Thursday, October 25, 2012

Time On His Side - Al's Steak House - Del Ray

The idea is as old as Western intellectualism itself.  It’s not a culinary truth, exactly, but something far, far more elemental and kindred to us all.  From Heraclitus’s pre-Socratic slice of epistemological bummer pie of determinism, to Edward I’s very non-shag-o-delic 13th century concept of just deserts [sic], to that more recent, and no-less-famous supposition posited by Mick and Keith in their 1969 masterpiece, Let It Bleed, the message is always the same:  you can’t always get what you want, but you just might find you get what you need.

Al’s Steak House.  It wasn’t what I wanted (or thought I wanted), but it was exactly what I needed.

How we crossed paths, this old sandwich joint and I, can only be chalked up to the issuance of some decree by a far-flung cosmological court adjudicating justice from somewhere out there, behind the sun, and ordering confinement and correction for my own universal crime of suddenly becoming (without my fully being aware of it) what modernity has made of so many Washington-area men:  the all-American douchebag.  Here I was, on this very recent and particularly glorious, golden autumnal midday, frantically rushing around—from bank to Costco to post office—like some lunatic whose hair had been set on fire, when really I should have been riverside along the Potomac, sunbathing in a folding chair, book in hand, with Prokofiev on my playlist, and a hint of bourbon on my breath.  But no.  Not here.  Not in Washington.  A pause to look inward is deeply discouraged in this place.  And repose is something the city’s killing pace will abide.  Nor, this day, would I fucking chillax.  I moved from errand to errand like a man unhinged.  I ran stop signs getting to the dry cleaners.  I sighed loudly and rolled my eyes when made to wait too long in line at the bank.  By midday, however, the morning’s coffee and straight feed of pure, unadulterated adrenaline had started to eat away at me; they were hollowing me out.  I needed food.  And fast.  So I hit the gas and careened into the nearest food-dense neighborhood, which, as luck would have it, was the hamlet of Del Ray, that self-consciously charming pocket of Alexandria that the hipsters will (for now) allow you to believe time has forgotten.  But the hipsters have overlooked something; the march of time has left us Al’s Steak House as some non-ironic relic of a bygone era meant to chide modernity for its silly culinary ways, and to teach self-absorbed motherfuckers like me that life is not a race, that whatever mission I’m on is hardly of lasting consequence to the greater good, and maybe, just maybe I’m not all that important; maybe my “industry connections” are meaningless; maybe, just maybe I’ll have to wait (and wait) for my fucking sandwich just like everyone else.

Opened in 1955 by its namesake and proprietor, Al’s Steak House was sold, in 1965, to a former-employee and then-neighborhood local boy named John Severson.  John is also the very man who took my lunch order last week.  He looked up at me from his place behind the cash register, amid the busy, busy lunch rush, the sizzle and heat of flat-top grill jamming out the food, and asked me, serenely and Buddha-like, not what I wanted, but how I was.  How was I?   Was this a joke?  In truth, I was starving, foul-tempered, and in one monster of a fucking hurry.  But I didn’t say that.  Instead, I used the word fine, and asked Mr. Severson how he was.  Nicely.  Mr. Severson paused.  He considered.  The man was twenty-dupes deep into a lunch rush and he was thinking.  He thought some more.  A little tired, he told me, and his feet hurt.  More thought followed by a furtive smile.  Then the only question I’d been waiting for:  what did I want to eat?  Despite the name, Al’s Steak House is not the dimly lit, red-velvet parlor where cows give up their body parts to diners tucked neatly behind heavy menus in deep leather booths.  Rather, Al’s is a sandwich shop that nods to Philadelphia with its walk-up counter and four Carter-era tables for seating.  Trophies adorn a south wall above a picture of Arnold Palmer.  On the north wall hang framed 8 X 10s of celebrity patrons.  Glen Campbell is there.  As is Bill Clinton, Oprah, and Branford Marsalis.  I told Mr. Severson I wanted a medium mushroom steak sandwich.  And I tried to imply with clipped tones and a willingness to pre-pay that I was in hurry, like big time.  But no.  Mr. Severson waved my debit card away and suggested I have a look around at the celebrity photos as my sandwich was being made.  Have a look around?  Nearly each and every inch of the roughly two hundred square feet of “dining” space was choked with tables, chairs, trash cans, and people—lots of people—either eating or waiting to eat.  The act of standing in one spot without repeated bodily contact with another patron was nothing short of impossible.  We bumped into each other.  We stepped on one another’s toes.  So I stood still as I could and waited.  And waited.  Arms at my side.  Eyes on the photograph of Arnold Palmer.  The strange woman in front of me talking to herself.  I grew increasingly impatient.  All of the food coming off the grill seemed destined for call-ahead and take-out patrons only.  They breezed in, breezed out with boxes of food, not a care in the world.  But not us.  We fools and knaves who had actually ordered in person, at the counter, never seemed to get our food; our order was never up.  Minutes went by, one after the other after the other, but the line never moved.  So I started to get angry.  Not just impatient; I was becoming indignant.  I was convinced I had discovered the one real and true embodiment of everything that was wrong with the world.  I had—I thought—chanced across the one, last food purveyor in the area who had failed to get the fucking memo that I (the singular pronoun is, alas, a parade of self-importance, is it not) am always in a hurry and that my food had better be hot and ready to go lest you incur my wrath for keeping me too long from my appointed rounds. 

