PASTRAMI SCOTT'S -- Rtes. 7 & 228, Herndon Junction. 450-6051. Open: Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Closed Sunday. Cash only. No separate non-smoking area. Prices: Sandwiches and platters $1.55 to $5.85. Full meal with beer, tax and tip less than $10 per person.
Set aside saving the whales for today and instead pay attention to saving the pastrami sandwich.
It hasn't been easy getting a good pastrami sandwich in the Washington area, as those of us know who have been looking for one for decades. And now that we have one, it is threatened with destruction.
Scott Williamson learned how to make a classic pastrami sandwich from his friend Pastrami Dan, who opened restaurants of that name in Connecticut and Florida. Then, four years ago, Williamson set out to bring a great pastrami sandwich to Washington. Economics (and inexperience, since Williamson had never been in the restaurant business and didn't know whether he could succeed) drove him to settle for a Herndon bar hidden behind a few gas pumps on a ramshackle commercial strip. "I chose it because it was a dilapidated building with low overhead," he explains. For 30 years it had been a rib joint -- first called Mrs. Smith's, then the Pit Stop. Williamson kept the ribs -- which are served only on Fridays -- and added a few New York touches to the burger-and-barbecue menu. He didn't expect to make a big splash in such a place: It has only four booths, a game table and a dozen bar stools, most of which seem permanently occupied by the same beer drinkers who hung around when it was the Pit Stop.
Williamson decorated the walls with a few New Yorker covers but kept the country music playing, covering all bases. Millie Robinson stayed on to cook the ribs, as she had done with her sister for the last 16 years. And Williamson set out to sell pastrami sandwiches.
He found great pastrami -- black- pepper-coated, spicy and juicy -- produced by a place in the Bronx, and arranged to have it shipped down frozen, 300 to 400 pounds at a time, in unlabeled boxes so nobody could steal his supplier. Williamson says his is the only restaurant in the Washington area that serves this particular brand of pastrami, and he's keeping the secret of where he gets it. It comes 95 percent cooked, and he just steams it to finish it off. Williamson also brings in New York corned beef, uncooked, which he trims of its fat before he cooks it; it's good but no match for the pastrami. He gets Dusseldorf mustard and kosher dill pickles (standard ones, not great ones) from New York via a local supplier. From his friend Dan he learned that Dusseldorf mustard helps a pastrami sandwich reach greatness. And from Dan he also picked up the oddity of adding a layer of sliced pickles to the sandwich, which is kind of interesting but not for a traditionalist.
Then he had to find good rye bread, a feat that is recognized as a virtual impossibility in Washington. He tried this bread and that bread and wasn't satisfied until he met a guy from Brooklyn who had opened Cardinal Bakery in Sterling. There he found what he wanted. "It is not real Jewish rye, but it's the best in this area," says Williamson. And I agree. It has the thick, crunchy hard crust that rye bread should have, and the crumb has enough texture and flavor to put it ahead of the pack. But it is a cross between Jewish rye bread and Italian bread.
Williamson also cooks his own top round and turkey breast, though he serves them with factory gravy and instant mashed potatoes that are unworthy of the home-roasted meats. He makes a decent chili and a strange bean soup, and sells a five-ounce burger for $1.95.
He raised the prices when he changed the Pit Stop to Pastrami Scott's, to signal that it intended to be more than just a saloon. "The place looks rough, but it's not," says Williamson. "Some days the parking lot is all pickup trucks, and some days it is all Volvos and Mercedes."
As far as customers go, Pastrami Scott's seems to be a success. Sometimes it serves nearly 300 people a day, mostly carryout. It is a friendly place, with waitresses as nice as can be and customers who sometimes pitch in and help. The food is cheap, and the pitchers of beer are 60 ounces.
Pastrami Scott's is not where you would expect to find a sensational meal, and indeed, the food generally is just okay. Friday's ribs are meaty, crusty and steamily tender. They are kitchen ribs, not smokehouse ribs, with a thick, glossy barbecue sauce barely hot and on the sweet side. They grow on you. The thin- sliced roast beef on the sandwiches is good, too, though the gravy doesn't do it justice. The coleslaw, macaroni salad and potato salad are homemade but too sweet. The latter two are improved by a sprinkling of celery seeds. As a yuppie touch, there are Ms. Desserts.
