Calling all competitive food lovers: Your March Madness is about to begin. Each year Best Bites Blog picks a popular dish and pits local purveyors against one another to establish a victor in the category. Last year fried dough flew as doughnuts went round for round in the Great Doughnut Derby, with Mac’s Donuts, emerging triumphant. This year’s tournament promises to be even more exciting.
Washingtonians have long proved their love for sandwiches, whether in the form of a breakfast “brick” at Market Lunch, midday pastrami from DGS, or a Ray’s to the Third steak and cheese come dinnertime. Established spots like the Italian Store have maintained a loyal following through the decades, while newcomers such as Red Apron are pushing the sandwich scene to new heights. So who makes the best? We’ve narrowed down a list of 16 of the most popular sandwich-makers so you can pick a winner.
We know sandwiches are a little like children—it’s nearly impossible to pick a favorite. This list certainly isn’t reflective of every great bread-bound dish in Washington (if it were, we’d be running the competition into May). We’ve simply picked a range of cuisines and styles that are reflective of the area’s great offerings.
Each weekday beginning Monday, March 17, we’ll publish a post pitting two eateries against each other until a winner emerges in the final rounds. Fill out your bracket, then vote each day in our online poll. The winner will get bragging rights, as their title of Sandwich King or Queen will be posted on our website and social media.
May the best sandwich win!
Burger Américain at Le Diplomate
I’ve heard Ann Limpert rave about the burger for months and finally tried it this week during dinner there. It was every bit as delicious as she’s said: two thin patties, melty cheese, pickles, mayo, and onions, all with a generous helping of more pommes frites than you’d ever want. I both couldn’t wait to finish it—and never wanted it to end. I have a new favorite burger in DC.
Tofu kitfo, mushroom wat, and mushroom dulet at Kitty Nebiyeloul’s house (a.k.a. home of the International Fund for Africa), Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
I’m going with a meal this time.
So many things about my dinner at my friend Kitty Nebiyeloul’s house last week were revelatory. (And a very big thank you, Kitty, for making your beautiful, soft-lit home an oasis for me, and collapsing those 7,000-plus miles in a shot.)
Kitty cooks what she calls vegan Ethiopian fusion. Take a moment to chew on that. Ethiopian cooking is built heavily upon butter and meat. You might think that to eliminate both components is to cut out the soul of the cuisine. Not at all, it turns out.
What Kitty has done is to change the delivery systems, while preserving—and in a way, asserting—the enduring foundation of these dishes: their spicing and saucing.
For instance, her dish tofu kitfo begins with a fine dice of tofu to approximate the machete-chopped texture of raw beef. She sautés the tiny white bits in olive oil and layers in the spices, including khosseret and korerema. Voilà!—all the punch of a properly spiced kitfo, but none of the heaviness.
I loved her mushroom wat, which uses shiitake mushrooms instead of the expected strips of lamb or beef. The strong, earthy taste of the mushrooms comes through clearly, but what’s even better is that there’s none of the chewiness or toughness that you tend to find in most meat-based wats, where the cheap cuts of meats often overcook in the thick, brick-red sauce. And the sauce is the thing—the heady, berbere-stoked sauce. Kitty’s is vivid, hot, and complex.
There’s one more dish from this meal I want to mention: her dulet. A mushroom dulet. Shiitakes again, this time roughly ground in a food processor. Dulet is a hard dish for many Americans to take; the liver and tripe are strong, not easily masked flavors. Kitty’s version lacks that pronounced offal funk, though shiitakes come about as close as any vegetable can. And—even more of a surprise—their ropy fibrousness pretty ingeniously approximates the texture of the tripe. I love the double kick of this dish: the insistent and warming heat of the berbere and the jab-punch of the chopped jalapeños.
Of all the many meals I ate on my travels in Ethiopia the past couple of weeks, Kitty’s was by far the most eye-opening. And the most delicious.
Lamb burger at Food Wine and Co.
As is common at so many restaurants these days, from CityZen on down to the Cheesecake Factory, the menu at this earth-toned Bethesda bistro veers in so many directions it’s hard to know where to look. For appetizers alone we had a charcuterie board laden with bresaola and other meats, salmon tartar with tzatziki, fried artichokes atop an eggy gribiche, and sweet potatoes done up with Indian-inspired tamarind and yogurt sauces. The nice thing is, chef Michael Harr is sure-handed with most of it, and the spread didn’t taste as cacophonous together as it sounds.
The best part of dinner looked to yet another part of the world for its influence: the lamb burger. It’s probably the juiciest version I’ve ever had, and what really makes it are its accents—tangy, spicy tomato-harissa jam, cooling cilantro and garlic mayo, and bright, peppery arugula. It was so delicious I barely noticed the tasty-looking red-curry mussels to the right of me and the mushroom/chèvre pizza to the left.
