By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 17, 2006
On the corner of Wythe Street and Route 1 heading south into Old Town stands the Blue and White Carry Out.
It's easily missed in the rush of traffic, new brick condominium developments and construction cranes. The tiny, cramped building is less than 10 feet high and is covered in white vinyl siding with blue trim and has a smeared hand-painted sign. But the line of people snaking out the door -- especially in the morning for sausage and egg sandwiches or at noon for bean soup or pork chop dinners with collard greens, and especially on chicken liver Tuesdays -- it is the line that turns heads.
Inside, the old yellow linoleum counter has turned white in places from people leaning their elbows on it over the years to shout orders through two little square screens or around the wall of glass that separates the narrow walkway for customers from the steaming kitchen. In the kitchen, vats of beans, gravy and corn simmer in one corner. A four-slice toaster popping up squares of Real Good brand white bread sits on the opposite counter. And in the back is the deep fryer for the Blue and White's famous fried chicken and pork chops. Fried eggs sizzle in formation on the grill. Everything is in motion on a late summer day.
"What kinda beans you got?"
"That's it?" A young woman with long braids and pink Betty Boop pajama bottoms deliberated for a moment, then sauntered away. She'd come for the lima, pinto or Great Northern, but they were gone by 10:30 a.m.
"Hey, man, double bacon on that. And gimme a grape soda."
Curtis Nelloms, dressed in a white Sean John T-shirt, ordered his usual bacon and egg sandwich for $2. He's been coming to the Blue and White for eight years, ever since he started working in Crystal City and discovered the meatloaf sandwiches. Now he's at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Where else can you still get a hot dog with ketchup and mustard for a dollar and a cup of coffee for 50 cents?
"What's up, Dwayne?"
Two wide-eyed kids, chins resting on the counter, waited to pay for their Hawaiian Punch as Marvin Wiggins ordered. Wiggins has been coming to the Blue and White nearly every day for a decade. He drives over from Four Mile Run in Arlandria. "Their chicken's the best. Popeyes, KFC, no one can touch it," he said. "What he does, I don't know. He won't tell anybody."
"Ancient Chinese secret," joked Charles Smith, 50, as he passed Wiggins his order in a brown paper bag with grease stains already blooming. For 10 years, Smith has staffed the cash register, messed with the regulars, flirted with the girls and occasionally burst into song while serving customers.
Waiting just behind Wiggins was David Dively, who owns a construction company and specializes in high-end renovations in Old Town, Del Ray and Beverly Hills. He favors the chicken leg sandwich or the Hamburg steak.
"Salt and pepper and hot sauce?" Dively nodded.
Outside along Wythe Street, cars, vans and trucks pulled up, their motors left running as their owners rushed to join the line. Mostly black. Some white. A handful of Hispanics with hard hats under their arms and large orders written on a paper that they passed through the screen. Men and women in Exxon, DHL and Verizon uniforms with their names sewn on. Men in suits and ties. One man carried his oxygen tank in. Regulars -- the carpenter who arrives so promptly at 6:15 every morning they can set their clock by him. "BLT man," whose sandwich is fixed once they see him across the street. Fit and fat and everything in between. All waiting for the "Down Home Lip Smacking Good" food served up at the Blue and White.
"I like the fat. Doesn't it just call you sometimes?" said Carlton King, a surprisingly trim man who says he never works out and has been coming to the Blue and White regularly since the mid-1980s. "I eat a good diet. But the prices here are just, like, excellent. And the food is good. Look at that." He opens the Styrofoam take-out container. "Two slices of chicken, greens and gravy for $3.30."
Thaddeus Langston, "just like the poet," stopped by, as usual, on his route to check on 11 Giant stores in the area. Once in the morning for breakfast and again a few hours later for bean soup. "I've been coming here since I was a teenager," he said. "I lived in Baileys Crossroads, but everyone knew the Blue and White."
As one regular said, "The Blue and White has been there and been there and been there."
Like a comfortable, worn shoe or an old friend, the Blue and White has occupied this corner of north Old Town for as long as anyone can remember, and no one, including the owner, is exactly sure when it opened.
Neither, it seems, is the city of Alexandria. Real estate records show that the 450-square-foot building is in "good" condition, but they don't say how long the building has been there. But, in a sign of the gentrifying times, the records also show it was assessed at only $1,000 in 2000, and the lot at $25,000. This year, the building's value jumped nearly 17 times to $16,900, and the land value has more than doubled.