As far as I am concerned, the single gastronomic reason to venture out to Herndon -- early enough to beat the 8 p.m. weekday or 3 p.m. Saturday closing -- and to then wait for a table or a carryout order, is the pastrami sandwich. But that is a powerful reason.
And wouldn't you know it, they're going to tear the place down by the end of the summer and replace it with a Midas Muffler shop. So you'd better hurry.
HOG WILD! -- 732 Maryland Ave. NE. 547-4553. Open: Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday 12:30 to 9:30 p.m. Choice, MC, V. Reservations suggested on weekends. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: (restaurant) appetizers $1.75 to $3.75, sandwiches and platters $5.50 to $12.50; (carryout) sandwiches and platters $3.15 to $7.50. Full meal with wine or beer, tax and tip about $15 per person.
THE FOOD'S THE SAME, BUT THAT'S about all you can find in common between Hog Wild! the sit-down restaurant and Hog Wild! the carryout, entered around the corner. The former is yup-scale, the latter down-home. And the prices play a big role in the difference. A platter of two ribs, a quarter chicken, a big wad of chopped barbecue and a bunch of slices of brisket is called a lunch and costs $6.50 at the carryout (a bigger platter, called a dinner, costs $7.50). In the restaurant, the biggest combination platter consists of ribs, brisket and chicken, and costs $11.95. Maybe it amounts to more to eat, but I can't imagine wanting more to eat than that $6.50 carryout lunch platter.
As for the environment, Hog Wild!'s sit-down restaurant is obviously fancier than a carryout would be; it is a city version of a country restaurant. The hurricane lamps and brick walls somehow give the impression of spanking-new urbanity trying to look old -- maybe because to get inside you walk through a sea of molded orange plastic chairs that furnish the sidewalk cafe'. All in all, however, Hog Wild! is a cute place. You can gaze through a glass window into the kitchen, where a vast supply of logs -- rib-smoking fuel, presumably -- has been stacked. If nothing else, you are set up to anticipate a good meal.
Clearly the main purpose of Hog Wild! is to feed you ribs. The paper place-mat menus do list saute'ed seafoods (scallops, flounder, trout and "shrimp scampi"), various appetizers (saute'ed mushrooms, shrimp cocktail, chef's salad) and ice cream for dessert.
But the rest of the menu is barbecue in all its guises. Essentially that means pork (ribs or chopped), beef brisket and chicken. The ribs are sold as either regular or baby back ribs, alone or in combination with other meats, or as a whole slab big enough for two. Chopped pork can be a dinner or a sandwich, chicken can be a dinner or a combination, and brisket can be a sandwich or a combination. Don't ask me why they stopped there; I guess somebody got tired of writing all the possible permutations.
With all these meat choices come corn bread and two side dishes -- and here is what I love about Hog Wild! The greens are firm, slightly vinegar-tangy, with some fresh bite to them but not bitter; the potato salad is a terrific homey mix with lots of fresh celery and onion crunch and bits of pickle. If you insist on alternatives, there are the usual coleslaw, french fries, baked potato and down- home side dishes such as red beans and rice or sweet potatoes. The corn bread is certainly good, although it is light -- sophisticated-style urban rather than coarse, dense country bread.
To get around to the mainstay, though, I found the meats to be fine versions of barbecue -- with reservations. The main reservation is the sauce, which is catsup-based, sweet and vinegary, offered mild or hot -- but not very hot. It drowns the taste of the meat without replacing it with anything very interesting. The meat deserves better. The ribs are lean and crusty, plenty meaty and very smoky. The chicken is a knockout, the skin dark and crunchy, the meat very moist and tender, with plenty of smoke flavor permeating to the bone. But it has suffered, on occasion, from reheating. Brisket has its own wonderful texture -- tender and moist, thinly sliced but not dry. It could be better trimmed, but it is very good meat nevertheless. Chopped barbecue is the only substantial disappointment I've found among the meats. It is pasty, mixed with that same humdrum sauce, and lacks the crunchy bits from the crust. It's not bad, just a step down from the meats that share its place on the menu.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if Hog Wild! would bring in some other barbecue sauces to make guest appearances or at least offer alternatives to its tomatoey ooze. Its meats deserve it. This is otherwise good country eating -- especially for the middle of the city. ::