Washington DC delis

by Richard Blackman

It’s 9:35 am Sunday morning and I am on my way with my deli buddies (Malcolm, Gary, and Larry, whom I have known since elementary school) to check out pastrami in the Washington DC area.

We have already been on three trips over the last three years to New York and New Jersey in search of the best Corned Beef, Pastrami and Brisket, making over 20 deli visits and blogging about them. A February 13 article in the Washington Post about pastrami in DC intrigued us. We felt we had to find out for ourselves just how the DC pastrami compared. In two words: it doesn’t. But more about that later. (As of today, we've visited 50+ delis between Washington and New York.)

The Post article described the pastrami in four DC area deli/restaurants: Wagshalls, the recently opened DGS, Stachowski’s Market, and Bourbon Steak (the lounge in the Four Seasons Hotel). If nothing else, we thought we could get a handle on pastrami in DC and get some sense of the DC deli scene.

At each of our NY deli visits, we ordered three sandwiches and split them: brisket, pastrami and corned beef. We rated the sandwiches, along with pickles, coleslaw and potato salad. We originally had planned to follow the same routine on this trip, and in fact each of us dutifully quantified our opinions at each stop. However, the idiosyncracies of the Washington “deli” scene, coupled, sadly, with its shortcomings and our own inability to agree on just what we were reviewing, compelled us to jettison the quality ratings system that worked so well in New York. There was just no way to compare the DC fare in this way with the New York deli scene.

We walk into Wagshalls Delicatessen in Spring Valley (just over the District line) at 9:50 am. Wagshalls is a grocery market and liquor store with a deli counter up front. There are no seats inside the deli, but a few tables outside.

Wagshalls is perhaps best-known for its hot brisket sandwich, although it also carries corned beef and pastrami. But we started off on the wrong foot, when Malcolm, trying to describe the size of the cole slaw order we wanted, made the mistake of touching one of the empty plastic container on the counter. He was firmly scolded -- touching the container was a no-no. Whew! Not good. The behind-the-counter crew was rather intimidating – kind of like a traditional New York deli. As a result, when one of us needed to go back to ask a question, none of us wanted to do it. But on to the food.

Before digging into the sandwiches, Larry pulled out his digital scale and we weighed each one to determine the cost per ounce. The pastrami and corned beef came in at close to $1.00 an ounce, the brisket at 83 cents.

The first surprise: Wagshalls serves its corned beef and pastrami cold. Who eats cold pastrami or cold corned beef? We had to. In fact, it didn’t seem that there was even an option to get either served hot. Portions were small and the bread seemed to overwhelm the meat. On the other hand, the meats were okay, albeit cold and lacking character—and, at least, better than what you’d get in a supermarket. Gary was especially perturbed about eating cold pastrami. We all liked the hot brisket, Gary especially, but it must be noted that this “brisket” was really like Montreal smoked meat rather than a true brisket. The closest comparison is the meat we had at the Mile End Deli in New York. Some of us felt the brisket was a bit fatty and salty. The cole slaw had a nice flavor but was too creamy. The potato salad and pickles (half sours) were predictably mediocre, just as we experienced at most NY delis. Wagshalls does not carry full sours. All in all, ho-hum, though probably quite good for DC.

On to DGS Delicatessen in DC. This was our most-anticipated visit. It’s a relatively new deli in the Dupont Circle area and has gotten a lot of press lately. We had high expectations, and the foray began well when we found parking just across the street. DGS, however, was a disappointment. We arrived at the “opening bell” - 11am. A pungent meaty aroma greeted us as we walked in. A smiling hostess sent us upstairs. The first thing we noticed was the loud music. Way too loud and on a Sunday morning no less!! This seemed more like a bistro than a deli. Breakfast looked good but we were there for the meats. DGS doesn’t offer brisket, so we just ordered the corned beef and pastrami. Pickles came with the sandwich but they also offered a “pickle” plate for $5. This was a mix of pickled vegetables, including pickles, cucumbers, carrots, white radishes, and cauliflower, as well as a pickled egg. Ok, but I wouldn’t order it again. The pickles especially were disappointingly limp and soggy. Larry thought they had an ashy taste; more telling, they reminded him of the smell in the elephant house at the zoo.

Now the meats. The weigh-in revealed a whopping $1.55 per ounce cost. As for the corned beef, we liked the thick cut and it had an okay flavor, but it was crumbly and dry. I took my first bite of the sandwich with mustard and was struck with a dreadful vinegary taste. All of us are big mustard fans, but none of us could tolerate the mustard. It was seriously flawed. As we were leaving, I mentioned it to one of the managers. He was quite surprised as he said they make their own.

He brought me another sample just to be sure. I tasted it and again, same awful flavor. Give me Guldens, Ba-tampte, French’s, Nathans, Heinz or just about anything but this. On the pastrami, we had differing opinions. All of us thought it was too peppery. I couldn’t finish mine; the pepper was way too overwhelming. Larry didn’t like it either, but Malcolm and Gary thought it was interesting and good in spite of this. It also didn’t taste like traditional pastrami; in fact, like Wagshalls this was another version of smoked meat similar to the fare at Mile End in Brooklyn. We have to say that we loved the crusty bread at DGS, which is made by DC’s Upper Crust Bakery, and the seltzer water, which was crisp and clean. These were the highlights of our DGS experience.

