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Jun 08, 2011

In D.C., The Only Thing More Elusive Than Statehood Is A Good Cubano

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A Cuban sandwich is: ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard pressed until crispy between two slices of Cuban bread, ideally.

It’s a simple sandwich. It’s a great sandwich.

DSCN5828 You want a good Cubano, you go to La Teresita in Tampa. It’s on Columbus by the stadium. Over the years, the Cuban diner has cranked out thousands of Cuban sandwiches, each for about $4. Just look at it. The bread –- the Cuban bread –- is toasted just enough to be crispy, crunchy on the outside, while the interior stays soft and just slightly chewy. The Swiss is warm and beginning to melt. And there’s just enough roasted pork, ham and pickles to fill out the sandwich without going overboard. Simple.

Yet, in the dozen years that I’ve lived in the District of Columbia, I’ve encountered many, many bad Cuban sandwiches. Just awful ones. I became convinced that no one in D.C. could make a proper Cubano.

Before working on this article, I never actively sought out the sandwich around town. I make it back to Tampa enough to satisfy my occasional need to have one. But every time I did encounter a D.C. Cubano, I tried it. If the sandwich was a flop, I would assume the rest of the menu was as well. Why not? If a kitchen can’t make a ham sandwich, why should I assume it can make something more complicated? 

Fortunately, there are six restaurants (using the term loosely) in the DMV that make a good Cubano –- and one of them makes the best Cuban sandwich I’ve ever had … anywhere.

Ceiba, the upscale Latin American restaurant, across the street from the White House and a thousand miles from Tampa, makes the best Cuban sandwich I’ve ever eaten (pictured above). That said, it’s not a traditional Cuban. If you’re a purist, the best traditional Cubano is made in Arlington by a guy from New Orleans. But the ways that Ceiba’s sandwich is different are the ways that it’s better than the rest.

For the most part, I’m still right about how hard it is to find a good Cubano in D.C. This is the town of Jose Andres and Minibar, of Michel Richard and Citronell, of Frank Ruta and Palena, of Vikram Sunderam and Rasika. This town, this foodie town (mostly) can’t make a reasonably good Cuban sandwich.

DSCN5926 G Street Food shoves dry, roasted pork and prosciutto into a roll and calls it a Cuban. It’s not (allegedly, there are other ingredients, but they’re lost in the loaf). Mi Vecindad on the Hill looks like the kind of mom and pop place that should specialize in a great Cubano. The sloppy steamed sandwich (pictured left) I had was the worst of the bunch.

The Disney inspired Cuba Libre offers an Ybor-style Cuban sandwich. Ybor City is the historic district in Tampa. Hey, I grew up in Tampa! I know Ybor! I’ve been there many more times then I remember. This should be great, right?! Right? Nope. The sandwich is too small, too expensive ($16!) and the flavors are too muddled. It’s a so-so sandwich at a Holy Shit! price.

And then there’s the Cubano flatbread at ChurchKey. I know it’s not a sandwich, but Kyle Bailey is a talented chef and I’m a fan of ChurchKey. Unfortunately, the Cubano flatbread is terrible. It may have pork, pickles and Swiss, but it doesn’t taste anything like a Cuban sandwich. Frankly, it doesn’t even taste like a good flatbread.

I could go on (Banana Café, Lima), but you get my point.

DSC_0006 In a strange twist for D.C., though, Jeff Tunks, chef and owner of Ceiba, uses all the right ingredients in his Cuban sandwich (well except Cuban bread, but he gets a pass because no one uses real Cuban bread). However, instead of yellow mustard, he uses a mayonnaise and mustard remoulade sauce. Rather than cured Danish ham, or sweet Virginia ham, Tunks uses a pungent smoked ham. And the Swiss cheese is replaced by its brawnier, more flavorful cousin, gruyere.

Tunks says the real difference is the pork shoulder that he marinates in citrus, garlic, cumin before slow roasting it. When he put the sandwich on the menu 8 years ago, he used pork loin, but switched to the fattier, more tender shoulder after a few months. Since then, the sandwich has remained unchanged. These days, if the pork sits too long in the kitchen before getting sliced, his staff will pick off pieces until the shoulder looks like it was worked over by piranha.

He’s right, the pork is good. The slow-cooked shoulder is juicy and the spices he uses are delicious and authentically Cuban. To me, though, the roasted pork isn’t the difference maker: it’s the smoked ham and remoulade.

