Pinball is not a sport, no matter how many leagues pop up between now and Judgment Day — that is, until the next “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” machine arrives at your local bar. Pinball isn’t really compatible with food, either.
And yet here we are: Like vinyl records and retrogaming, pinball has emerged from the cultural landfill in which we had buried it decades ago. It has replaced bocce ball as the latest test of our drunk skills at bars. Most machines now come equipped with a holster/cup holder on the side, so you can have a quick draw of suds while liquidating zombies with “The Walking Dead” game. Childhood pleasures with adult beverages.
Combining pinball with grub feels as unnatural as marrying your first cousin. Even when playing against someone, pinball is a game conducted in isolation, you against the machine, all outside stimuli ignored in an ultimately fruitless attempt to stop that silver ball from draining back into its cubbyhole. Even if you wanted to nosh on a dog while keeping your hands within flipper-range, you have nowhere to put the bite. A tilted, glass-topped pinball machine is no place for plateware.
So at places such as Vük in Bethesda and Lyman’s Tavern in Petworth, a dance takes place: Customers play pinball and then become human pinballs as they bounce back and forth between table and machine. The exercise is a test of trust: Do you leave your bag, coat and shot of 16-year-old Lagavulin at your seat while dropping a pocketful of quarters? Or do you schlep them to the machine like a sherpa with trust issues?
Vük (4924 St. Elmo Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-8000) comes from Scott Nash, founder and chief executive of MOM’s Organic Markets, the small grocery chain that pushes products good for your health and the environment. Nash is a proselytizer for pinball, too, and Vük is his dark pulpit. The space is the brooding black sheep to MOM’s clean, apple-cheeked cherub. Serbian for “wolf” (and an acronym for a common piece of pinball machinery), Vük is outfitted with pitch-black walls, sci-fi-themed machines, a killer Klipsch sound system and a life-size Cylon from “Battlestar Galactica” in the front window. It brings together metalheads and booger-pickers over their shared dread that the world is a bad place, overrun with monsters that must be destroyed.
If MOM’s wants you to eat your veggies, Vük prefers to fatten you up on mozzarella. The place serves pies with dough prepared in-house over a 30-hour-plus period. Unless you opt for a whole round, your pizza is not prepared to order. As on the streets of Manhattan, you select an oversize triangle from the pies on display, and each floppy slice is then warmed in a deck oven. The thin crust is more crackly, chewy and buttery than many of the foldable slices found in the West Village. I wonder how many pinball wizards, racking up points on the Hobbit machine, will even notice their crust has developed more character than Bilbo Baggins?
The Sicilian is a landmass of dough, cheese and sauce cooked down to the consistency of tomato paste and spiked with garlic powder. It’s a tasty slab, even if the interior crust arrives underbaked and gummy. The white pizza remains my favorite, its pungent pockets of garlic perfect for pairing with one of the hoppy beers available, a meal of short, sharp shocks. Nash may expand to a full bar once Vük finds a permanent home. Developers are just itching to take a wrecking ball to the current location. The wolf is clearly at the door.
Lyman’s (3720 14th St. NW; 202-723-0502) offers a wider selection of dishes than Vük, even though the former is missing that lifeforce of all taverns, a deep fryer. With nary a fried snack made in-house, the menu has instead adopted a lovely Salvadoran accent, a nod to the immigrants who hawk fruits on nearby sidewalks. The pupusas, handformed by Dilcia Flores, are textbook examples of the Salvadoran pockets, their masa shells thin and their cheese fillings generous. I would ditch the accompanying salsa verde — it makes for an avalanche of acid when combined with curtido slaw — in favor of the green habanero hot sauce. The heat completes the bite.
The curtido proves an inspired topping on the all-beef Lyman’s Dogs, a crunchy stand-in for the standard frankfurter relish. With a little crema and queso, these dogs are eager to please, their muttlike hybrid of Salvadoran and American snacks irresistible. The vegetarian Viet tacos are a different kind of fusion, a meaty bite of barbecued jackfruit paired with pickled vegetables and a sweet chile sauce. The shredded jackfruit goes down like vegan carnitas, as oxymoronic as that sounds. I like the preparation a lot, much more than I like the shredded jackfruit in the 14th Street tacos, which drip acid.
For a genuine pigout, order the pulled pork sliders, in which braised and spiced shoulder meat is tucked into miniature potato buns. The pork is not real barbecue, but it’s also not a standard Lyman’s Slider, whose dominant flavor comes from its sweet pickle chips. The best slider experience may be meatless: The baby grilled cheese plate offers a trio of inside-out potato rolls, buttered and layered with American cheese. Salty, golden, rich and delicious. Bar food without pretense.
Lyman’s is something of a mutt itself. Housed in a former laundromat, the tavern looks like a cross between a junk shop, arcade and corner pub. The house mascot is the jackalope, half jack rabbit and half antelope. The critter may be nothing more than a redneck unicorn, but Lyman’s co-owner Jess Kleinmann has affection for the mythical beast. The “taxidermied” jackalope over the bar was a gift from her life partner and fellow Lyman’s partner, Kevin Perone.
Frankly, Perone is the real miracle at Lyman’s. He recently had a near-death experience while suffering from a rare throat infection, which caused his heart to stop. Doctors, fortunately, revived him. Kleinmann says he’s now back home and recovering slowly. Here’s hoping Perone makes a return to the scene as impressive as pinball’s.