And just like the characters in Jean Paul Satre’s dramatic masterpiece, No Exit, we in that room were repaid for our speculations of how much longer we’d have to wait by—yes—having to wait some more.  And more and more and more.  And as I waited, as the minutes ticked away, something strange began to happen inside me.  I passed through anger, through rage, and came out on the curiously calm side of considering the absurdity of my situation.  I could leave, I thought, with no contract or bond to hold me here other than a sandwich order given to an old man.  Beyond that, however, was soon the idea, posited by the late, great David Foster Wallace in his quietly monumental This Is Water, which suggests the power to see through, and transcend, such ridiculous anxiety-inducing situations like, well, standing in line, require empathy for agent of supposed “slowness” (the grocery-store checker, in Wallace’s case, and Mr. Severson in mine) whereby one considers a litany of possible reasons why, just why, something—thoughts of cancer, of child support—is gumming up the works.

So I did not walk out on my sandwich.  I didn’t sigh.  I didn’t yell.  I did what David Foster Wallace would want me to do:  I tried very, very hard to be patient, to wait my turn, and see what culinary reward would come of my virtue.  So I relaxed.  I let go.  I handed myself over to the culinary gods to see what would me my fate.

I soon—or not so soon—got an answer.

Twenty-three minutes.  Twenty-three.  That’s how long it took the two grill cooks of Al’s Steakhouse to produce my single 9’’ sub (all—count ‘em—six ingredients of it), wrap it in white butcher’s paper, and drop it, unceremoniously, on Mr. Severson’s counter.

So I paid and escaped to my car, where I unwrapped the sandwich, took a bite, and promptly proceeded to burn—nay, scorch—the top of my mouth with melted cheese.  But once I got beyond the flash of cheesy napalm, I tasted something deeply, even profoundly delicious.  The sandwich was incredibly good.  But wait!  Was it a trick of the brain?  Was my delight in the sandwich simply the product of being starved for twenty-three minutes while happily contended diners around me gnashed away at their sandwiches?  So I took another bite, and another, and with each swallow, with each shot of beef juice dribbling down my chin, the verdict remained unchanged:  Mr. Severson’s sandwich was almost too good to be believed.  It was hot, moist, and deeply, deeply good.  It was everything I had wanted in a hot sub, and, more importantly, everything I ever needed a sandwich to be.

What this mushroom steak sandwich was, in point of fact, was not a Philadelphia Cheesesteak, as the restaurant bills its own fare, but a steak-and-cheese, for the fact the onions were not cooked with (and folded into upon cooking) the sandwich meat on the flattop.  Nor was it Cheez Whiz that adorned the grilled-onion and canned-mushroom topping, but a melted variety of cheesefood (which successfully approximated cheddar) that magically fused meat, onion, and mushroom into a sandwich whose sum, flavor-wise, is far, far greater than it’s industrial food complex parts.  The seemingly small, even inconsequential fact (call it culinary hair-splitting, or foodie wank-speak), that what Mr. Severson produces is a steak-and-cheese is a small, but significant delineation for a Washington, D.C. population of progressive eaters forever trying to leave its own culinary mark on global gastronomy beyond what the “half-smokes” of Ben’s Chili Bowl have already well-contributed.  The sandwiches of John Severson and his rag-tag crew at Al’s Steak House are just that important.  After all, it only stands to reason, does it not, that a restaurant still packed with patrons after fifty-seven years of continuous operation just might be worth waiting the paltry twenty-minutes required (this day) to procure one of their truly remarkable sandwiches.  Call it a pilgrim’s progress, then.  Call it me trying to stand in line like everybody else.  Lesson learned.  And yes, Mr. Severson, you are the man.

