing acid for his blood pudding topped with a runny egg, cutting through the addictive, wanton decadence of the dish. If only he had done something similar to elevate the ultra-rich pork belly rillettes.

Not even two months old, Duke’s still exhibits growing pains. I had a wrong dish delivered to the table once, and the kitchen routinely 86ed dishes early in the evening. One night, I wished they had run out of a sarnie. It was McCoy’s curried chicken salad on ciabatta, a sweet, mildly spiced spread of dark meat that concealed not one, not two, but three teeth-clattering pieces of cartilage.

Which was just a mistake. What I found harder to accept was Duke’s policy of not packaging its sandwiches for take-out. That strikes me as cheffy, not neighborly.

Duke’s Grocery

1513 17th St. NW.
202-733-5623. www.dukesgrocery.com.

Nearest Metro station: Dupont Circle, with a 0.4-mile walk to the restaurant.

Prices: Sandwiches, $9-$13.

 
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