Four Washington DC Deli Reviews
by Richard Blackman
Five sandwich stops in the DC area left us with mixed results: Fabulous brisket sandwich at MGM Roast Beef, great onion rings at Full On in Olney, first rate whole pickles at On Rye, thick, tender pastrami at Smoked and Stacked, and Mighty Mo’s at Anthem in the Marriott Marquis hotel that just don’t compare to what we used to get at Hot Shoppes in the 60s and 70s.
Three of my elementary school friends and I, Gary, Malcolm, and Larry spent the day on Saturday sampling food from “newish” delis in the DC area plus some other places. We’ve been sampling and rating delis and other foods since 2010 – visiting 50 delis and 20 more restaurants in the NY, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and DC area. You can read reviews of those delis here. At each deli we’ve ordered the same meal: pastrami, brisket and corned beef sandwiches, half sour and full sour pickles, potato salad and cole slaw. We tried to stick to our routine on this trip, but some of the restaurants we visited didn’t offer one or more of those items. For most of the DC restaurants, expect to pay $10 to $13 for a 10 oz sandwich.
At 8:30 am we piled into Gary’s Prius for an early start, heading downtown. However, we soon discovered that although most of our destinations were open early, none served our planned sandwiches until lunch. What’s wrong with pastrami for breakfast? So we hung out at the Marriott Marquis next to the convention center. The Marquis boasts the restaurant Anthem with a special abbreviated “Hot Shoppes” menu including Mighty Mo’s. Mighty Mo’s, served at the Marriott Hot Shoppes restaurant in the 60s and early 70s was my favorite item when I was young. It was, along with the Topps (long gone) restaurant’s Sirloiner, the first popular area double burger before the Big Mac.
Lunch didn’t start until 11:30, but we were able to cajole the folks at Anthem into cooking up the $17 Mighty Mo’s for us (55 cents in the 70s) at 10 am. We asked for two to split among the four of us. (We have to pace ourselves when we eat at five restaurants before dinner.) They brought us 4 instead, but we chose not to complain since they did serve us early. The original Mighty Mo was two burgers with cheese on a sesame roll, with a toasted roll in-between, pickles, lettuce and thousand Island dressing. The verdict: As Malcolm noted, “I took a walk down memory lane that I’d just as soon forget.” While our memories of 50 years ago might be questioned, these Mo’s were hardly comparable to the originals. Gary and I enjoyed them (the halves we ate), but wouldn’t order again. Malcolm and Larry gave them thumbs down--overcooked, overdressed, and underwhelming. The onion rings, a Hot Shoppes delicacy in the 70’s, were standard frozen fare and barely mediocre. Marriott should take an onion ring lesson from “Full On” in Olney (see below). Bottom line: Dorothy notwithstanding, sometimes you just can’t go home.
Mighty Mo and onion rings
Next stop, a five minute walk to 9th Street for Smoked and Stacked, which has a limited menu but several pastrami sandwich varieties. They make their own pastrami, which is a rarity not only in DC but in NYC as well. We ordered at the counter in the cramped space (four small tables and around 10 counter chairs) a plain pastrami on rye, cut into fourths, with slaw and potato salad on the side. The pastrami was thick cut and tender (how we all like it). My quarter was too fatty (several big chunks of fat), but no one else had that issue. While Malcolm and Larry gave the sandwich decent grades (Larry especially liked the grilled bread (on the greasy side, and apparently cooked with the pastrami on the grill), Gary and I found the taste mediocre. The mustard, unfortunately, was available only in landfill-bound packets. They get minus points for that, particularly since the only way we could open those packets was with our teeth. The slaw and potato salad were too creamy (as is often the case), and mediocre. Larry, Gary, and Malcolm did appreciate the slaw, with its crisp texture and celery seeds, but the potato salad had pickles in the dressing, and that’s a no-no. None of us liked the pickle. Gary took one bite and grimaced.
We took a 10-minute walk to 6th Street for On Rye where we ordered at the counter, one pastrami and one corned beef sandwich along with potato salad and cole slaw. The restaurant had a neat, pleasant and airy atmosphere with ample tables. They brought over our sandwiches and we all immediately went for the big whole pickles. They were highlights for us – crisp and a cross between half-sour and full. As for the sandwiches, both arrived lukewarm and we all found the pastrami a bit too spicy for us with an overwhelming smoky flavor. I had been to On Rye before and liked the pastrami a lot, so it was unclear what was different this time. We found the corned beef tasty and lean, if a bit dry. Their mustard was excellent. The redskin potato salad, which appeared to be homemade, was by far the best of the day, not over creamy and with the right touch of onion. The cole slaw was just average. As we were leaving, we struck up a conversation with two locals who were finishing off a bowl of matzo ball soup which they said was excellent. We’ll have to try that next time.
On to the Brentwood area of DC for a brisket sandwich at MGM Roast Beef. It’s in a remote area of the city, connected to a car auction warehouse. MGM has only a small parking lot. MGM had been featured on the food channel and was noted for its juicy brisket sandwiches. We ordered two sandwiches on rye at the counter and sat at the spacious seating section around the corner. After we ordered, we watched the meat cutter slice off the individual thick slices of brisket. The counter, in a semi-circle around the food prep area was full of people chowing down. Our disc buzzed in about 5 minutes indicating that our order was ready. These sandwiches were a highlight of our trip. The brisket sandwiches were top notch-- thick, tender, tasty, and reasonably moist. The spicy mustard and the horseradish added the perfect finishing touches. The cole slaw and potato salad were above average. MGM is a bit out of the way but worth a visit.
Finally, we were back on the road to Olney, Md. To visit Full On, a small, cozy sandwich shop with table service. A friend of Malcolm’s had highly recommended the restaurant. Instead of ordering any of their menu sandwiches, we ordered plain roast beef and corned beef sandwiches so we could get a good feel for the meat. Next time, we’d probably go with the menu. I noticed some tasty-looking onion rings at the table next door, so we ordered those. The onion rings were a highlight – perfectly fried with a tasty and very light batter. The ratio of onion to batter was excellent. They reminded me of the Hot Shoppes onion rings of old. None of us were impressed with the roast beef, two of us thought the corned beef was average (for the DC area). But to be fair, roast beef with no accoutrements is just that – roast beef. Judged as roast beef, Full On’s offering was fine; we just think the dressings make the beef when it comes to roast beef. Next time, we would order one of the featured roast beef offerings – au jus, with cheddar cheese and mushrooms, whatever. Similarly, with the corned beef, the menu featured a reuben, which included additions like slaw and dressing, which would probably be tastier. We were very impressed with the lively and helpful waitresses, especially Jen. This is a nice place.
Summary: At the end of the day, if you really want the best in no-frills, man-up meat, go to New York City. Modern-day DC delis are working hard to present "deli for the 21st century." If you are into old-school deli, DC delis simply do not compare to what you can get at places like Katz's, Sarge's or 2nd Avenue Deli in NYC. Not that DC's are bad, but you need to approach them with your eyes open, knowing that, when it comes to deli, DC is not the Big Apple. However, MGM, although not a deli, has brisket as good if not better than anything we've had in NYC.