Stachowski Market, Georgetown

I phoned Stachowski’s the other day and ordered a couple Pastrami Sandwiches ($14.99 each), and when I opened them, was surprised to find out that they were on thick-cut pumpernickel; not rye. Looking at the online menu, there’s apparently a choice between the two, and I didn’t realize the “default” was going to be pumpernickel (we had kind of a sketchy phone connection, and the gentleman on the other end seemed to be doing two things at once).

Regardless, this was good pumpernickel, and you don’t order these massive sandwiches for the bread – at $14.99, they’re *easily* enough for two people, maybe even three. On one side of each sandwich was two slices of bread, so you had three slices of thick bread per sandwich. The pastrami was as good as ever, although it’s amazing just how fatty the meat is – even the pieces that look lean. There was a nominal slathering of mustard on each sandwich, and each one came with a full, sliced dill pickle.

Does anyone actually eat these as sandwiches? I’ve always opened them up on a plate (or in the foil), and picked up the meat, occasionally taking a bite of bread (I figure most people do this, and that’s why they come with three slices of pumpernickel).

Still the best pastrami sandwich in the area – gluttonous, New York-like, enormous, delicious, fattening – everything that’s so right and so wrong about a great pastrami sandwich. It had probably been a year since I’ve had one, and they haven’t changed a bit with the possible exception of the fattiness in the meat (but that varies on a slab-by-slab basis).

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Pupatella, Ballston

(See the July 25, 2014, Review here.)

For a long time – over a year – whenever I went to Pupatella, both Enzo and Anastasiya were both there, every single time without exception. Then, life for them progressed, they had a baby, and word of the quality had spread enough so that the business grew substantially.

Now, it’s almost the exact opposite – Out of the past, say, ten visits, I’ve seen neither at the restaurant probably eight times.

But how has the pizza been?

First of all, I *always* take advantage of the “$10 off” any bottle of wine with purchase of two pizzas offer – if I’m there alone, I’ll invariably buy a second pizza to go, just so I can get a $30 bottle of Sauvignon Blanc or Vermentino for $20 – I’ll have a couple glasses there, and take the rest home. It’s a really good deal on some very drinkable wines, and one which you should be enjoying.

A few days ago, I ordered four pizzas, and I’d say they were pretty representative of my recent experiences there. They’re slightly different than they used to be – not better, not worse, but different. The crust is perhaps a millimeter (but only a millimeter) thicker, and the crust coming out of the oven is slightly more soft than it used to be (but only slightly). The flavors in the dough are still right there, and the toppings – which have never been the same quality as what you’d get at 2 Amys, for example, are about the same. In other words, the pizzas have been pretty consistent over the years, and are among the best in the area if not still *the* best.

But I’ve developed what is nearly a fetish for their Mimosa ($12): Italian cream, roasted corn, prosciutto cotto, and fresh mozzarella. And on this recent visit, I ordered two of them – that’s how much I like them. In fact, I think I’ve gotten the Mimosa on each of my last several visits. This time, I also got two red pizzas (with San Marzano tomato sauce) to go along with my two white pizzas: a Ham and Mushroom ($11), with prosciutto cotto, sautéed mushrooms, and fresh mozzarella, and for the first time ever, a Pepperoni Pizza ($10.50) with tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, and beef pepperoni. For “personal-sized” pizzas, these are technically 11 inches, but they seem slightly larger, and the four pieces they’re cut into are enough for a meal unless I’m really hungry – there are always leftovers for the next day, and I’m still trying to master the art of reheating these. Even if I put them into a pre-heated oven, directly on the rack, the crust comes out softer than I’d like – if anyone has any suggestions, I’m all ears.

Pupatella remains in Italic in the Dining Guide (as it always has been), remains the top-ranked restaurant in Ballston, and remains one of the best, if not *the* best, pizza in the DC area.

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Oriental Gourmet, North Arlington

A few days ago, I was reading over this thread, and combining its general tone with my own experiences, I made the hypothesis that Oriental Gourmet might just be the best “white-carton,” Americanized Chinese restaurant in the area.