It’s 11:45 and we’re back in the car heading to Silver Spring, Maryland and Parkway Deli. We had made a “game-time” decision to include this establishment, which was not mentioned in the Washington Post article. But we had plenty of time, and we decided to head to Parkway because so far we had been disappointed. Parkway was the only place in the bunch that could claim to be a deli -- it may be more of a diner but we won’t quibble. We did get the aroma of pickles and saw the traditional deli counter as we walked in. The 20-minute wait to be seated in the large restaurant was a good sign.

First of all they have a great pickle/slaw bar where they have a slew of choices and you can get as much as you want. The pickles were whole (both half sour and full-sour), and crisp. They may not be up to New York standards but were very solid. They had Guldens mustard on the table, which was fine. They brought out the sandwiches, all garnished with melon. All the meats were traditional deli – more than we could say for any of the other places. The corned beef was quite good, though not comparable to the best we had in NY. The pastrami was my favorite of the day. They put their pastrami on a grill before putting it in the sandwich and that makes it special. The brisket was typical of what we’ve gotten at all the good delis in NY. It was a little dry but tasty, especially with mustard. It compares reasonably with all but the best briskets in NY. The sandwiches cost $7.45 to $8.65 and came in at 70 to 80 cents per ounce. They were well worth it. The potato salad was too creamy but tasty; the cole slaw tasted old. We had a wonderful server. Parkway was, by far, our favorite of the day. If we were to tell an out-of-towner where to go for deli in DC, we’d send them to Silver Spring and Parkway.

At 1:20pm, we’re in the car again heading back downtown for Stachowski’s market in Georgetown. We arrive there at 2pm. It’s a very small fun-looking market. More of a butcher shop than a deli, but they offered a list of sandwiches. There is one large round table for 6 in the back and a friendly coed cashier. Stachowski’s did not serve corned beef or brisket, but pastrami is their specialty. It comes standard on pumpernickel. We asked for it on Rye. The sandwich was enormous (the second heaviest of the 20 delis we’ve visited) with super thick cut meat. Approximately 1.75 times the thickness of Katz’s in NY. In fact, it was too thick (as also noted in the Post article) and, as a result, too chewy. Malcolm suggested it was more like rubber than meat. As with our experience at Wagshalls and DGS, this was a case of a smoked meat masquerading as something else (in this case, pastrami). It tasted okay, though overly spiced, but not at all like pastrami. It was certainly not melt-in-your-mouth like Katz’s. It was a bargain at 75 cents an ounce, but unless you are starving who wants to pay $12.99 for a gargantuan rubber sandwich?

The big argument at Stachowski’s was whether we should order the pint-sized container of potato salad in the case. They didn’t offer smaller portions. It looked far too creamy and just not at all appetizing. I didn’t want to spend the $6.45 but my comrades insisted that we try it since the market offered it, and since ordering potato salad is part of our normal routine. I caved, we each had a bite and that was enough – no sale.

Next, a 5-minute walk to the Bourbon Steak Lounge at the upscale Four Seasons Hotel. Definitely not a deli, this was the lounge of the hotel’s restaurant, but we knew that going in. The regular restaurant was closed (probably saved us $50). Normally, we wouldn’t be seen in a place like this (and they wouldn’t want us either), but we wanted to try the pastrami since it was mentioned in the Post article. It was way too classy a place for us.

The impeccably-dressed young waitress initially said she didn’t think they had pastrami. It was only a specialty in March and this was April. I informed her that I had called earlier and was told that we could always get pastrami sandwiches. She went in back, and when she came out, she assured us that yes, of course they could make us one. (Don’t you just hate it when the waiters/waitresses don’t know what’s going on?). We ordered the sandwich and water --the Saint Geon sparkling water at $10 for 24 oz was excellent, if overpriced. The sandwich came with a single less-than-ordinary pickle slice. The sandwich was thick cut and tender, but it didn’t taste like pastrami. More like bacon. And it was too salty. We weren’t really looking for salty bacon sandwiches. At $17 for the sandwich ($2 per oz), it was definitely the priciest sandwich of the 20 delis we’ve visited, but to be expected from the Four Seasons Hotel.

Well, that’s about it. Unlike New York, we took nothing home. If we’re going to stray from our normally healthy diets, it’s got to be really good stuff. We didn’t find it here. We expect our Philly and Baltimore trip next Fall to be much more successful.

Conclusions? This experience makes you appreciate just how good New York Deli really is. There really is no comparison. If you are looking for a traditional deli experience, the Parkway Deli is your best bet out of the 5 places we sampled. As for DGS, there were strong disagreements among us as to whether or not this was the biggest disappointment of the day; let's just say that if you are looking for some kind of DC deli chic, DGS is an option, but keep your expectations well in check and avoid the mustard at all costs. Two of us would not go back to DGS, and one who would go back would order something different. In a pinch, a sandwich from Wagshall's will do, but we wouldn't go out of our way. Ditto Stachowski's. Forget the Bourbon Steak Lounge.