Al’s Steak House is open Monday-Friday, 10:00 am to 8:00 pm and Saturday, 10:00 am to 7:00 pm.  Closed Sunday.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Eating at the Crossroads of Salvation and Soul - Horace and Dickie's

The restaurant world is not, we all know, a meritocracy, where hard work and culinary excellence is always rewarded with riches and praise, and where gastronomic charlatanism is met with a swift serrated knife across the throat.  Rather, the restaurant world of today appears to operate under the governance of a loose and gin-soaked confederacy of a few, well-placed taste makers and trend setters, who, in another time and place, would have been relegated to the marginal indigency of eeking out a living as pickpockets, snake oil salesmen, and tubercular side-show carnies, but who, instead, lucked into the gilded age of Rachael Ray and Guy Fieri, where culinary mediocrity is championed, and where celebrity—not the quiet, dignified, gastronomic greatness of Jacques Pepin or Charlie Trotter—is prized above all else.  Better to have a string of middlebrow (if incredibly busy) sandwich places or tapas joints (and that much-coveted cookbook deal and guest spot on Today) than a single (if maybe not-always-so-busy) flagship restaurant located in an inner-city back alley, whose daily attempts to redefine cuisine as we know it (not to mention trying to reimage the very experience of eating in a restaurant) draws comparisons with the early passions of a chair-throwing Marco Pierre White, or better, elicits rare and reverent silences from industry professionals who make the business of cooking and serving food the stuff of their daily lives. 

The apparent triumph of culinary mediocrity is more insidious than that.  It’s more odious than having celebrity chefs pimp overpriced pizza or hawk their anemic take on a bowl of ramen (as the proto-Asian component of their branding efforts demand, no less) to a seemingly lobotomized legion of slack-jawed eaters who will line-up fifty deep to clap like seals over the dubious pleasure of seeing a former Top Chef contender make a fucking taco.  The triumph of culinary mediocrity is made truly sinister by the fact they have somehow managed to change how we (that’s you and me, boy-o) now talk about food.  They’ve won because they’ve hijacked the entire discussion; for the last few years, those of us in the industry (as well as the media and eating public riding the bench on the near periphery) have been obsessed (I, for one, will cop to the charge) with debating, ad nauseam and in infinitum, the implications of celebrity on cuisine, on eating, on its impact on the industry as a whole, when, really, we should have just been talking about food all along.  Food. Where it comes from.  How it’s cooked.  How it tastes.  Nothing less.  Nothing more.  Food.  The fact that I, for one, would Tweet (and joyously so) about the theft of Guy Fieri’s Lamborghini at the hands of a wannabe-murderous seventeen year old, for example, makes me complicit in the whole shell game of food celebrity.  I’m the problem.  It’s not Guy Fieri, folks.  It’s me.  Christopher Freeman.  Wringing my hands over the likely fact that none of the Food Network “chefs” could produce, on command, and under pain of death, a halfway decent bĂ©chamel or bĂ©arnaise, is a greater sin, I believe, than Guy Fieri, looking like a bloated Cory Feldman (is there any other kind?), driving around, aimlessly, in a stupid red car, pretending to like everyone he meets, and everything he eats, duuude. 

My own (admittedly) myopic fixation on the culinary transgressions perpetrated the Food Network’s moronic inferno (stand up and be counted Sandra; you, too, Bobby boy) has done the food world (the few out there, like you, who abide to suffer my vitriol on the subject) a disservice; I’ve done it bad, I’ve done it wrong. 

But how to atone?

Lucky for me, benediction in the food world is a no-brainer.  I knew what I had to do.

I went to church.  I went on a Sunday as every sinner seeking redemption must.  But this was not just any church, mind you.  This house of worship, located in Washington, D.C.’s once deeply-troubled neighborhood of lower North East, sits squarely that fabled and proverbial culinary crossroads miraculously devoid of all restaurant-scene pretension and foodie-speak bullshit, and is operated by men and women of gastronomy’s purest faith, those cooks who wake, daily, with no other design in their hearts than to bring the most delicious, most affordable food for whomsoever should require nourishment (albeit the deep-fried variety) that acts—instantly, upon first swallow, and as deeply as the taking of Communion—as salve and salvation for the troubled soul.  It’s at the root of why they call it soul food, yo.

