Za’atar-seared tuna tataki with tabbouleh at Rappahannock Oyster Bar
Seats at the Union Market outpost of this Virginia oyster pioneer are a hot commodity on weekends, but the food is well worth it. On a recent Sunday afternoon visit, a tray of oysters, the white gazpacho, and this tuna dish were a perfect late brunch for spring.
Brie-and-tomato-jam sandwich at Bon Fresco
There are so many bad sandwiches out there.
I don’t mean the sandwiches that aren’t really trying, like those dreary triangle-cut, plastic-wrapped things in the refrigerated case at 7-11 or Sheetz.
I mean the ones that think they’re better than they are. Is it great that the bread is baked on the premises? It can be—but not if, as so often happens, it winds up being too much bread for the sandwich. I love it when I see an operation that roasts its own meats, especially when it’s interesting items such as goat and pork shoulder. But a sandwich, remember, is a chorus; all these disparate elements must mesh. A star turn can disrupt the essential sense of balance, and frequently does. Make the pickles in house, great—but is the spicing in the brine in the service of the sandwich? And why am I getting an acidic hit before I’ve ever taken my first bite of meat? And why is the Sriracha-spiked condiment slathered on the bread, making it soggy? Why do I feel that the sandwich-maker just piled things one atop another with little regard for how they interact? Why does the whole thing fall apart after four bites?
Now look at my favorite sandwich at Gerald Koh’s Bon Fresco.
Aside from the bread—a yeasty, crusty, phenomenally light baguette that Koh bakes himself—the individual elements would bore you on their own. Nothing is what you would call exquisite: thick wedges of Brie, a sundried-tomato jam, barely caramelized onions.
But a sandwich isn’t just a collection of high-quality sexy ingredients, as Koh knows. He tends to favor simple constructions, and builds with smart, dramatic contrasts—setting the rich, creamy Brie against the crunchy baguette, for instance, and using the tanginess of the tomato jam to pierce the intensity of the cheese. The caramelized onions bring a needed sweetness, as well as a little texture.
This is an almost-perfect sandwich, and it’s also almost perfectly made, layered with thought and care. It’s never the case that you bite into the Brie and don’t get a taste of tomato jam. Or that the ratio of jam or onions to cheese is out of whack. Or that there’s too much bread for the sandwich. Or that the whole thing collapses in your hands.
Beef-and-cheddar sandwich at Red Apron Butcher
Store-bought roast-beef sandwiches tend to be filled with dry, gray slices of meat that call to mind poor Oliver Twist (Pret, I’m looking at you). But leave it to Nate Anda to restore my faith in the often-maligned cold cut. At the Merrifield outpost of his hipster butcher shop, Red Apron, his roast beef tastes less like lunch meat and more like fresh slices of a juicy, rare, ruby-red steak. Slathers of house-made Cheez Whiz and ranch mayo make it sound like something only a frat boy could love, but they’re the perfect accents, along with a squishy, slightly sweet bun. I had it last weekend, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
Sushi at Tachibana
Unlike many nostalgic cravings, my love of Tachibana’s sushi also appeals to my food-lover palate. I grew up in McLean, where my parents still live, and it was at the original Arlington location of this neighborhood Japanese spot where I fell in love with sushi (at age five), as well as tempura, teriyaki, and other dishes more suited to a kid’s taste. My family still visits on weekend afternoons, along with the many others packing around tables for generous bento boxes and pristine slices of fish arranged into artful sashimi and sushi platters. Besides owner Eiji Yahashi moving the 32-year-old operation to McLean in the mid-’90s, nothing much has changed. It’s a wonderful thing. Lunch for me always begins with a lemony bean-sprout salad, perhaps a soothing bowl of clam miso soup if it’s cold. Then it’s on to whatever fresh fish entices that day. A dry-erase board of daily specialties can hold unusual treasures such as seasonal red sweet shrimp served raw atop perfectly seasoned sushi rice, their heads fried and brought on a side plate for sucking the flavorful insides. But you don’t need to be adventurous for a good meal. Try a simple tuna roll or nigiri, the fat slices of ruby-hued fish cushioned by more of that perfect rice and tender—not dry or chewy—seaweed. The flavors are clean, and always leave me wishing every neighborhood sushi bar could be this good.
See also: Previous Best Things I Ate