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Looking for a St. Patrick’s Day sip beyond Jameson shots? Start exploring the greater world of Irish whiskey, which just like American bourbon comes in an array of styles, flavors, and price points. We asked Jack Rose owner and brown-liquor guru Bill Thomas to share his personal recommendations, from affordable sipping whiskeys to rarer, more celebratory drams. You’ll find bottle recommendations for celebrating at home as well as several by-the-glass pours should you explore the bar’s deep whiskey collection.
For cocktail fans, Jack Rose barkeep Trevor Frye devised a special concoction with lightly sweet Bushmills Irish Honey, available at most liquor stores. The Leap-Day Libation, as Frye calls it, reflects the flavors of the Irish coast: earthy whiskey, citrus, and a touch of salt to mimic the ocean air.
TIPPLING AT HOME
Everyday sipping whiskey: Jameson Black Barrel (around $35 per bottle)
“It’s got a darker, richer, earthier character to it after being aged in flame-charred bourbon barrels,” says Thomas. “It’s slightly more complex than your typical Jameson.”
Celebratory sips: Redbreast 12 Year (around $55 to $60 per bottle)
“Redbreast is one of the few single-malt pot-still Irish whiskeys on the market,” says Thomas. “This one is constantly winning accolades. I like the cask-strength version better, but this one is great and accessible.”
Irish whiskey for bourbon fans: Knappogue Castle 14-Year (around $60 per bottle)
“This Knappogue is 14 years old, with a nice, bigger mouthfeel and a cereal malty quality,” says Thomas. “It’s aged in both bourbon and sherry casks.”
SIPPING IN THE BAR
Everyday sipping whiskey: Knappogue Castle 1995 ($19 for two ounces)
“It’s a very pretty sipping whiskey,” says Thomas, pointing out that it’s also somewhat affordable for a rare find. “Once these 1995 vintage bottles are gone, they’re gone forever. You might be able to find a couple straggling bottles in liquor stores around town, but it’ll never be available again.”
Celebratory sips: Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy ($49 for two ounces)
“This special-edition whiskey has been aged for a minimum of 22 years in both bourbon and new American oak barrels” says Thomas. “Only 2,500 bottles were released—it came out in 2010 and was named for the master distiller—and because of that, it’s pretty pricey.”
For the wine lover: Tyrconnell Irish single-malt whiskeys finished in either Port, Sherry, or Madeira casks (each $18 for two ounces)
“When branching out to whiskey, wine lovers tend to go for whiskeys aged in wine barrels,” says Thomas. “They impart familiar flavors in each whiskey, such as a sweeter taste from a Port cask. Tyrconnell first ages its whiskeys in seasoned oak for ten years, and then finishes them in each of the different wine casks for six to eight months.”
For the Scotch lover: Connemara cask-strength peated ($22 for two ounces)
“Connemara, distilled by Cooley, makes an Irish whiskey that’s heavily peated, something you rarely see,” says Thomas. “In addition to the natural peat found in the soil, Connemara uses peat smoke to add a heavier flavor, which appeals to Scotch lovers. I love my whiskey at cask strength, which means it goes from barrel to bottle without being diluted or chill-filtered, so this whiskey is 58.9 ABV [alcohol by volume].”
Not ready to sip whiskey straight? Try this simple yet impressive cocktail for the holiday.
The Leap-Day Libation
Makes 1 drink
¾ ounce lemongrass-cinnamon syrup (see recipe below)
1½ ounces Bushmills Irish Honey
½ ounce lemon juice
2 dashes Regan’s orange bitters
Pinch of sea salt
Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice and shake. Double-strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with an orange peel and cherries.
4 stalks lemongrass
6 cinnamon sticks
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
Heat sugar and water in a saucepan over medium heat. Steep the lemongrass and cinnamon sticks for approximately 30 minutes. Strain and chill. The syrup can be made up to a week in advance.
Happy Friday, food truck followers! Celebrate the end of the week by heading out for barbecue chicken meatballs from Ball or Nothing, plantain lasagna with rice and beans aboard Borinquen Lunch Box, and apple cider doughnut bites at Mama's Donut Bites.
The sustainable Virginia seafood company has been expanding in the Washington area since opening the Merroir tasting room on the banks of the Rappahannock and the original restaurant in Richmond. Co-owners Travis and Ryan Croxton founded the popular Oyster Bar in Union Market, and Travis partnered with Derek Brown on two of his recent Shaw openings: Eat the Rich, where you can slurp Olde Salt oysters alongside expertly made cocktails, and the neighboring whiskey bar Southern Efficiency. When it comes to the health of the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed, the more oysters sold the better—the beds Rappahannock plants help restore the oyster population, while the sturdy bivalves filter water to make it cleaner.