DSC_0024 As I write this sentence, I can still smell the smoke on my since washed hands, and I can still taste the remoulade despite the other ingredients. When you bite into the sandwich, the smoke hits you. It’s confusing at first, because it otherwise looks like a traditional Cubano. But the smoked ham is a new element that gives the sandwich a flavor it’s never had before. And it works beautifully.

Then you notice that the bite from the mustard has been replaced by something smoother, richer. Until I talked to Tunks, I couldn’t figure it out. Somehow, the sandwich was more savory. The remoulade, which used a grainy mustard, was the unctuous secret.

Those ingredients added to an otherwise very well made Cubano resulted in one of the very best sandwiches D.C., or Tampa, has to offer. Sure, $13 is a lot to pay for a ham sandwich, but I’d pay twice as much. And if you order it off the late night bar menu, you can get it for half price.  

David Guas doesn’t like the remoulade. A Cuban sandwich needs yellow mustard. And he prefers more pork and less ham, though the smoked ham works for him. Guas’ opinion on Ceiba’s sandwich matters because he helped put it on the menu eight years ago.

DSC_0016 Today, Guas is the owner of Bayou Bakery in Arlington, and specializes in red beans and rice, boudin and has Abita on draft. But a couple days a week (Wednesdays and Thursdays usually) the kitchen will offer hot pressed Cuban sandwiches (pictured above) along with the muff-a-lottas. Guas may be a native of New Orleans, but his father was a native of Havana, Cuba.

Guas’ grandfather left Cuba to attend Loyola University, but returned with a wife and law degree. His grandmother’s ties to Louisiana led her to send Guas’ father and uncle to boarding school in Bay St. Louis, Miss., an hour north of New Orleans.

The city might be famous for po’ boys, but Cubanos were easy to find, Guas said, thanks to New Orleans’ Cuban community. And thanks to his extended family, Guas spent a considerable amount of his youth in Miami where the sandwich is a staple.

So the man from southeastern Louisiana knows from Cubanos.

Guas’ sandwich is fat with pork (that’s a good thing), but not so much so that the other ingredients get drowned out. Although Guas also uses a smoked ham, the flavor is much subtler than the ham Ceiba uses.

Both Guas and his former boss Tunks are big on the French bread they use for their Cubanos (Tunks’ comes from Cardinal, Guas’ comes from the French Bread Factory), but Guas’ roll carries the day thanks to the prodigious amount of butter he spreads on it before toasting it in panini press. The sandwich is crisp and almost flakey on the outside. Unless someone starts using Cuban bread, you’re not going to do better than Guas’ French roll. And at $7, you’re not going to find a better Cuban at a better price.

6 Tunks and Guas may make great sandwiches, but they are not alone in the Cubano trade. Within D.C., there’s also the El Floridano food truck. Parked along a curb in a neighborhood near you (maybe), the El Floridano offers up The Fidel (pictured right).

The Fidel is about as close to a traditional Cuban sandwich as you’ll find in the District. The El Floridano doesn’t do anything fancy (which is also good) and makes the sandwiches fresh. At the order and pick-up window, you can see the small flat-top lined with Cubanos held down by sandwich presses. For $7, you can get as good a sandwich as you’ll find in Tampa or Miami.

Fast Gourmet reminds me of some of my favorite Cuban sandwich spots in Tampa: gas stations. However, gas stations in Tampa don’t look this nice. The Cubano produced in the small kitchen near the corner of 14th and U streets is just as attractive. The crispy, panini pressed bread is stuffed with succulent, slow-roasted pork, ham, Swiss and pickles. Although the menu says the sandwich also comes with mustard and mayo, which isn’t uncommon, skip the mayo. It’s applied too liberally and drowns out whatever mustard is on the sandwich. For $8.50, you also get a side of shoestring fries. Don’t let that deter you from ordering the plantains (maduros). They’re soft, sweet and hot, and come with crème fresh.

Outside D.C., Cuba de Ayer is Havana via Burtonsville. The little Cuban restaurant hidden in a shopping center off Old Columbia Pike offers a great Cuban sandwich. What makes the drive to Burtonsville worth while, though, is the mojo you can order on the side. Dipping the warm and crusty Cubano into the garlic and olive oil mixture makes a good sandwich phenomenal.

Closer in is Cubano’s. What the Silver Spring restaurant lacks in polish and focused service it makes up for in a good Cuban sandwich (skip the fries and get the sweet maduros on the side). I wouldn’t go too far out of my way for Cubano’s, but if I was in the area, I’d be in the dining room.

