A restaurant is not a metaphor, and I’m not the kind of guy who usually goes around trying to find deeper meaning in a place to eat, but every time I set foot in Fight Club, I can’t help but think that this Capitol Hill sandwich shop is here not just to feed us, but to remind us to take some chances. It’s as if the proprietors have absorbed the truth of a quote often attributed to filmmaker David Cronenberg, who never met a boundary he didn’t like to push.
“Everybody’s a mad scientist,” Cronenberg said, probably to a giant talking beetle, “and life is their lab.”
Fight Club started life as a pandemic-era pop-up inside Beuchert’s Saloon, serving up big, sloppy, sneaky-clever takeaway sandwiches at a time when we were all looking for something tasty we could eat anywhere but a restaurant. Fight Club is now a stand-alone operation, tucked into the former Hank’s on the Hill space, where, much like the characters in the novel from which the business borrows its name, the team continues to rebel against the numbing strictures of society. Or at least against the tired expectations of a sandwich shop.
Nothing is what it seems at Fight Club. The banh mi is not a classic banh mi — you know, a mini-baguette layered with Vietnamese mayo, pâté, meats, pickled veggies, ringlets of jalapeño and a scattering of cilantro — a considered collision of textures and tastes. No, the Fight Club version is just a collision. Chef and co-owner Andrew Markert grafts Chinese shrimp toast onto a Vietnamese banh mi with an application of a Philippine-style crab fat sauce, the latter fortified with enough crab meat to resemble a kind of pâté.
I was fascinated by Markert’s shrimp toast banh mi from the moment I saw it on the menu. The sandwich dares to double down on carbs, the so-called bad kind, in defiance of all things holy, or at least whole grain. I ordered this sucker twice. I still don’t get it. Nothing pops for me; the sandwich feels weighed down by its own ingenuity.
But you know what? It doesn’t matter. I may not love the shrimp toast banh mi, but I love what it represents: a fearlessness in the face of convention. A willingness to follow your passion regardless of what anyone thinks, least of all a food critic. Markert likes banh mis and shrimp toast, and he loves the combo together. Maybe he’s right. Maybe this Frankenwich will become his “Nevermind,” first panned, later beloved, ultimately a classic.
Markert is the link between Fight Club, the pop-up at Beuchert’s, and its bricks-and-mortar successor. He is mastermind of the menus that have graced both places. With the permanent location, Markert has partnered with beverage director/co-owner MacKenzie Conway and bar manager Cory Holzerland, and together, the trio have created a beast that follows its own impish impulses. The guys give off the impression, both online and in person, that they just want to take the starch out of this stuffed-shirt town.
You’ll find gnomes on the shelves, showing a little cheek. You’ll find draft punches and Jell-O shots on the cocktail menu, the latter in “seasonal flavors.” You’ll find Hamm’s on the beer list, injecting a little mid-century nostalgia into a decidedly modern shop that describes its sandwiches as “off center & on point.” You’ll find regular events at the restaurant, including the inaugural Fight Club Anti-Commitment Ball, a recent Valentine’s-themed promotion that mocked the very idea of romance.
Markert’s sandwiches may play fast and loose with their inspirations, but the chef clearly has respect for the classics, even if his creations test your ability to pick them up with two hands. His Primanti Bros. homage features Italian meats, provolone, cabbage slaw and a thick layer of tots (not fries), the entire stack enriched with the runny yolk of a fried egg. His FC Chicken Doink is a fried chicken-thigh sandwich by way of chicken and waffles, all served on dense housemade maple cakes. His Das Sandwich is a big breaded pork cutlet smothered with German potato salad, a combination that ridicules the toasted bun that tries to contain it. I lost the battle with each of these sandwiches, their contents spilling onto plates and takeaway boxes. But that didn’t stop me from using a fork, or my fingers, to scoop up every last bite.
I will confess, though, that my preferred sandwiches at Fight Club tend to hold their shape. Markert’s pastrami variation, dubbed Rarebit and Rye, comes packed with browned onions and Welsh rarebit, transforming this deli standard into something more sweet and luxurious. His French dip doesn’t even bother with the beef; the chef subs roasted oyster and maitake mushrooms for the animal protein and then pairs the fungi with grilled onions, the umami rush so deep and undeniable that you won’t miss the meat. His meatball sub, the Mamma Mia, is also vegetarian, replacing the ground-beef orbs with arancini. He then tops the risotto balls with marinara, pickled banana peppers, provolone and parmesan cheese. The surprising sandwich ranks up there with my favorites this year — any year, really.
The snacks, like the sandwiches, are created as if Markert believes the old William Blake saw that the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom rather than, you know, angioplasty. His burnt ends flatbread is a hedonist’s paradise, the smoky nuggets of beef accessorized with coleslaw, scallions, fried onions, melted cheddar, barbecue sauce and a gnawing sense of regret. If his pork cheek nachos are five layers of wrong, then I don’t want to be right. Even the wedge salad lives in a fantasy world of Markert’s creation, the iceberg tower erupting with blue cheese dressing, bacon, tomatoes and, for good measure, everything bagel spice. I could not eat this thing fast enough.
Lest you think Fight Club is just one stoner joke after another, I’d like to point out a simple fact: At present, the menu does not include the Heir to the BLT, arguably Markert’s masterpiece, a sandwich that landed on my best sandwiches list in 2021. The chef won’t make it available till tomato season. I respect his caution, which underscores something perhaps not instantly apparent inside the four walls of Fight Club: Underneath all the fun and cleverness, there is real intention.
633 Pennsylvania Ave. SE; 202-885-9714; fightclubdc.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
Nearest Metro: Eastern Market, with a short walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $4 to $18 for all food items on the menu.