I decided to take some people’s favorites, add my own into the mix, and then change up the meats and sauces, coming up with this:

P5 Pork w/ Black Bean Sauce ($10.95)

S27 Fish Filet w/ Black Pepper Sauce ($14.95)

V8 Spinach Stir-Fried w/ Garlic ($8.95)

Patting myself on the back, the combination of flavors, ingredients, and balance was just right – more importantly, this meal was fantastic as far as Americanized Chinese meals go. At Oriental Gourmet, you’re not going to get the lip-curdling, palate-numbing flavors of a Hong Kong Palace Szechuan crippler, nothing of the sort – this is straight-on, full-bore, unapologetic Chinese food for American palates. But, the ever-important difference is that it’s done well!

How well?

Well, well enough to have another go at it.

A few days later, I went as soon as they opened for lunch, and got the exact same order, the only difference being that I got the lunch-sized Pork w/ Black Bean Sauce ($7.95, and a noticeably smaller portion than the dinner version).

The only difference was one you might expect: the prime-time dinner meal was more perfectly cooked. In particular, the onions that accompany the stir-fry were ever-so-slightly undercooked, producing a slightly crunchy texture (which, in turn, doesn’t release all of the sweetness); other than that, the fish could have seen another twenty seconds of wok time – it was hot, but not *piping* hot. These two things would not have been noticeable unless I was doing an active comparison. But I was, so I noticed.

Regardless, my hypothesis – that Oriental Gourmet may just be the best white-carton Americanized Chinese restaurant in the area – stood the test of two versions of the exact same meal at dramatically different times.

Raised to Italic in the Dining Guide, and elevated several notches to where it should have been all along.

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Bayou, West End

Bastards Who Brunched

My young dining companion and I gave up after a futile search for parking in Georgetown (where we were heading towards Leopold), so we escaped and headed eastbound on Pennsylvania, only to notice The Bayou. Well, why not? Bayou serves brunch 11-3 Saturday and Sunday, and we got the two-top right by the host stand.

I was dying for some a cup of Coffee ($3), and Bayou’s is better than the norm. Our server told me the brand, but it was a name I didn’t recognize, and I’ve forgotten it. Still, it’s not the watered-down liquid you so often get at bar brunches – it’s respectable coffee.

We ended up splitting most everything, including a side order of Jalapeño Cheddar Grits ($3.95), and Matt got a Marigny Po’ Boy ($15.95) which was half fried shrimp, half fried oysters (you can also choose half catfish), lettuce tomatoes, pickles, remoulade, and the side of your choice – in this case, Collard Greens with Bacon (normally $5.95).

What I got sounds like a mess, but it wasn’t at all. Grand Marshal Benedict ($19.95) was a variant on a classic Eggs Benedict: poached eggs on an English muffin, fried green tomatoes, Tasso ham, fried oysters (2), corn salsa, and Cajun Hollandaise – plus, some unadvertised home fries. It was a large plate, large enough so everything wasn’t clustered together, and all the ingredients went together very nicely.

I would have cut the tomatoes a little thinner because they tended to dominate the Benedict, and I’d also add a couple less pickle chips to the Po’ Boy, but other than that, this food was pretty much as good as you could possibly expect. I’m batting 1.000 at Bayou – I’ve been here several times now, and have enjoyed it each time. In fact, Bayou may be my favorite of Bo Blair’s restaurants (which include Surfside, Jetties, etc.) – I’m not sure where Executive Chef Rusty Holman actually spends his time, but someone here is running a consistent kitchen.

Incidentally, Bayou gets added to our Half-Priced Wine Nights thread for active members of donrockwell.com.

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Saffron, Falls Church

I ordered from the new Falls Church Saffron (they deliver through GrubHub), and unfortunately, can only find two positive things to say. However, do note that this could easily have been the primary chef’s night off, so don’t draw any universal conclusion from this little disaster.

Saffron has a plug-and-play curry menu where you pick your meat and pick your sauce. With thoughts of KN Vinod dancing around in the back of my mind, I ordered the Chicken Chettinad ($14). Since it was my first time eating here, I got one of my Indian standards, Palak Panner ($13, and yes that’s how they spell it), and completed my order with a Paneer Kulcha ($4).

Let me start with a couple of compliements: the Kulcha was properly baked, and I suspect they might have gotten Curry Mantra 2′s tandoor when they took over the restaurant. It wasn’t earth-shattering, but it was correct (these breads can also be made on a griddle or a tawa, and I don’t know for a fact that it’s done in a tandoor, but it was pretty evenly (and properly) charred.