There may be a lot of great restaurants, and food trucks, in the D.C. area, but there are only six that can make a proper Cuban sandwich. They are:

Ceiba: 701 14th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005; (202) 393-3983; Cubano: $13
Bayou Bakery: 1515 North Courthouse Rd., Arlington, VA 22201; (703) 243-2410; Cubano, a once a week special (Wednesdays and Thursdays usually), $7
Cuba de Ayer: 15446 Old Columbia Pike, Burtonsville, Md. 20866; (301) 476-8013; Cubano $7.50 (mojo $0.75)
El Floridano: moves daily; Cubano $7
Fast Gourmet: 1400 W St N.W., Washington, D.C. 20009; Cubano $8.50 (plantains $2.50)
Cubano’s: 1201 Fidler Ln., Silver Spring, Md. 20910; Cubano $14.95 (maduros $4.95)

Categories: Arlington, Capitol Hill, Caribbean, Cuban Sandwich, DC, Downtown, Eastern Market, Local Food, Maryland, Pork, Regional Food, Sandwiches, Silver Spring, Virginia, Washington, DC
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Feb 16, 2011

Must Haves: Red Hook Lobster Pound's Lobster Rolls (but you knew that already)

IMG_0981 Must Haves focuses on some of D.C.'s best dishes.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Last year, I sat down and put together a list of favorite dishes for this Must Haves series.

There was the burger, the pork sandwich and the french fries covered in gravy. There was also a lobster roll. It's served at a great little restaurant in Dupont. Having grown up in Florida, I wasn't exposed to this New England staple until I moved to the area, so the one in Dupont was my first. I've had others since, but this one remained the favorite.

And then a new lobster roll rolled into town, literally.

If you know anything about the recent food truck trend, you know about its brightest star: the Red Hook Lobster Pound truck. These guys need more publicity like I need a hole in the head.

The Washington Post, the City Paper and The Washingtonian have all praised the four-wheeled seafood shack. So why am I focusing on it? I'm late to the game and the big boys have already filled you in on how wonderful the food is, in particular the $15 lobster roll.

The thing is, they're right. In fact, they might not be stressing the point enough: for $15, you can buy the best damn four bite sandwich in Washington, D.C. (unless lobster's not your thing, in which case they're selling fondue in Penn Quarter).

Every time I order one of Red Hook's lobster rolls, I'm disappointed in how small they are. We're talking about a $15 sandwich that's served on a hotdog bun that's probably not six inches long. But man, do they stuff that tiny bun. Try as I might (and I try), I can't wrap my mouth around the lobster roll. There's just too much lobster meat. It's a buttery cornucopia of lobster plenty. 

The rolls come in two styles: Maine and Connecticut. The lobster meat in the Maine-style roll is lightly dressed with mayo, celery and seasoning (I guess Maine invented mayonnaise). The Connecticut is nothing more than lobster and warm butter in a bun.

Both versions are outstanding, but the Connecticut is absolutely amazing. It's just you, butter and a pile of sweet lobster meat (which is how I'd like to be buried one day). Quite simply, it's the very embodiment of the lobster roll. It makes the long lines worth it and the price perfectly acceptable.

It is the best lobster roll in D.C.

IMG_0971 Now, there is one other reason I wanted to feature Red Hook Lobster Pound's lobster rolls. I have a feeling this food truck thing might be more fleeting than the great cupcake craze of 2010. I hope I'm wrong. I do. But I like sitting down when I eat and maybe having an adult beverage. And when you're eating off a food truck, those options aren't available.

Besides, D.C. can be a fickle town and once the novelty of the trucks wears off, I'm afraid their legions of supporters will head back to traditional sit-down restaurants and turn their attention to the next big thing (I hear it's pie).

If that happens, it'll be a shame. Good food is good food, regardless of whether you buy it in a restaurant or from a food truck. And when it comes to lobster rolls, the best you can buy may be rolling through a neighborhood near you.

Categories: Buzz, DC, Food Carts, Lobster, Must Haves, Outdoor Dining, Sandwiches, Seafood, Washington, DC
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Sep 27, 2010

Grilled Lamb Sandwiches: Upgrading From The Same Old Tailgating Grub

DSCN5640 When it comes to tailgate grilling, what do you think of? Burgers? Dogs? Maybe wings if you're feeling it?

All of these are great options ... that we have all the time.

So every now and then, it's good to change up the menu some. I'm not saying you have to drop the brats from the lineup, just consider a substitution. Consider a hot pressed, grilled lamb sandwich. It's a hell of a thing, and it can take less time to prepare than an Oscar-Mayer frank.

As much as I love grilling, when I'm at a tailgate party, I want to focus on football and beer drinking. Firing up the grill is part of the experience, I just don't want it to be the primary experience. Most of us, I suspect, are of the same mind.

