Poor bread. Trendy diets have not been kind to it. Paleo, gluten-free, low-carb: All have made bread the enemy.
So walking into Junction Bakery & Bistro is like a breath of fresh air — fresh air laced with the yeasty, wheaty aromas of bread.
“It’s the staff of life,” said head baker and chef Nathan Hatfield.
It is also at the heart of what Junction does. Every day, Hatfield and his staff churn out around 1,000 pounds of it.
Not that this was where Hatfield originally saw himself. While studying biology and chemistry at college in Utah, he got a job as a dishwasher at a small, dinner-only restaurant. The bread baker left, and Hatfield decided to give it a go. “I thought of it as an opportunity to make more money,” he explained.
The pursuit for cash evolved into a full-time vocation, and Hatfield’s résumé grew to include stints at Society Fair and Restaurant Eve, as well as Le Diplomate, his most recent gig before joining restaurateur Noe Landini to open Junction in Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood this summer.
Landini, who also owns Landini Brothers, Fish Market and Pop’s Ice Cream in Old Town and Bar Deco near Verizon Center, said years in the business mean “you start to appreciate really good things like bread.”
Located in the old Mancini’s Cafe & Bakery, Junction makes a strong case for that one really good thing, though it does not limit itself to loaves and pastries. “I feel like if you’re opening making bread, it doesn’t take that much more to throw in some breakfast sandwiches,” plus salads and soups, Hatfield said.
The offerings benefit not only from Hatfield’s excellent loaves, most of which take three days from start to finish, but also his elevated flourishes.
Take the Roman breakfast sandwich. It starts with focaccia, which manages both a crackly crust and pillowy interior, and includes shingles of crispy roasted Yukon Gold potatoes, romesco sauce enlivened by lemon zest and a fried egg that spills out a runny yolk as sunny as the ever-friendly service. (It’s a little unwieldy, but if you can manage, try to pick the whole thing up rather than attempt to cut through it. Your teeth are much more efficient than plastic utensils.)
Just as satisfying is the Country, another breakfast sandwich. The star is a flaky cheddar and chive biscuit that Hatfield has been perfecting for 15 years. The fillings — scrambled eggs and house sausage — are exactly what you’d want them to be, but on a separate occasion I enjoyed an unadorned biscuit just as much. This is baking that stands on its own.
I’d also be just as happy to buy toaster-ready bags of Hatfield’s English muffins. A griddled, slightly tangy muffin forms the basis of the Classic breakfast sandwich, with bacon, scrambled eggs and cheese. The flavors are good, although the lack of structural integrity — a generous portion of eggs hung well over the sides of the bread — made it tricky to consume.
Friends and I also struggled to get a grip on the Kim Chee, which piles house-made kimchi on a steam bun with a fried egg, bacon and lime mayo. The diminutive bun was cut in half with a much smaller top than bottom that, along with the crisscross of bacon strips that reached inches over the bread, again added up to awkward, but pretty tasty, eating.
Junction has also jumped on the artisanal toast trend. I wasn’t totally sold on either the Sicily (artichokes, caramelized onions and pecorino on roasted garlic sourdough), which I found a bit overpowering for breakfast, or the Tuscan (ricotta, orange zest, mint and poppy seeds on brioche), whose cheese was more akin to sour cream in texture.
I couldn’t fault the bread, however. Crusts are a strength here. “We definitely bake our bread a lot darker than a lot of other commercial bakeries,” Hatfield said, adding that it imparts flavor and helps with preservation.
Breakfast pastries are another strong suit. Paris is calling with the chocolate croissant, which flaked all over my shirt, as good ones ought to. Hatfield also uses croissant dough in a spiral-shaped morning bun that is sweet and citrusy (orange and grapefruit form part of the mix) and utterly delightful.
Among the heftier items on the lunch menu is the short rib grilled cheese. Again, the best part is the bread: Roasted garlic sourdough is griddled to perfection, as if ready for a Campbell’s tomato soup ad. You could probably cut the meat and still have a worthy Gruyere and cheddar grilled cheese. Not that there was anything wrong with the short ribs, but the entire composition needed a zesty hit of something to cut through the richness.
I had a similar almost-there experience the one night I ate dinner at Junction. The roast chicken was flawlessly executed but a bit plain, even with a large pile of caponata. The spicy squash cakes were like Southern latkes: A nice thought, but it needed something other than the pile of lightly dressed arugula — a sauce? — to better round things out. And an artichoke dip would have been much more satisfying had it not been cold in the center.
Junction has temporarily suspended its evening service while the staff attempts to manage the high demand for its breakfast and lunch goods, not to mention what it makes for wholesale clients. Whether morning or midday, weekday or weekend, I have yet to walk into the place — attractively outfitted with tin ceilings, railroad-inspired decor and a large glass wall overlooking the bakery — when it hasn’t been bustling.
Does this mean bread is back? I certainly hope so.
1508 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria. 703-436-0025. junctionbakery.com.
Hours: Monday-Saturday 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Nearest Metro: Braddock Road, about 3/4 mile from the restaurant.
Prices: Pastries, $3-$4.50; sandwiches and larger plates, $7-$15.