“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.