However, there is that group of people out there who like to show up at the stadium parking lot hours before the game and cook elaborate meals. You can do that with this recipe, if you want. Or, you can prepare everything the day, or week, before and do the final steps within minutes. It's your tailgate, do what you want.

DSCN5605 Sadly, I live nowhere near my college team (South Florida) or my pro team (the Bucs). So I spend most weekends planted on my couch. But to demonstrate that this recipe can be done at a tailgate, I broke out my tiny Weber grill - the same grill that I've taken to numerous tailgating events.

Basically, all you're doing is making a sandwich. But man, what a sandwich. I marinated half a butterflied lab leg in rosemary, garlic, oregano and basil overnight. Grilled it along with some onions, and then thin sliced the meat for the sandwich. Along with the lamb and onions, I added brie and blue cheese, arugula (I like some green on my sandwiches) and finished it with roasted garlic mayo.

Once the sandwich is assembled, I wrapped it in foil and pressed it on the grill using a brick. The cheese melts, the bread gets crusty and your tailgate meal gets exponentially better.

If someone handed you this sandwich and a beer at 11:30 a.m. on a Sunday, you'd know your day was starting off right.

DSCN5644 This is the point in the grilling post that I normally talk about what beer to pair with the meal. Not this time. When it comes to tailgating, you either drink whatever your buddy brought or you pick up a couple six packs of your favorite beer. Making sure the beer pairs well with the pre-game meal isn't (or shouldn't be) a consideration.

Instead, I'm going to discuss Abita's Save Our Shore, a big, unfiltered weizen pilsner that you'll feel good drinking, and not just because of the 7 percent A.B.V.

As it did after Hurricane Katrina, the brewery from Abita Springs, La., has produced a beer to raise money for a recovery effort. In 2005, Abita released Restoration Ale and for every six pack sold, the brewery donated a dollar to the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation.

Following the BP oil spill in the Gulf (which has not magically disappeared), Abita produced Save Our Shore. For every one of the 22 ounce bottles sold, Abita will donate 75 cents to SOS, a charitable fund managed by the Northshore Community Foundation and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation.

It's a great cause and a great beer.

DSCN5628Hot-Pressed Grilled Lamb Sandwiches
(Makes 6 generous servings)

Half a lamb leg, butterflied
8 oz. brie, cut into slices
8 oz. blue cheese, crumbled
Arugula
2 large onions, cut into thick slices
5 whole pieces of fresh rosemary
1 tbs. dried oregano
1 tbs. dried basil
3 heads of garlic, one chopped and two whole (the two whole heads are optional)
olive oil
8 tbs. mayonnaise
Kosher salt and black pepper
Sandwich rolls (ciabatta bread works, as does crusty French bread)
Aluminum foil
2 bricks
Large sealable freezer bag

Like I said, you can do everything up to pressing the sandwiches the day before, or cook everything in the parking lot.

DSCN5601 The day before you grill the lamb, place it in the freezer bag with the rosemary, oregano, basil, chopped garlic and 4 tablespoons of olive oil. Seal the bag and rub the oil and spices on the lamb. Make sure all the air is out of the bag and place it in the refrigerator overnight.

If you want roasted garlic mayo for the sandwich (you do), chop the tops off the two remaining heads of garlic, place each in a sheet of aluminum foil, coat with the remaining olive oil and sprinkle with a little salt. Seal the foil and roast the garlic in a pre-heated 350 degree oven for 45 minutes. When the garlic is done, allow the heads to cool, squeeze out the soft garlic cloves, mash and mix with your mayonnaise.

When you're ready to grill the lamb, make sure your grill is set up with a hot zone and a cool zone. Remove the lamb from the bag, discard the rosemary and wipe off the seasoning. Lightly coat the lamb with olive oil or vegetable oil and generously season with salt and pepper. Do the same with the slices of onion.

Place the lamb on the hottest part of the grill, fat-side down. Sear the lamb for 5 to 7 minutes, being careful to watch for flare-ups. Turn the lamb over and move to the cool side of the grill, close the lid and allow to cook for 50 minutes.

Remove the lid, place the onions on the grill, and close the lid. After 5 minutes, flip the onions.

Once the onions are cooked, everything can come off the grill. Allow the lamb to rest for 20 minutes before slicing it.

When slicing the lamb, keep in mind that it's more complicated than steak. The muscle fibers in a lamb leg are not nice and uniform like they are in beef. So, you'll have to cut the lamb into pieces, and then cut thin slices off those pieces, always cutting against the grain. Take your time, and as you slice the lamb, make sure the pieces are thin enough to be bitten through easily.

