These are hard times for Chinatown shops that specialize in beef and bread.
Last fall, Fuddruckers, the build-your-own burger empire, shut down its last D.C. location, at the corner of Seventh and H streets NW. On Rye, the modern Jewish deli on Sixth Street NW, apparently got the memo a few weeks later: The owners packed up their briskets and split the neighborhood in December.
Now, as I'm chatting with the proprietor of a Chinatown shop so invested in beef and bread that it's called, well, Beef 'N Bread, he's talking about ditching the meaty concept and converting it into a poke outlet. (The sound you hear is my inner voice crying in the darkness: God, have mercy, no more poke!) But Nuri Erol sounds as if his mind is made up: He has already teamed up with Can Yurdagul (partner in Sushi Capitol and Sushi Ogawa) to rebrand the Beef 'N Bread location in Foggy Bottom into Onolicious Poke. It debuts Feb. 1..
The Chinatown location (750 Sixth St. NW, 202-393-0406) could be next, Erol warns me. Or he might convert the corner shop into a gelateria. He's not sure yet.
Either way, I'm not thrilled by the prospect. I have darkened the doorway of Beef 'N Bread since Erol, the Turkish native behind Wiseguy Pizza, opened the Chinatown carryout in 2015. I have regularly eaten at Beef 'N Bread on my own dime: It required a brisk walk from the office, a bit of exercise that was rewarded with this gorgeous pile of sliced top round, slow-roasted to the most succulent shade of ruby red. No matter the sandwich, the Angus beef was always the star.
Sorry, I mean the Angus beef is always the star. Is always the star. Beef 'N Bread hasn't cried uncle yet.
At the very least, consider this mini-review a warning that you may have only a few months left to enjoy Beef 'N Bread before it converts from land to sea (or ice cream). How often do you get a chance to say goodbye, and thank you, to a kitchen that has fed you well? The last time I remember doing so, chef Frank Ruta was hugging well-wishers inside Palena while diners clamored for one last order of roast chicken to try to fill the void.
Relax, I'm not comparing Beef 'N Bread to a D.C. dining icon like Palena. Truth is, Beef 'N Bread has its flaws, starting with the original premise of the place. Erol had hoped to combine two traditions in one sandwich shop, borrowing the three-way roast beef preparation from Massachusetts and the Dutch Crunch bread from Northern California. But he was thwarted from the start. He couldn't find a source for the sweet, dense, crackly bread. Nor could he toast the sesame-seed buns on a griddle, like they do in Boston. He has no ventilation system to support a flat-top.
As a result, Beef 'N Bread has always had this air of improv about it. Erol installed an Alto-Shaam oven to work around the ventless kitchen, using the machine to roast both beef and turkey. He eventually decided the oven was not ideal for turkey, which could become more lifeless than a White House press briefing. He started buying roasted turkey instead.
Such improv almost defines Beef 'N Bread's menu offerings. It's not always easy to trace the origins — or even the logic — behind such sandwiches as the Chinatown, which combines medium-rare roast beef with, among other ingredients, avocado, basil, Sriracha, hoisin, jalapeño sauce and the spicy house-made "wise sauce." The sandwich is as complicated as America, and just as lovely in its excess and ambition.
The Boston Beef is not an exact replica of the classic three-way sandwich, which drips with mayonnaise, cheese and barbecue sauce. This version substitutes horseradish sauce for the mayo, a sweet little note of Prime Rib refinement in takeout form. The S. Border Beef tucks rosy slices of roast beef and thick-cut vegetables into a stale hoagie roll, which does the sandwich no favors. I had the urge to pull a "Trading Spaces" routine on these toothsome fillings: I wanted to bake them a more fashionable base. The D.C. Beef, with its warring goat cheese and jalapeño sauce, seems a strange representative for the Swamp, but I drained it all the same.
I have even found pleasures outside the roast beef section of the menu: The Cali Turkey piles on the flavor with ingredients — bacon and Muenster cheese, among them — that wouldn't pass the Gwyneth Paltrow sniff test. The Pesto Turkey includes an odd stowaway: the piquant wise sauce, which proves surprisingly compatible with the basil spread. Even the peanut-butter-and-chocolate milkshake is worth a taste. It goes down like a liquid Butterfinger bar.
So, I've been thinking: If Beef 'N Bread should take a header, like Fuddruckers and On Rye before it, where shall I turn my attention for a sandwich? The options are endless in the District these days. But lately, I've been pulling into Subbs by Carl (2208 Rhode Island Ave., 202-529-6225), a carryout shop that has been serving the Brookland and Woodridge neighborhoods for more than 30 years.
This is not a place for the gastronomic herd, which roams the land in search of precious morsels. This is an old-school sub shop, where you'll stand next to boxes of Utz chips and stacks of diet sodas while waiting on an order. The beef here is not roasted in-house. The salami is not pulled from a temperature-controlled case and sliced to order. The rolls are not baked off every morning in a special bread oven.
What's the attraction, you ask? Part of it, I must confess, is probably a misplaced nostalgia for a time when a sandwich was just a sandwich — and not an Instagrammable display of your good taste and sound stewardship of the planet. These are subs for a hungry city, each one packed impossibly fat with your choice of fillings. After a few visits, I've learned to skip the drizzle of vinegar and oil, which ends up coating everything within a three-foot radius of the sandwich. I've learned to go easy on the hot peppers, too, which will quickly electrify your lunch.
I've also learned to chat up Carl, the silver-haired owner of the shop. I've yet to learn his full name, but I've heard plenty of his stories of Brookland. They're half the reason I love the place.