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.

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