DSCN5634 Now, assemble the sandwich and wrap in aluminum foil, making sure the whole thing is covered. If you're doing this the day before, you're done for now. If you've cooked everything at the tailgate, it's time to go back to the grill.

Place the wrapped sandwiches on the grill and set your bricks on top. If the sandwiches just came out of a cooler, they'll need about six minutes per side. If they're freshly made, give them about three minutes per side. Flip the sandwiches, put the bricks back on.

You'll know the sandwiches are done when you unwrap the foil and see nothing but melted cheese and crusty bread. Now go grab a beer, it's almost 11 a.m.

Categories: Beer, DCFoodies Cooks, Do It Yourself, Grilling, Lamb, Recipes, Sandwiches, Sports
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Aug 05, 2010

Must Haves: Lost Dog's Surf 'N Turf Sandwich

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Must Haves focuses on some of D.C.'s best dishes.

If I'm hungry in Arlington, there's a 50-50 chance I'm heading over to Lost Dog. If I'm hungry in Lost Dog, it's damn near certain that I'm ordering the Surf 'N Turf.

The name alone is enticing enough to order the sandwich. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, bad about the idea of eating beef and seafood (screw peas and carrots, this is the perfect pairing). These days, the classic high-end meal has been replaced by fussy tasting menus and foamed foie gras, but in our great steak houses surf and turf remains a throw-back luxury. Let's face it, if you're ordering The Palm's 24 ounce rib eye with a side of lobster tail, things are going well for you.

DSCN5482 The Lost Dog's take on the surf and turf is nearly as good at a fraction of the price. The steak is replaced by roast beef and lump crab meat fills in for the lobster, but we're still talking about a roast beef and lump crab meat sandwich. Lost Dog tops the whole thing with a plank of brie, and I always tack on spinach and tomatoes (I like spinach and tomatoes, and the vegetables makes me feel better about the brie and mayo ... and waffle fries).

The sandwich is then rolled though the oven so it shows up hot and crusty. A liberal dousing of Tabasco and I'm good to go.

The Lost Dog has 52 sandwiches, 31 pizzas, 13 salads and a handful of soups and appetizers on its crowded menu. In the dozen years I've been going to Lost Dog, I've covered much of the menu and most of it's good (cheese pizzas and veggie sandwiches just don't do it for me). But from the many, I have found the one: the Surf 'N Turf sandwich.

(While you're there, order a beer with your Surf 'N Turf. After all, the Lost Dog is one of D.C.'s best beer bars.)

Categories: Arlington, Falls Church, Must Haves, Sandwiches
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Jun 23, 2010

Must Haves: Cafe Atlantico's Medio Dia Ain't a Cuban, but It's an Afternoon Delight

DSCN5329
Must Haves focuses on some of D.C.'s best dishes.

There may be no more perfect culinary creation than the sandwich. At its best, it's simple: meat, condiment, maybe some cheese and greens. Less is more because more is more. More clutters. More gets in the way. More misses the point. Less does, too. Less is meat and bread, or worse, condiment and bread -- the wish sandwich.

At its best, a sandwich is a harmony of few notes. It sings.

The Cuban sandwich, el Cubano, is a perfect sandwich. Ham, roast pork, Swiss, mustard, and pickles all pressed between crusty pieces (sometimes buttered, sometimes not) of Cuban bread. It doesn't get much simpler.

I grew up on the Cuban, so ubiquitous in Tampa it gets taken for granted. It's not hard to find a good Cubano in Tampa. Sure you could hit the lunch counter at La Teresita, just off Himes, or El Gallo de Oro, where Cuban men still play dominos out front and a short walk will take you to the small shop where my wife bought her wedding dress.

Hell, you could get a mean pressed Cuban at the gas station down the street from 98 Rock where I interned in college. Nearly every day after my shift at the morning show ended at 10:30, I'd drive down to fill up the car or just me. My sandwich was often the first of the day. I don't know if it was the sleep deprivation, the gas fumes or the virgin grill top, but I never got a bad Cuban from that place.

So if I can get a great Cubano at a gas station, why can't I get one in D.C.? Sure, I've had some decent ones at places like Cuba De Ayer in Burtonsville, but the bread never seems quite right or they skip the ham or pork. Whatever the case is, it's never a proper Cubano.

The thing is, though, the sandwiches are usually pretty good. They're just not good Cubanos. If they'd just call them something else I'd be able to enjoy the sandwich. It may be just a name, but the name carries expectations, which too often go unmet.