Horace and Dickie’s stands, as it has since 1990, as temple and shrine of culinary redemption for eaters just like me hungry for reprieve (however brief) from the ego-driven lunacy of the restaurant world.  Horace and Dickie’s is tiny, sure, and carry-out only, and has been burglar-proofed with the iron bars bolted across all its windows, but it’s also redolent of fresh-fried seafood; it’s patronized by some of the loveliest people in all D.C., and the joint is as effortlessly cool as Lester Young’s own porkpie hat.    

I arrived on a sunny mid-morning just as area churches were letting out.  The men and women crowding the walk-up counter in front of me were dressed in their Sunday best (suits and sunbonnets) and were as charitable to me (the lone white guy among them) as parishioners welcoming a new congregant into the fold.  I smiled and ordered:  the fish sandwich and three sides.  Collard greens.  Slaw.  Macaroni and cheese.  What I received was a Styrofoam clamshell in which two slices of white sandwich bread (perfect facsimiles of Wonder) had been topped with four enormous fresh-from-the-fryer (of which they have three) fillets of incredible-smelling fish.  Can I please get an amen?

I paid and sat on the lone bench in front of Horace and Dickie’s and ate (for a time) with a plastic fork, and when that fork failed me (by breaking in two under the enormous heft of my lunch, no less), I ate caveman style, with my bare hands, licking fry oil and melted cheese off my fingers for all the world to see.  The fish was, in a word, divine:  imagine whiting (likely some truly delicate variety of Atlantic cod) tossed in a light corn meal, then deep fried three-to-four minutes to that moist, flaky perfection of golden “friedness” to which we home cooks and Louis Jordan aspirants try (and often fail) on our own Saturday night fish fries.  The sides were equally surprising:  both the mac-and-cheese and cole slaw were clearly made in-house, and tasted as if they had come straight out of your grandmother’s kitchen.  The greens, while obviously canned (Horace and Dickie’s does not contain the culinary square footage required to accommodate cooking bushels of greens), did contain enough bacon fat to successfully flirt with being, well, good.

And while the sides were each, in of themselves, minor masterpieces in comfort food, it was the fish I returned to again and again, bite after bite taking me back to the Southern fried fish of my Missouri boyhood, where chefs were then known simply as cooks, and where the very success of their cuisine was measured not in Beard awards or how brightly the stars of their celebrity might shine, but simply on how the food tasted, how it enriched the body, how it enlived the mind, and how it restored the eater, overall, for having eaten it.  Horace and Dickie’s is such a place.  It’s a return to a time and place where eating was an act of affirmation of a shared and collective culinary culture, an act of restoration for the body, for the soul. 

Eating food like that purveyed at Horace and Dickie’s makes better people of its eaters for the experience of standing in line with perfect strangers just back from church and ordering the food of a culture very different than your own demands of that eater a level of humility, cultural open-mindedness, even gastronomic supplication, that can’t help but produce the kind of generosity of spirit that’s good for people and even better for the wider waking world.  Is there better fried fish to be had other than the truly delicious stuff coming out the kitchen of Horace and Dickie’s?  Likely, yes.  But that’s not the point.  The point here, friend-o, is that there are some restaurants that demand your patronage for the pure and simple fact that they’re still here.  Horace and Dickie’s is in the white-hot center of Northeast D.C.’s “H” Street corridor gentrification project, and it’s being threatened by that non-native and highly invasive species of urban jackass known as the hipster.  Horace and Dickie’s is surrounded by them—they’re fucking everywhere—and they bring with them sky-high rents and a cultural white noise that simply kills culinary sanctuaries like Horace and Dickie’s.

So go, now, before it’s too late, before the fuckheads in the white belts and the skinny jeans win the day.  Go before they turn Horace and Dickie’s into a Starbucks or a place to buy yoga mats and fruit smoothies.  Go and order the fish, eat the fried chicken, and eat on the park bench out front, because if you do, I promise you this:  you will eat really cheap, really good soul food produced in a glorious little restaurant where no one, and I mean no one, will ever bother you with the Beard Awards or make mention of Guy fucking Fieri.  You have my word on that.

Your link to Horace and Dickie's:  Home

Reader's Note:  And you know that after all the smack I've talked about the Food Network, were they ever to call, I'd gladly buy a red car, dye my hair blonde, stock up on Ed Hardy shirts, and start throwing fake gang signs at anyone who would give me the time of day.  Cuz that's how we roll, yo.