More importantly, the quality of the chicken meat was fantastic. The Chettinad came with a generous portion of boneless, dark meat, and I wonder if this might be Halal based on the quality of the chicken. Meat-wise, you just can’t ask for anything more than this.

Okay, that said, the overriding characteristic of this meal was oil. Oil, oil, and more oil. The Chettinad was the most oily dish that I’ve had in a long, long time, and I ended up just picking the pieces of chicken out, and discarding the rest. Although the Palak Paneer wasn’t “oily” per se, the menu said it was made with spinach, tomato, ginger, and garlic, and maybe it was, but if so, it was ridden with ginger, and had an off-putting taste as well as the impression of cheap, frozen greens. I don’t know that this was frozen, but I’ve had several frozen versions of Palak Paneer that are much better than this (you’d be surprised how good frozen Palak Paneer can be).

The bread, while fine, seemed like more of a Naan than a Kulcha – I just couldn’t find any Paneer in it at all. There may have been a sprinkling, but I looked pretty thoroughly, and didn’t detect any.

Well-made Indian food is a sublime experience; poorly made Indian food is nauseating, and this meal makes me not want to have Indian anytime soon. Although I’m hoping (and assuming) that this was simply an off night for Saffron, it’s going to be very difficult for me to order from here a second time – but if I do, I’m going to search the menu for a more simple recipe that uses their wonderful chicken.

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The Demise of Clarendon (A Scary Halloween Story)

I wanted to copy this amazing tribute by Josh Radigan on the Tallula thread - one of the most “Liked” posts in the history of donrockwell.com - here for posterity.

Perhaps more than any area in the past five years (there are possible exceptions: Columbia Heights, etc.), Clarendon has changed, and it is currently undergoing a second-round of changes for the worse. The first round was raw, unbridled growth; the second round is a financial weed-out.

You can rest assured that this financial weed-out is going to continue, and that Clarendon will continue to lose its individuality. Don’t be surprised to see Clarendon continuing to become more generic as time passes, and don’t be surprised if you look back one day and see Le Diplomate as the Beginning of the End of 14UP – Starr Restaurants is a very savvy organization.

It isn’t Cheesecake Factory that made Clarendon such a desirable place for young people to live, but there was a reason they opened there: They knew what they were doing, and beat everyone else to the punch. While people were taking chances on opening restaurants with character, Cheesecake Factory could now afford to just sit back and wait for time to pass, and for the rebound effect to occur.

Tallula was a real gem, and I’m going to miss both it and EatBar. Fat Shorty’s was never good, and although it may seem like an asset to have Four Sisters Grill move in, look what happened to the Mosaic District a few years after they did (just as importantly, look at what happened to Eden Center – a complete mess – after they moved out … someone working with Four Sisters has enormous acumen). Taste of Morocco – remember that place? And remember the building going up behind it, assuring everyone that ‘the storefronts will remain the same.’ What happened to all those storefronts? Restaurant 3 looked generic; it was anything but – it was a genuine, chef-driven, locally owned little treasure, and now it’s La Tagliatella. Harry’s Tap Room, in its death throes, throws a Hail Mary and becomes Market Tavern; now, it’s Fuego Cocina y Tequileria, one of the most generic Mexican restaurants in the area – when DC Coast first opened, it was novel, but this novel has become very ponderous reading. Eleventh Street Lounge is becoming the latest rendition of Cherry Blow Dry Bar. Sette Bello, with Tiffany Lee running its outstanding “Bar Tonno,” and its wonderful pizzas, is now an American Tap Room. Queen Bee, the most venerable Vietnamese restaurant in the DC area, is now a rowdy and raucous Spider Kelly’s, selling God-knows-how-many gallons of beer until 2 AM, 7 nights a week. That leaves the two real anchors of Clarendon: Liberty Tavern, which has spawned off respectable successors with Northside Social (replacing the outstanding Murky Coffee) and Lyon Hall, and Eventide, the quirky giant who probably gets most of its revenue from the behemoth Oddbar downstairs. Hold on, you two.

Michael?!

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Baked & Wired, Georgetown

(See the September 7, 2013 Review here.)

