The $20 Diner’s duty for this issue of Weekend is fraught with contradiction, if not outright class warfare. For that exploited caste of workers known as Washington interns, I’ve been charged with expanding their gastronomic minds on the cheap. It sounds noble and all, until you remember that many don’t earn squat, which means a $12 hand-crafted sandwich can seem as stupidly decadent as the $1,000 Golden Opulence Sundae.
There is, of course, that rare breed of blue-blood intern, as cataloged by Salon, whose every trip on Metro and every meal at Union Market is subsidized by their one-percenter parents. If I’m speaking mostly to this class of interns, I apologize in advance. It seems antithetical to the $20 Diner’s mission, which is to provide dining tips to those on a tight budget, not daddy’s credit card.
With that off my chest, dear interns, I’ll waste no more time. As I’ve said before, back when you were still developing a tolerance for Jagermeister shots, some of my most memorable dining has come without tablecloths and sommeliers. Ingenuity in the kitchen does not demand a ransom from guests in the dining room; creativity can be found at all levels.
I’m thinking specifically about chef Anne Alfano’s muffuletta at Little Red Fox, the market, coffee shop and cafe (5035 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202-248-6346) that opened last fall. Alfano worked briefly in New Orleans, where she became acquainted with Central Grocery, the French Quarter market that claims to have invented the muffuletta, that antipasti plate crammed into one glorious sandwich.
Alfano’s unconventional muffuletta tastes as if it hopped a freight train to Texas and sought shelter in a barbecue pit. The chef smokes her hams, from Polyface Farms, for three to four hours. The perfumed slices are then paired with mortadella and coppa and topped with a relish of pickled carrots, cauliflower and cayenne peppers. The final grace note is a smoked aioli slathered onto baker Lauren Parlato’s house-made rosemary focaccia. The whole sandwich is so craft-conscious and eager to please that I felt guilty shelling out a mere $10 for it.
Over at DGS Delicatessen (1317 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202-293-4400), the kitchen takes beef tongue, once and always a staple of Jewish delis, and finds it a sunny little spot along the Mediterranean: Braised-and-grilled slices of the muscle are stuffed in a fresh pita with chopped tomato, red onion, feta, lettuce and tzatziki sauce. No one is likely to mistake the thick ribbons in DGS’s gyro — the tongue’s stubbly papillae remain visible to the eye — with the shavings from one of those beef-and-lamb cones spinning away at Greek diners. The lush texture and faintly livery flavor of the tongue lend DGS’s gyro a no-nonsense Old World simplicity, so different from the fistful of Greek herbs and spices that scream for attention with standard gyro meat. A modern deli classic, all for $12.
The bagels at Bread Furst in Van Ness (4434 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202-765-1200) don’t look like the overinflated neck pillows at Einstein Bros. Owner and baker Mark Furstenberg has no patience for New York-style bagels so swollen they choke off the bread’s defining hole. His irregularly shaped rounds are closer in spirit to Montreal bagels, though Furstenberg is loath to draw such a comparison. Bread Furst’s malty, righteously chewy bagels ($1.75 each) boast more salt but ditch the honeyed sweetness often found in their Canadian counterparts. Nor are these District rounds baked in a wood-burning oven like those up north.
“The Washington-style bagel, very famous,” Furstenberg says. The baker is slyly mocking his own hubris, but don’t be surprised if, one day, his bagels become one of the city’s signature items.
The closest thing the District has to a signature dish is the half-smoke, an ill-defined sausage made popular by Ben’s Chili Bowl, a U Street institution that’s sort of the Keith Richards of diners: Nothing can kill it, not riots, not construction projects, not the health food movement. Over the years, butchers and chefs have tried their hand at half-smokes, some quite artisanal, such as the one Peter Smith developed for Singer’s Significant Meats (starting at $5), available on Sundays and Mondays at its pop-up at Newton’s Table (4917 Elm St., Bethesda, 202-744-1220).
One of the boldest half-smoke homages can be found every Thursday at the Three Little Pigs stand at the FreshFarm Market by the White House (11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at 810 Vermont Ave. NW). Owners Jason and Carolina Story, who run a small charcuterie and salumi shop on Georgia Avenue NW, have created a formidable sausage ($12): a half-beef, half-pork mixture spiked with cayenne, cumin and garlic powder, among other Type-A ingredients of heat and aggression. Stuffed into a natural casing and smoked over hickory, the link has all the subtlety of a military dictator. Which is why it’s best covered in a house-made topping or two, the sweeter and fattier the better, like the baked beans and bacon.
One topping not available at the Three Little Pigs stand? Chili. It’s both a bow of respect to Ben’s and a subtle rebuke: a reminder that pepper-laced chili and spicy sausages don’t always make the best bun mates.
This is, arguably, the central tension in the District’s contemporary dining scene: Newcomer restaurants, often driven by formally trained chefs, are slowly marginalizing the old-timers (except for Ben’s, which is still doing fine, thank you). For every ramen shop that debuts, another time-honored neighborhood haunt seems to flatline. The $20 Diner’s heart is not immune to the pain of these losses.
But the anguish can be eased with a meal at one of these fresh spots, whether a precision-engineered rice bowl at Donburi in Adams Morgan, a vegetarian thali platter at Indigo near NoMa or a simple tigelle sandwich at Red Apron downtown. It’s a great time to be an intern in Washington.