Now, call that sandwich a Medio Dia and you're on to something.

DSCN5331 Just look at that thing: confit pork, ham, and warm, melted cheese between two pieces of crispy, crusty bread. It's beautiful. Monikers aside, Cafe Atlantico's midday version of the Cubano is a damn good sandwich. They even remembered the pickles and mustard, and knew enough not to call it a Cuban.

You see, people, this is why Jose Andres is such a well regarded chef. For all the complexity of Minibar and variety of Jaleo and Zaytinya, Andres recognizes the perfect simplicity of the Cuban sandwich and doesn't screw with it too much.

Sure, the bread's not right, but few people north of the 813 seem capable of making a decent loaf of Cuban bread (it's very similar to French bread, but the interior is much more soft). On the other hand, using confit pork instead of roast pork is genius. I might go so far to say that it's better than the roast pork. No, I will say that it's better than the roast pork. It's pork slow cooked in fat. How can rich, unctuous pork not be great? It can't. It just can't.

And always a nice touch is the strangely thick, bright orange hot sauce you can request at Café Atlantico. It's not traditional, but I put hot sauce on nearly everything, including Cubans. Trust me, it works.

As much as I like this sandwich, it's not a Cuban. Maybe that's a good thing (and not just because I like to complain about such things). So long as I can't get a proper Cubano here, it will always be a special treat when I'm back in Tampa. But when I can't head south, at least I can head to Café Atlantico for lunch.

Categories: DC, Must Haves, Penn Quarter, Sandwiches, Washington, DC
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May 04, 2010

Must Haves: Taylor Gourmet's Pattison Avenue Roast Pork Sandwich

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Must Haves is a new series focusing on some of D.C.'s great dishes.

I'm obsessed with this sandwich. Absolutely and completely obsessed. I had it for the first time three weeks ago. I've had it three times since. I've told my friends about it. I've told my family. It motivated me to get on with this new series of dining shorts and it will be the inaugural one.

DSCN5273 Taylor Gourmet's Pattison Avenue roast pork sandwich is unequivocally one of the very best sandwiches I've had in D.C., maybe anywhere. It's six to 12 inches of roasted pork wet with the stock they soak it in, tucked into a warm hoagie roll with chunks of garlic and covered in melted provolone. As fantastic as all that is -- and it is -- that's not what makes the sandwich. Oh no, what makes the sandwich is the broccoli rabe.

Broccoli fucking rabe.

There are three other pork sandwiches on Taylor Gourmet's menu. None are as good as the Pattison Avenue. The only reason I can think of is that none of the other sandwiches include bright green shoots of spicy broccoli rabe.  

Driving home after eating one of these was the worst. It was also the best. Try as I did to wash my hands afterward, my knuckles and fingers still stank of pork and stock that soaked through the bread. It always soaks through the bread. It was intoxicating. I felt I owed my wife some sort of apology. It was as close to filthy sin as a sandwich will ever get you.

If it was sin, then this is my confession. I am obsessed.

Categories: Chinatown/MCI Center/Verizon Center, DC, Deli, Foodie Experiences, H Street, Must Haves, Sandwiches, Washington, DC
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Jan 11, 2008

A. Litteri, Inc. - Home of Italian Products

Img_3943 Since 1932, Washingtonians have been able to get a true taste of Italy at A. Litteri in Near Northeast, tucked away among the warehouses of the Florida Market that lies between New York Ave. and Florida Ave. near Gallaudet University.  Whether it's authentic balsamic vinegar, fresh pasta from Baltimore's Little Italy or mozzarella di bufala campana, you can find almost anything you're looking for in this off-the-beaten-path delicatessen.  And although it is not primarily a cheese shop (as my previous features have been), owner Mike DeFrancisci and his family pride themselves on carrying only the best and the freshest cheeses that Italy (and the rest of the world) have to offer.  When I'm looking for aged pecorino or fresh mozzarella, I know I can find it at Litteri's.

A true tour of A. Litteri must begin with directions - it's not the kind of place you'll stumble upon otherwise.  Located at 517 and 519 Morse St., NE, Litteri can be reached by taking 6th Street north from H Street, NE.  When you come to Gallaudet University at Florida Avenue, you will want to take your next left - onto the 500 block of Morse.  Parking is scarce (especially on Saturdays when one of the biggest flea markets in the city takes over a nearby parking lot), so be prepared to walk a bit.  Alternatively, you can take the Red Line to the New York Avenue Metro stop and then head east a few blocks, but the walk to Litteri is less than picturesque.  The red and green vertical stripes outside the green door announce your arrival.