Note that Baked & Wired will be opening a second, bread-oriented, location at the Lyric 440K apartment complex in Mount Vernon Triangle in early 2015. This new location sounds more like a boulangerie and a sandwich shop, and I’m not even sure if they’ll offer cupcakes (though I suspect public pressure will almost force them to).

“Baked & Wired To Open Bread Shop in Mt. Vernon Triangle” by Matt Cohen on dcist.com

“Baked & Wired Owners Bringing Artisanal Toast To DC” by Jessica Sidman on washingtoncitypaper.com

My young dining companion and I went to Baked & Wired for breakfast the other day – I didn’t get receipts or take notes, so I have no pricing information to share with you.

I’ve never really liked the bifurcated lines at Baked & Wired, but being an odd space, I suppose the Velazquez’s had to make do with what they were given. Matt headed left towards the cupcakes, and I headed right towards the coffee – our plan was to reconvene on the far side.

I got a Large Americano, and just as the coffee at Baked & Wired always is, it was wonderful. I love the fact that they have a sign up refusing to serve iced espresso (does anyone know why serving iced espresso is considered heresy in the world of coffee? As something of a layman, it just doesn’t make that much sense to me, but I suppose the rapid cooling might affect something chemically).

In the coffee line, there are also wedges of quiche on the bottom shelf, and I got a slice of Ham and Gruyère Quiche, as well as two Ham Jalapeño Biscuits. Oh, and also a slice of Banana Nut Bread with walnuts and chocolate chips (I’ve always loved this combination, but it’s a lethal one for anybody watching calories).

Matt had ordered two German Chocolate Cakecups ($3.65, and yes, they call them cakecups), not realizing the onslaught of baked goods headed his way. We grabbed the sofa at the communal coffee table (no pun intended), just on the other side of the wall, and I sipped my coffee as Matt was in breakfast heaven – although I was there primarily to enjoy my coffee, and only nibbled, the two of us managed to finish everything except for the cupcakes (which we enjoyed later in the day).  Every single item would get my vote as “Best of DC” for its type – the quiche, the biscuits (these biscuits are just tremendous), the banana bread – only the cupcakes (which are *always* the best in the city) were less than perfect, but that’s because we waited about twelve hours to eat them, and they’d become a little dry – for me, that’s a plus because it shows they aren’t using additives to extend shelf life.

I’ve been raving about Baked & Wired for a long time now, and have always thought, and continue to think, that they are superior in every way to Georgetown Cupcake (and I’m certain they’re sick of hearing about Georgetown Cupcake, but the comparisons are as inevitable as those between Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion). Although I don’t know the Velazquez family, I could not be happier that they have become so popular – Baked & Wired used to be a ghost town, and it tore my heart out to think that this superior bakery might fall prey to television and fluff, as so many things in this world do. But people finally caught on, and I suspect the popularity of and spillover from Georgetown Cupcake had more to do with it than meets the eye (and once again, for the record, I like Georgetown Cupcake and was even sticking up for them at one point when others were deriding them (this is before things got crazy)).

Another great thing about Baked & Wired is that they’ve always maintained a good website, with a thorough list of offerings, and pretty much everything you’d want except pricing (which probably fluctuates enough so that it’s a pain for them to keep it current, but it would be nice). There’s no annoying music, no flash pop-ups, and no hard-to-find basic information. In fact, the only thing wrong with their website is that there’s no mention of another website who has been one of their biggest supporters and cheerleaders since day one. I think they should rectify this situation, and then name a baked good after me called the Grumble Crumble.

Baked & Wired is the best cupcake-and-coffee shop in the DC area, and always has been. It is one of Washington, DC’s great culinary treasures, and should be placed upon the highest pedestal.

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Kabob Place, Great Falls

I’ve been driving down Georgetown Pike for twenty years or so, and don’t ever remember Kabob House not being in downtown Great Falls, although it has changed ownership fairly recently. It’s now operated, I believe, by the Ternisky family (if you’ve ever come across a pediatric dentist named Ternisky in Fairfax County, that’s the father). These folks also own Romantica Pizzeria next door, and I suspect they might have taken control of Kabob Palace from the previous owners, who were Persian, due to its proximity.

Kabob Place used to be extremely expensive for what it was – in fact, I believe it might have been the most expensive kabob house in the DC region, even more so than Shamshiry, despite it being a tiny little dive. When I visited this time, the prices didn’t strike me as being particularly high at all, so they were either lowered, or time caught up with them.