The FreshFarm Market stall plans to sell ready-to-shuck bivalves alongside pints of pre-shucked oysters, perfect for making a Chesapeake oyster stew during these lingering cold days.
St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Monday this year, which isn’t all bad news: Many celebrations start tomorrow and last through the actual holiday on March 17. Want to avoid the green-beer-chugging collegiate crowd? Plenty of bars and restaurants offer all-day happy hours, whiskey tastings, and special dishes for more adult revelry.
Pappy Van Winkle dinner at Bourbon Steak
2800 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
While Pappy bourbon isn’t Irish, this dinner is sure to please true brown-liquor lovers. Guests will sip five different vintages of Pappy Van Winkle, including Reserve and years 10 through 23, each paired with a course from chef John Critchley ($300 per person). Reservations required.
When: Monday, March 17, 6 PM
Live music and menu specials at the Brixton
901 U St., NW
Keep your fingers crossed for rooftop weather and head over for live music from the band Black Masala and plenty of food and cocktail specials.
When: Monday, March 17
Live music and Irish fare at Café Dupont
1500 New Hampshire Ave., NW
This hotel spot on Dupont Circle sets the mood with live Irish music on Saturday (1 to 10), and special cocktails and dishes such as fish and chips, Guinness-braised short ribs, and chocolate whiskey cake.
When: Saturday, March 15, through Monday, March 17
Mexican-inspired St. Paddy’s at El Chucho
3313 11th St., NW
Why not? Head in for a south-of-the-border spin on bangers and mash with chorizo, garlic-cilantro potatoes, and pork jus. You won’t find green beer, but naturally green margaritas are part of the all-night happy hour on Monday, along with $4 shots of Jameson.
When: Sausage special starts Friday, March 14; all-night happy hour runs Monday, March 17
Whiskey tasting and all-day happy hour at Jack Rose
2007 18th St., NW
Whiskey haven Jack Rose opens its terrace on Monday from 11 to close for revelry, including specials like $5 pints of Guinness, Jameson-spiked tea punch, and pours of whiskey. Colcannon cakes, fish and chips, and Irish-cheddar burgers are available for noshing. Serious whiskey connoisseurs can head down to the cellar from 6 to 8 for a first come, first served tasting of unusual Irish whiskeys and hors d’oeuvres ($40 per person).
When: Monday, March 17
Laid-back eats at Kelly’s Irish Times
14 F St., NW
This Capitol Hill institution is well-known amongst Irish pub fans, but thankfully you won’t find green kegs. Look for a special list of whiskeys, as well as eats such as Guinness stew and corned beef and cabbage. Another perk: no cover.
When: Friday, March 14, through Monday, March 17
All-day happy hour and eats at P.J. Clarke’s
1600 K St., NW
Listen to music from the DC Fire Department’s Emerald Society Pipe and Drum Corps while noshing on Irish stew and corned beef and cabbage. Happy hour runs from 2:45 to close with deals like $5 Jameson, Guinness, and Irish coffee and bar bites including the popular Irish egg rolls and Bailey’s cheesecake. Perk: $1,884 is the big prize in the day’s raffle.
When: Monday, March 17
Kegs, eggs, and more at the Limerick Pub
11301 Elkin St., Wheaton
Drop by this wee pub for kegs and eggs on Sunday morning and an à-la-carte Irish breakfast on Monday. A special menu includes classics like fish and chips and corned beef.
When: Sunday, March 16, and Monday, March 17
All-day happy hour at Logan Tavern
1423 P St., NW
Drink discounts last all day and night at this P Street spot, which offers specialty cocktails ($5 to $12) such as Irish coffee and apple vodka-based Emerald Isle Punch, plus half-price draft beers and food specials like fish and chips and mini sausage rolls. There’s also an Irish-themed quiz with a gift card prize.
When: Monday, March 17
Breakfast at Ri Ra Georgetown
3123-3125 M St., NW
Stop in for a traditional Irish breakfast on your way to work at the new Georgetown branch of this pub chain, which starts serving at 7. The festivities last all day with a corned beef and cabbage special, $6 Guinness cocktails, and plenty of live entertainment.
When: Festivities are ongoing through Monday, March 17
Irish date night at Society Fair
277 S. Washington St., Alexandria
If you’re craving recipes from chef Cathal Armstrong’s new cookbook, My Irish Table, there’s no need to break out the pots and pans. Pick up a “date-night bag” with dishes made from the book, including corned beef and parsley sauce, braised cabbage, Guinness, and more ($49 for two). A copy of the cookbook can be included.