Img_3945 Step inside the door for the first time, and you're likely to need a moment.  Immediately on your right, cases of wine are stacked six feet and higher, and signs trumpet prices as low as $3.99 for a bottle of Italian wine.  A mild feeling of claustrophobia can set in as you make your way toward a refrigerated case full of bottled soda, deli pickles and pre-made Italian sandwiches (made fresh each morning on hard and soft hoagie rolls).  Everywhere you look, your eyes are greeted by stacks of canned, bottled and packaged items from traditional Italian-American retailers like Cento, Sons of Italy, and De Cecco.  But in and among these items that can be found at most grocery stores are true gems that reflect Litteri's 80+ years of service (the original was opened downtown by DeFrancisci's great-uncle and grandfather in 1926) as a conduit for Italian staples: dried porcini mushrooms, arborio rice (for risotto) and desserts whose labels contain only a few words in English.

What appears to be a daunting and somewhat haphazard layout eventually resolves itself into a fairly well-organized floorplan: wine takes up a good portion of the front of the store, followed by spices and dry pasta along the right-hand wall.  The left wall is taken up with refrigerators and freezer cases containing fresh-made pasta from Frank Vellegia's Casa di Pasta in Baltimore, hand-tossed pizza dough, and packaged fresh cheeses (mozzarella, ricotta, mascarpone, etc.).  Down the middle of the store two large shelves offer a dizzying array of olive oils, vinegars made from almost any fruit you can think of, jarred pasta sauces (for those who don't have the time or the energy to make their own 'gravy' from scratch) and canned goods.

Img_3944 If the layout of the store didn't serve to draw customers to the rear, the deli counter that runs along the entire back wall would easily do the trick.  Even from the front of the store you can see the hanging salamis and prosciutti beckoning you.  The view continues to improve as you approach the counter, with hand-linked sausage and stuffed vinegar peppers on display in a glass case that is full of Italian-American delicacies like baccala (salted cod) and soppresata (a pork salumi that has large chunks of fat throughout).  The men who work behind the counter have done so for years, and this is reflected in the easy, ongoing conversations they share with regular customers.  They are quick to offer samples of anything from an obscure salume like mortadella to an everyday provolone, and their recommendations have always served me well.

The counter is the heart of A. Litteri - in addition to the cold cuts and cheeses that they slice to order, visitors can also purchase a wide variety of Italian accompaniments by weight - assorted cured olives, sweet and hot peppers, pine nuts, grated Parmesan cheese and sea salt-packed capers all sit ready and waiting behind the counter in large containers.Img_3949_2  And it is here at the counter that customers can have sandwiches made to order.

These are not your ordinary, run of the mill sandwiches.  They are possibly the best deli sandwiches I have found since coming to Washington more than a decade ago.  The meatball and sausage sandwiches remind me of the ones I enjoyed with my family on weekends while I was growing up in New Jersey, and the cold cut options go far beyond those of most sandwich shops.  Additionally, this is the only place I have ever found to offer fresh mozzarella as a choice of cheese for your sandwich without any sort of upcharge.  The freshness of the bread and the rich flavors of the various condiments make for a great taste at a reasonable price - a loaded sandwich on a soft roll can be had for less than $5.

If you have ever visited the Italian Store in Arlington and fallen in love with their Old World charm, I encourage you to visit A. Litteri for the genuine article.  To make the trip even more worth your while, take some time to explore the Florida Market (the nearby warehouses and wholesale food vendors in the area).  Though more than a year old, this article from the Washington Post offers some great tips on places worth checking out.  Just make sure to plan your visit for a time when Litteri is open - they close at 3 PM on Saturdays and are closed all day on Sundays.

A. Litteri, Inc.
517 & 519 Morse Street, NE
7th & C Streets, SE
(202) 544-0184
Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 AM - 4 PM
Thursday and Friday, 8 AM - 5 PM
Saturday, 8 AM - 3 PM
Closed Sunday and Monday

Categories: Capitol Hill, Cheese, Deli, Italian, Sandwiches, Wine
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Apr 26, 2006

South Street Steaks

Dsc00223 Hallelujah! Finally, there's a real Philly cheesesteak in the DC area. I can't believe this day has finally come!

Once I read the article in the Washington Post a few weeks ago, I knew I had to go. I've never been so glad that I work out in Largo, just a mere 15 minutes from South Street Steaks in College Park. I was anxious during my drive over. Would it be like the real thing, or would I be disappointed like I've been oh so many times before? I couldn't wait to find out.