What did strike me, however, was the preponderance of Latino cuisine – not on the regular paper menu, but written on sheets of paper, as specials, and taped to the walls. The kitchen workers appeared to be Latino, so I went with the flow – thinking I’d be getting a kabob when I pulled up in the parking lot, I ended up dining south of the border, and I’m glad I did.

They were advertising pupusas, and I asked the gentleman working the register (who had very much of a managerial presence to him) if the owners were Salvadoran. He pointed to the grill cook working the flat-top, who turned to me and smiled, and said, “She’s from El Salvador.” I immediately ordered a Pupusa de Queso ($2.25), and had a Diet Coke (.99) while I waited. For my main course, I ordered Carne Asada ($10.50) and decided to eat in the restaurant rather than get carryout.

The pupusa arrived just before the carne asada, and it was wonderful – I suspect this cook has made many a pupusa in her day, and you should remember this when you come here. The carne asada was (not surprisingly) cooked to well-done, with a good char to it, and served with thoroughly pounded refried beans and rice – the seasoning was all just about perfect, and the only decision to make was “hot sauce or not sauce” – the flavor of this dish was good enough where I didn’t want to taint it with any chili sauce, so I enjoyed it by itself.

Shortly after getting my meal, the gentleman came up to me and told me he’d forgotten my tortillas (I didn’t know I was getting any to begin with), and I told him the pupusa was more than enough for me, and we could let the tortillas go. Taken as an ensemble, the beefy meat and the cheesy pupusa were a delicious combination, and just the right amount of food. I finished my meal, and walked out pleasantly full and very satisfied. There is nothing at all fancy here; just solid Latino grill-work at reasonable prices – Kabob Place is worth knowing about the next time you’re hankering for Latino food in or around Great Falls. I’m sure the kabobs are fine too, and maybe I’ll try them next time … or, maybe not.

Kabob Place offers free delivery in a five-mile radius, and is open Mon-Sat from 10:30-9.

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Foti’s, Culpeper

It had been over two years since I’d been to Foti’s, and on a Sunday afternoon, I felt like going for a drive – Foti’s opened at 5:30, and I timed it so I’d get there right when they opened. It was me, and one other four top in the restaurant.

With ample parking available outside (being Sunday at 5:30), I pulled up right in front, marveled once again at how lovely Culpeper is, remembered taking the photo of Janal Leather, walked up to the restaurant, and noticed the daily specials on the A-frame sign outside – one of them was lamb. ‘Hmm, local lamb,’ I thought to myself.

I took a table for two along the wall near the bar, having the entire restaurant to myself to survey, and my Alice Munro to keep me company if I got lonely. Here’s a good lesson for those of us coming from the DC area: I wanted an aperitif, but didn’t feel like dropping the dollars on Champagne, so I ordered a glass of Prosecco ($8) before looking at the menus. But then once I did look at the menus, specifically the drink menu, I noticed that there were several sparkling wine options that were in this price range – how many restaurants in DC will serve you *any* sparkling wine in proper stemware for $8? But then, Foti’s pleasantly surprised me in several different ways on this evening.

Sipping my Prosecco, two things jumped out at me on the menu, especially because I saw that lamb dish on the A-frame (whenever I see something multiple times on the menu, it “means something,” although it’s never entirely clear what (it could be anything from “that’s what their supplier had a lot of,” to “they bought too much and need to sell it”). Either way, they want to sell it, so I’m usually happy to help them.

It occurred to me that I’ve hardly had any peaches this summer, and seeing them in early September at a place like Foti’s jabbed me like a pin. Local Peach and Baby Spinach Salad ($11) tossed in a vanilla vinaigrette with sweet and sour onions, crumbled goat cheese, and toasted almonds garnished with candied orange zest is quite a mouthful, but I saw three things only: fresh peaches, fresh spinach, and goat cheese; the rest I could work with or around. And sure enough, it was a great late-summer salad with farmers market-quality produce, the only extraneous ingredient for me being the slivers of almonds, but those are easy to deal with (and they did lend a texture). This gave me flashbacks to the brilliant grilled peaches with vanilla syrup I had late last summer at Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore, although that dish was one of the singularly great peach preparations I’ve ever eaten.