When: Friday, March 14, through Monday, March 17
For our March issue, we asked Seasonal Pantry chef Dan O’Brien to create his dream breakfast sandwich and share the recipe. He delivered way beyond eggs and bacon: a crispy, spicy, drippy-in-the-best-way-possible fried chicken sandwich, stacked on a whole loaf of brioche and topped with fried eggs, blue cheese, and locally made Gordy’s pickles. We’ve been craving it ever since.
O’Brien doesn’t typically churn these out at his Shaw market, but after dozens of calls and Twitter requests once the recipe went live this morning, he’s making an exception. Starting Friday, customers can call Seasonal between 10 and noon to preorder the limited-supply sandwiches for $12 each (up to four per person). Nearly everything will be the same as pictured, though the size will be pared down to individual brioche buns instead of whole, shareable loaves. The hot hot chicken, a Tennessee classic, takes a day to marinate in buttermilk and spices, so orders will be available for pickup at a set time on Sunday, starting at noon. O’Brien will also brew peach iced tea made from fruits he froze last summer to sip with your meal.
If you miss out this weekend, don’t worry. O’Brien plans to team up with Blue Duck Tavern pastry chef Naomi Gallego in April for a riff on the hot hot chicken loaf, this time made with savory doughnuts. Stay tuned for more details.
Washingtonians are well versed in the onslaught of cherry blossom food and drink specials at local restaurants each spring. Still, we have yet to see anything like the McDonald’s cherry blossom burger (the McBlossom?), sold exclusively in Japan. Kotaku shares details on the teriyaki-egg burger, which comes on a pink and ostensibly blossom-y bun.
Even without the tinted bread, the limited-run “teritama” burger has a cult-like following akin to the McRib. The sticky-sweet pork patty is topped with a McMuffin-esque egg and lettuce, all sandwiched between the chain’s signature sesame-seed bun. The springtime special varies from year to year, but 2014 marks the first time its color coheres with the blossoming of the sakura. As for that disturbingly rosy “sakura sauce”? It’s mayonnaise mixed with Japanese radish spread. There’s also a special sakura cherry soda to wash it down.
Lovin’ it? Unfortunately there’s no evidence that the cherry blossom burger is headed to Washington—but you can bet the Air and Space Museum Mickey D’s will get a bit more hectic should it arrive.
There are breakfast sandwiches, and then there are breakfast sandwiches you crave at all hours. Seasonal Pantry chef Dan O’Brien’s riff on Tennessee hot chicken is one of those. The crispy bird gets double heat from a Sriracha-buttermilk brine and a spiced coating, and it’s piled onto brioche with caramelized onions, cheese, sweet pickles, and a runny egg.
Hot Hot Chicken Breakfast Loaf
1. Marinate the chicken:
1 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon crushed red pepper
2 cloves garlic, smashed
2 tablespoons Sriracha sauce
1 tablespoon kosher salt
4 skin-on boneless chicken thighs
In a large bowl, mix the buttermilk, vinegar, peppers, garlic, Sriracha, and salt. Toss the chicken in the marinade and refrigerate 8 to 12 hours.
2. Fry the chicken:
4 cups rendered pork fat or vegetable oil
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon black pepper
3 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon chili powder
In a cast-iron pan, heat the oil or fat to between 375 and 400 degrees. Meanwhile, mix the flour, salt, black pepper, cayenne, and chili powder in a bowl. Remove the chicken from the marinade and dredge each piece in the flour mixture until well coated. When the oil is hot, place the chicken thighs in the pan and submerge them in the oil. Cook 18 minutes until golden brown. (If the chicken looks like it’s darkening quickly, lower the heat.)
3. Caramelize the onions:
8 tablespoons butter
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup maple syrup
Melt the butter in a sauté pan over low heat. Raise the heat to medium and sauté the onions 15 to 20 minutes, stirring continuously, until they begin to color. Add the salt and cook until the onions are golden brown, 8 to 15 minutes more. Remove from the heat and stir in the maple syrup.
4. Assemble the loaf:
4-6 ounces blue cheese
¼ cup mayonnaise or crème fraîche
8 tablespoons butter, softened
1 loaf brioche, cut in half crosswise
8 sweet pickle chips (O’Brien likes Gordy’s)
Whip the cheese with the mayonnaise or crème fraîche until smooth. Butter the cut sides of the brioche loaf, then broil in the oven until golden brown. Take the upper half of the loaf and spread its underside with the cheese mixture. Set aside. Arrange the onion on the toasted surface of the bottom half of the loaf. Top with the chicken, then the pickles. Cook the eggs until they’re sunny side up and slide one onto each piece of chicken. Top with the other half of the loaf, slice into four pieces, and serve immediately.
This article appears in the March 2014 issue of Washingtonian.