Back in the soupy, prehistoric days of Washington’s gourmet comfort-food era — about 2007 — the team behind Amsterdam Falafelshop opened a fancy-pants sausage emporium called M’Dawg Haute Dogs in Adams Morgan. The place made none of its own links but produced about (and I’m approximating here) 16 million toppings, relishes and squirt-bottle condiments. You practically needed a degree in food chemistry to order a hot dog.
Meats & Foods is the doppelganger of the long-dead M’Dawg. Owner Scott McIntosh, co-creator of the business with wife Ana Marin, grinds and stuffs his own rotating menu of sausages, typically selling six at a time. But the menu of toppings and condiments is limited to a few specimens — house-made chili and bacon, Gordy’s pickles or sauerkraut from Honeycomb — and several bottles of commercial ketchup, mustards and hot sauces.
Some days, as I sat at the counter and stared at the semi-frozen street life outside the window at Meats & Foods, I wished I could have traveled back to 2007 and smuggled an armful of M’Dawg’s custom-made toppings to use on McIntosh’s exquisite line of links. Several times, I found myself at a complete loss to find appropriate partners for the sausages here.
My experience with the turmeric chicken sausage offers a good example. The smoked banger itself is above reproach: Juicy thigh meat is perfumed with ginger and garlic, stuffed into a natural casing, then slipped into a cushy potato roll. But when I asked McIntosh — the tall, tatted gentleman behind the register — for a suitable topping, he suggested the kraut, which sounded like a hostile German takeover of the subcontinent. I was dreaming of other options: cool raita, tingling mango chutney, even freshly sliced paneer, anything but fermented cabbage.
Such are the limitations of the two-person shop where Marin and McIntosh, both former bartenders, make almost everything in house. They’re the kind of folks you immediately want to invite into your inner circle: smart, humble, generous, the trifecta of human qualities. Should you have to wait long for your sandwiches, one will surprise you with a snack of house-cured bacon, smoky, sweet and salty. You’ll quickly want more.
The couple has given considerable thought to expanding the toppings and condiments, but they’ve had to accept their situation. “We’re basically totally maxed out,” McIntosh said over the phone. The owners have no more hours in their week to prep new items, not without affecting the quality of their current offerings.
The meager toppings create a conundrum: In a sense, the sausages work better as carryout ingredients to prepare at home (the uncooked links are sold four for $10), but treating Meats & Foods as a corner bodega deprives you of its other charms. The microscopic shop accommodates only a few basic stools, yet the space offers the intimacy of a home kitchen, a cheeky one. A mural greets you at the door: A cartoonish sausage shooting itself in the head with a ketchup bottle, the latest example of Suicide Food, those mascot-creatures who are just aching for you to eat them. Christmas lights outline the window and meat case. A newspaper — a genuine, dead-tree specimen — sits on the counter awaiting your review.
The Meats & Foods vibe proved irresistible. I consumed most of my meals right at the blond-wood counter, the warm sun on my face, a newspaper at my fingertips. Should I have wanted a beer, I could have ordered a can of Natty Boh, DC Brau’s the Corruption or Atlas Brew Works’ District Common, too. The shop exudes a genuine sense of place, respectful of the District’s past and present.
McIntosh bows before the past with his own half-smoke, a version he’s meticulously researched and tested before deeming it worthy of public consumption. It’s a coarsely ground banger, stuffed with beef and pork, studded with red pepper flakes and smoked over pecan. Polishing off one of McIntosh’s half-smokes isn’t an exercise in fire-eating, as with some interpretations of D.C.’s defining link. Even when topped with chili, the bite isn’t designed to impress with fireworks alone: It revels in the pleasures of the flesh, down to the snap of its natural hog casing.
For a place that trades in sausages and chili — two of the manliest foods this side of raw animal flesh — Meats & Foods displays a restraint usually found in more refined restaurants. No matter what I ordered, the sausage demanded I pay close attention; almost every one preferred to suggest its flavors, not tattoo them on the tongue. It might be the green chili chicken, whose muted jalapeno burn required an additional squirt of hot sauce for those of us with high-heat tolerance. Or it could be the lemon grass chicken, whose Thai chiles never drowned out the background notes of ginger. Or it could be the pork bratwurst with its sweet nutmeg fragrance.
The drawback of such subtlety is obvious: A sausage can lose a tug of war to its toppings, as was the case of my green chili chicken, which was no match for its cheese and bacon bun mates. I can’t imagine the mild Italian link, with its hints of fennel and caraway, would fare much better.
Then again, you can treat the chili (whether beef or veggie) as a stand-alone item instead of a topping. McIntosh and Marin offer it in three variations: bowl, burrito (or “chilito”) and sloppy Joe. The chilito can quickly turn into a five-napkin spill if the filling proves too liquidy, although I doubt you’ll complain much. My preferred way to savor the chili, however, comes via the shop’s special-request Frito pie, whose corn chip garnishes add both salt and an unearthly crunch to the stew.
Those curls of processed corn should strike a chord with the rookie restaurateurs: Even commercial ingredients can improve a homemade dish and, best of all, these toppings require no prep whatsoever.
247 Florida Ave. NW. 202-505-1384. www.meatsandfoods.com.
Hours: Wednesday-Sunday, noon to 9 p.m.
Nearest Metro: Shaw-Howard U, with a .4-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: All sausages $6, plus toppings from 50 cents to $2.