This took me through my glass of Prosecco and into a Les Roucas Sauvignon Blanc ($7) from Minervois. Where are you going to find full pours of wines such as this anymore for $7 at non happy-hour prices? Foti’s wines by the glass list is one of the best in the area at this point, mainly because DC-area restaurants have all raised their prices, post-recession, and for some reason, Foti’s forgot to.

Enter the Grilled Lamb Steak ($23), ordered both because of the A-frame and also because of Chef Maragos’ Greek heritage. Served with oven-roasted potatoes, ouzo-pickled cucumbers, tomato-braised local beans (are you paying attention to all this?), and tzatziki. I was asked how I wanted the lamb cooked, and said “Medium-rare, or however the kitchen likes to prepare it.” Medium-rare it was, and this lamb was just sensational – cut into large, bite-sized strips, and just so perfectly Greek with the potatoes and tzatziki.

These potatoes seemed freshly roasted even though I don’t see how that’s possible – perhaps they were partially cooked, and then finished to order. Regardless, there was none of that brown-around-the-rim mushiness you get at so many restaurants that pre-cook their potatoes (oof, The Prime Rib just popped into my mind). This was pretty much a perfect dish, and even though it wasn’t *that* much food, I just wasn’t all that hungry, so got it wrapped to go. By the time I hit the Washington beltway, however, the dish was entirely gone, thanks to Foti’s wonderful breads – rarely has there been a better road treat than the second half of this lamb course.

I asked my server if this was locally raised lamb, and he stuttered a bit. “Perhaps it’s Australian,” I said, trying to help him out a bit. “Yes, the owner actually just made a special dinner for some Australian friends of the house, and he bought a lot of lamb,” he said. I don’t know why, exactly, I thought this was either local, or from very far away, but it had a “somewhereness” to it that screamed a sense of place.

If you look at Foti’s menu online, you’ll see that I ordered two of the most expensive items. This restaurant is downright cheap considering its quality, and as the rising tide of economic recovery has pushed DC-area restaurants into bolder and bolder pricing, Foti’s has remained quietly back in the previous decade. You should go there now, for an early Sunday dinner – the chef was there, the restaurant was empty, the meal was a bargain, the food was fantastic, and it’s hard to believe that I’ve been coming to this restaurant now for over eight years. It almost feels like an old friend, an old friend I hadn’t seen in far too long.

It’s no secret that I feel Foti’s went through a (very) rough patch, but after this meal, that seems like a distant memory.

Foti’s rests strongly in Italics in the Dining Guide.

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Penn Station East Coast Subs, Reston

I stopped into the Reston Penn Station East Coast Subs, a franchising operation that was founded in 1985 in Ohio, and now has at least 275 “units” nationwide.

Today, area franchises are in Fairfax (convergence of 236, 29, and 50), Reston (Plaza America Shopping Center with Whole Foods), Haymarket (Haymarket Village Center with Wal-Mart), and Richmond (W. Broad Street with Sam’s Club). They certainly aren’t shy about cuddling up next to the big boxes.

The moment I walked in, I knew I was in Sysco City – when you’re halfway down the line, you’re faced with a wall consisting of industrial-sized, gallon plastic tubs of items like Heinz, Hellman’s, etc. These are proudly displayed as *decoration* – I guess they’re trying to impress the consumer with their commitment to quality, but this consumer was, at best, repelled knowing the mediocrity I was about to dine on.

Penn Station offers their subs in 6″, 8″, 10″, and 12″ cuts, and I opted for a 10″ Steak and Cheese with a Large Diet Pepsi. Although I don’t remember the individual prices, and discarded my receipt, the total with tax (and maybe tip; I can’t remember if I threw in cash) came to $11.80. It was more than enough food, and I should have gotten something smaller for lunch.

The defaults with the Steak and Cheese were thin strips of steak, cooked to well-done, and provolone; options were sautéed onions (yes, and there were many), fresh mushrooms, (yes), banana peppers (yes, too many), spicy-brown mustard (no), mayo (no), and pizza sauce (yes, and it was Dei Fratelli which came from one of those industrial plastic jugs).

I’m always happy when I stumble across a diamond in the rough; it was not to be on this day. That this franchise currently has 275 units says more about America than it does Penn Station East Coast Subs. One and done.

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