Walking around the office one day, I surveyed my colleagues’ lunches. There were plenty of grain bowls—the undisputed desk-lunch darlings of the moment. There were $10 salads. There was the occasional food-truck clamshell. What I didn’t see much of was sandwiches. Which is too bad, because there hasn’t been a better time to eat one around here. After spending most of the last decade littering burgers and fries with everything from truffles to pimiento cheese, chefs have homed in on the brown-bag staple as their latest artisanal target.
Tim Ma, a chef who specialized in pricey entrées, opened Chase the Submarine (132 Church St., NW, Vienna; 703-865-7829) in 2015. “There was not only a hole in the market for sandwiches but a big, gaping hole for this type of head-to-tail sandwich place,” he says. Ma’s approach might seem haphazard—the menu includes a bánh mì, a katsu-style fried-chicken sandwich, and a take on Jewish-deli pastrami—but it’s mostly inspired by nostalgia. The Virginia Italian, a contender for one of the best Italian subs in the area, conjures a deli near his childhood home near White Plains, New York. But instead of banana peppers, Ma’s version is elevated with pickled piquillos and house-made Italian dressing. Another winner is the beef-and-cheddar melt, made with braised bottom round and aged cheddar on an onion roll. The inspiration for that one? Arby’s. While we’re on the subject of Arby’s riffs, even better is a similar-style sandwich, with pickled onions and chili sauce, at Petworth’s Straw Stick & Brick Delicatessen (5111 Georgia Ave., NW; 202-726-0102).
While Ma has kept his hand in fine dining with his Shaw restaurant, Kyirisan, Marjorie Meek-Bradley has left the realm entirely. The chef, who trained under Thomas Keller and Mike Isabella, got local attention with her roasts and pastas at Ripple and national recognition when she made it to the final three on Top Chef. In September, she opened Smoked and Stacked (1239 Ninth St., NW; 202-465-4822) in the shadow of the Washington Convention Center. If Ma’s menu wants to wrap its arms around the globe, Meek-Bradley’s takes a more micro approach. She does only three lunchtime sandwiches, and does them each really, really well. Two feature pastrami, which is brined for ten days, then smoked and steamed until it nearly falls apart. I can never decide—one is warm and Reuben-like, the other dressed with slaw on a faintly sweet milk bun—so I just get them both. But the sleeper hit is the Chicky Chick, with honey-and-thyme-brined, assertively smoky chicken simply paired with mayo, onion, and an unapologetic layer of iceberg lettuce.
In November, Meek-Bradley got some competition on the pastrami front when On Rye (740 Sixth St., NW; 202-794-8400) opened in Chinatown. The place, which looks like the Salt & Sundry version of a Jewish deli (prettily displayed Ottolenghi cookbooks, so many succulents), puts out a smokier, looser pastrami—it’s brined and smoked in-house—which works well with straightforward mustard and rye. Better still is the salty-sweet pastrami bacon, which makes its way into a sort of BLT, with tangy pickled green tomatoes and Russian dressing on lightly toasted challah. The corned beef? I wouldn’t bother. And while the vegetarian versions of Reubens made with portobellos or beets get an A for effort, I wasn’t wild about them, either.
At Community (7776 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda; 301-272-9050), the glammed-up diner from Medium Rare owner Mark Bucher, sandwiches take up a big chunk of the menu. There’s a Reuben there, too—though it wins the award for worst presentation in town. What arrives is a dinner-plate-size mound of hot corned beef in a blanket of Swiss cheese, with a couple slices of rye on the side. The components are good enough, but this is the last sandwich that should be given the DIY treatment. (You lose the buttery, sloppy cohesion.) Instead, the one I’ll be back for is the towering club, stacked with crisp bacon, turkey, ham, and two kinds of cheddar.
For some chefs, sandwiches are a savvy way to maximize their restaurant space during the day. You might not be able to score a $280 dinner seat at Pineapple and Pearls (715 Eighth St., SE; 202-595-7375), but anyone can walk into its storefront coffee shop and order an $8 grilled cheese, a perfect homage to the afterschool snack, made with grocery-store white bread, yellow American, a little English cheddar, and lots of butter.
The Thai/Vietnamese small-plates spot Doi Moi (1800 14th St., NW; 202-733-5131) is closed for lunch most days but recently launched Bird’s Eye Sandwich Shop at its bar on Friday and Saturday. The trio of nontraditional bánh mì, served on the right airy-crunchy baguettes, got me more excited than a recent dinner did. There’s a version with juicy roasted pork and fried shallots as well as a tasty vegetarian spin made with a rice cake, pickled daikon, and enoki mushrooms. The sandwich to beat, though, contains a thinly pounded chicken thigh, fried and splashed with hot honey and mayo, then finished with a fistful of herbs.
You can obviously take them to go, but you could also have a table-service lunch at one of the banquettes. Then you could get a side of the excellent curry fries with Thai ranch plus a not-too-boozy basil-and-cachaça punch to go with it. For sandos this good, the desk can wait.
This article appears in the April 2017 issue of Washingtonian.