In the beginning, the shop's open-air counter and rich soul food were in the heart of what used to be called the 16th Census Tract, one of the city's historically black neighborhoods. Wythe Street is also named Parker-Gray, after the city's school for blacks in the days of Jim Crow. Before that, when freed blacks started to settle in the area in the 1850s, the neighborhood was known as Uptown.
Carlton Funn, a retired schoolteacher who runs the Alexandria Society for the Preservation of Black Heritage, also is a Blue and White regular. Last week he drove around the old 16th Census Tract in his green Cadillac -- dubbed the Green Hornet -- showing a reporter how much the area has changed. Fancy new shops and office buildings: "These were all black homes," he said, pointing. "This street is now white. This is white. This is white." The Berg, the old public housing project, has been renovated as a mix of upscale and public housing. And his old street, Oronoco, is "predominantly white now." He turned onto Queen Street and passed the small barber shops, carry-outs and churches. "Queen. Oh boy, Queen is still predominantly black."
As the world changed around it, as other soul food takeout restaurants folded or were bulldozed, the little Blue and White has stayed the same. Not even the menu has changed -- at least not much. They did add corn over the years. And they switched from round tinfoil plates with aluminum foil over the top to Styrofoam carryout boxes.
Joe Ward, 63, has been cooking at the Blue and White for 13 years -- ever since he retired after 20 years in the military. "We don't change anything. It's been like that for years and years," he said. "You cook the way the boss wants you to cook."
And Ward sees no irony in the fact that the boss, Alexander Truitt, the man whose cooking brings to mind for so many customers Sunday dinners at their grandmother's, is a white guy they affectionately call "The German." Truitt's girlfriend, Candy Cureton, who emigrated from El Salvador and has been mixing the chicken batter for 10 years, does most of the ordering for the shop. And a relative, a young man named Rob Thomas, 28, who is studying to be a dental hygienist, is a master at cracking eggs onto the grill with one hand and spreading the thick Admiration brand "extra heavy" mayonnaise onto the white bread for sandwiches with the other.
"It doesn't seem funny," Ward said. "He cooks the way people like it. If people like it, they'll come. And I tell you what, I tried all the food around here, and I hate to say it, but I haven't found anything better."
Truitt, who was born in Munich and has lived in the United States since he was a child, has been working at the Blue and White for 24 years. He arrives every morning at 4 a.m. to open up and put the beans on. His uncle, Karl-Heinz Kopf, bought the Blue and White back in 1972, and Truitt bought him out in 1993. His stepfather ran Italian and Mexican restaurants in the District, he said, so why shouldn't a white guy run a soul food joint? When he first began working for his uncle, things could get a little tense, he said. "But I just worked it in. Now I know everybody by name."
Thomas also said working at the Blue and White took some adjustment, on both sides of the counter.
"When I first started, some people didn't want you touching their food, they didn't want a white guy making it. They'd say, 'I'm waiting for Charles. One lady said, 'I don't want that white devil touching my food," he said. So he started making portions extra large and kept his cool. "I just tried not to give attitude and be productive and fast. Now they all recognize me. They call me Little Alex. Me and Alex are the only white guys who've worked here."
Truitt doesn't know how many people he serves every day, nor does he do much inventory. He cooks everything fresh that day -- one benefit of having no storage room. So how does he know how much to order every day? "I just know," he said, wiping his hands on his white apron and laughing. Cureton figures they go through about 150 pounds of chicken a day, 30 pounds of chops, 30 pounds of hamburger, 80 loaves of white bread, 120 eggs and two giant pots of beans a day if it's hot, three if it's cold. They sell 75 cases of soda -- 24 bottles to a case -- every week. RC Cola is a big seller.
At home, Truitt loves to cook Italian or French and watch cooking shows on TV. Developers have asked if he'd consider selling the place. They'd raze it and put in something shiny and new with walls that are plumb, pipes that aren't exposed and a floor that isn't a white-and-blue linoleum job with blue so faded it's become light purple. So far, he hasn't been tempted. "I still have to work. I've still got a daughter to put through college," he said. "And this is the only thing I've done since I was 22."
At 3:30 p.m., the Blue and White closed for the day. Smith and his son, Travis, 23, who has been working at the Blue and White for two years, washed pots and pans and scoured the grill. Thomas mopped the floor. Smith swept the day's dust outside. As the traffic pounded past, cars, trucks and vans honked at Smith.
"Hey, Charles, go back to the country!"
"Hey, see you tomorrow."
Ward stopped a customer. "I got a question for you," he said, looking serious. "How were those beans? You walked out of here without saying anything, and it about killed me."
"Excellent," the customer replied.
He smiled. "That's all I wanted to hear."