When I walked into the joint, I could tell from the smell of the air that they had something good going there. The air reeked of grease, onions, and peppers -- exactly what you would expect from a cheesesteak joint. (I call it a joint and not a restaurant because I consider a restaurant to be a place where it's possible to eat the contents of your meal without dripping the grease on you pants.)

Dsc00225 "I'll have a steak wit whiz and onions please," I said with a smile. It's been a long time since I've said that.

I watched carefully as they prepared the cheesesteak. On the left of the grill, there was the mound of sliced sirloin and on the right, the mounds of onions and peppers. When they cooked a steak, they would cut off a mound of steak from the pile and put it on the hot section of the grill, spraying some water as well to get that steamed-yet-fried effect.

The griller then chops at the meat with two metal spatulas, and once it's coarsely chopped, they add the onions and let them sizzle in the meat a little longer. After that, he grabs an Amoroso roll (the true roll of the Philly cheesesteak which South Street Steaks has shipped in special from Philly), scoops a ladle of cheese whiz out of the big metal canister, spreads it on the roll, and covers the meat on the grill with the roll.

Finally, the griller takes one spatula and slides it under the meat and quickly flips it over to put it on a plate.

Dsc00224 "Ok. Sounds good so far Jason, but how did it TASTE??"

Like the real thing...or at least pretty damn close. I reminded me of the cheesesteak I had in my last trip to Philly at Jim's Steaks. It's been a while since I've been back to Philly for a cheesesteak though, so my memory might be a bit fuzzy. This was a true cheesesteak -- the meat tender, thinly sliced, and well flavored with the creamy cheese whiz on a fresh roll all juicy, drippy and completely unhealthy.

The junk food for the truly discerning foodie.

My only complaint was that I thought the onions could have onions cooked a little longer and lightly browned. They were translucent and but not browned or caramelized at all.

If you eat two cheesesteaks in one sitting, you get your picture on the wall -- kind of like a wall of fame. There's one person who's eaten ten. My hero.

South Street Steaks
7313 Baltimore Avenue
College Park, MD 20740
(301) 209-7007
Map

Hours:
Mon - Wed: 11am - 10pm
Thu: 11am - 2am
Fri : 11am - 3am
Sat: 12pm - 3am
Sun: 12pm - 10pm

Dsc00222

Categories: Cheap Eats, College Park, Restaurant Reviews, Sandwiches
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Aug 13, 2005

The Italian Store

Italian_store_slice_1I want to thank everyone that emailed me about The Italian Store in Arlington, VA. I finally stopped by last Sunday and I have to say it's probably some of the best NY-style pizza in the area. Well actually, I wouldn't quite classify it as NY style -- It's more like a cross between New Haven style and NY style, with a crust the thickness of New Haven style and the cheese and sauce quantities of NY style.

The dough that the crust was made from was quite flavorful. As I tasted it, my thoughts quickly reverted back to my childhood, eating slices of pizza at the Naugatuck Valley Mall in Waterbury, CT. Sauce was scant, and IMHO, there could have been a little more, but I don't think the lack of sauce detracted that much from the flavor.

All Amy and I had were a couple plain cheese slices each, so I don't know how fresh their toppings are. But seriously, when you're eating this type of pizza, you're not looking for gourmet toppings like morel mushrooms or local spring onions. You just want some sauce, some greasy cheese and maybe one topping or two -- pepperoni, sausage...anchovies. Keep it simple stupid.

If you're looking for a place to sit down, you don't want to go to The Italian Store. The only places to sit are five or six tables outside and you'll be lucky to find a place to sit during prime time.  There's a Starbucks next store as well so you can squat in on of their tables if your brave.

Other than pizza, The Italian Store is an Italian grocer and deli. You can order subs and deli meats or shop in the aisles for some gourmet imported Italian pasta or some pre-made pasta dishes for your lunches this week. Amy had the spaghetti and meatballs, stuffed shells and cheese and spaghetti bolognese for lunch this week and found all of them to be quite good.

So far, I'd say The Italian Store is some of the best NY-Style I've tasted in the area, although I still haven't made it over to Radius Pizza in Mt. Pleasant, so I will reserve any final judgements until I've been over there. Also, the last few pizzas I've had from Vace in Cleveland Park have been overcooked so I've dropped them down a notch.

The Italian Store
3123 Lee Hwy
Arlington, VA 22201
(703) 528-6266
Map

Categories: Deli, Italian, Pizza, Restaurant Reviews, Sandwiches, Subs
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