America Eats Tavern is the latest project of superstar chef/humanitarian Jose Andres. I’m a Jose Andres fan. I went to his first DC place, an excellent Spanish tapas place called Jaleo, fairly often, in part because I knew two different Department of Justice attorneys who also were flamenco dancers, and who danced there from time to time. I remember telling Nancy that, “So and so dances at a tapas place,” and Nancy said, “She dances at a topless place?” “No, tapas.” Whew! At any rate I have — or had — a speaking acquaintance with Jose Andres, and am very positively disposed toward him and his restaurants: I just had a good lunch at Zaytinia, one of the Andres group. With America Eats Tavern, Jose Andres has now taken on the world’s greatest cuisine, barbecue, in what may be the worst possible environment — Washington, DC.
Nancy and I were just back from our North Carolina gourmet extravaganza (see the previous five posts) when we went to try America Eats Tavern with our Senior Paris Correspondents, Ross Eisenbrey and Barbara Somson, and Kathy Paterson, our Senior Northern California/Alaska/Martha’s Vineyard Correspondent.
The menu, it turns out, has a lot of American history. You can get Ben Franklin’s Clarified Punch from his 1763 recipe (around the time of his gerrymander of the Pennsylvania colonial legislative districts), Mary Randolph’s gazpacho (from a 1926 cookbook), a burger from a 1926 Delmonico’s recipe, and a $10 hot dog from 1867 Coney Island. And all ingredients are from the United States, and many, including the cherry wood for the barbecue, are locally sourced. You can get a wine from Texas (don’t) or a Gruner Veltliner from the Lehigh Valley, or wines from more familiar locations. But we were there for barbecue.
The first thing you notice when you walk into America Eats is that it is really loud. Having clearly left Youth in the dust some years back, we were shown a table on the ground floor, which is the quieter floor, where it was really loud. Barbara looked around and noted in awe that America Eats has every single structural and architectural feature that might increase the noise level, which was an exaggeration, since they do not have a Jumbotron. The upstairs seemed to be filled with people who were shouting and shrieking. They sounded like they were having a wonderful time.
The noise problem was exacerbated by the fact that our table was unusually wide, at least four feet across. As we shouted across the table, our lovely and charming waitress came by and spoke to us. We all smiled and nodded, and when she left we yelled “What did she say?” to each other. With continuing assistance from our waitress, we were eventually able to sort out among ourselves what we wanted to eat, and actually to communicate that information orally.
We ordered one of each of the four wood-cooked meats — a half pound each of pork and brisket, a half rack of ribs, and a half smoked chicken with cole slaw. The barbecued meats at America Eats come with rye bread and the dread house-made pickles. We asked that the meats be served family style so that we all could share and sample.
For sides, we ordered fried okra with smoked yogurt (which is not breaded, but is not gluten-free because it’s fried with everything else); Brussels sprouts with dried cranberries, smoked pecans and ‘Chup’s cherry catsup, which may or may not have had gluten; cheese grits (gluten free) with an aged Wisconsin cheddar; grilled asparagus with a fresh herb sauce, lemon and anise; heirloom tomatoes (which came peeled!) with watercress and a sherry dressing; and an extra order of cole slaw.
The food — all nine dishes — came in a rush, and, especially with the size of the table, I didn’t get any pictures of untouched serving platters. You can go to Yelp or Trip Advisor for pictures.
The ribs were good — as good as those at the Federalist Pig, which had won the coveted but at best equivocal Best Barbecue in DC award from this Blog. And America Eats gives you an honest half rack. The ribs were a little soft — but not mushy — after 19 hours of cooking, but they came with rib tips which were very good, much better than those at the Federalist Pig.
The pork was typical Washington, DC, pork barbecue, dry and tasteless. The house barbecue sauce (which comes warmed up, which Nancy liked a lot) is surprisingly bland. The best word for it is inoffensive. The way America Eats tarts up its sides and other dishes, that was surprising. It was far from what I would have expected, especially coming from Jose Andres.
The brisket included meat from both the “moist” (i.e., fatty) end, and from the lean end. The moist end brisket was very good, rich and flavorful of beef and smoke, but with no large clumps of fat to avoid, such as I find too, too often. It tasted as if it could have come from Texas or Kansas City.
The lean end, however, definitely came from the DC area. It was dry and, at its very best, meh, a far cry from the lean end brisket Jon Breul and I sampled at South Fork, a mere two to five hour drive from DC, depending on traffic. Our waitress, whom we could hear by now, the After-Work Noise and Speed Drinking teams having finished their competition, noted that it came with pickled onions and a green salsa. The green salsa turned out to be pesto, of all things. I dabbed a bit on a bite of the lean brisket, and the flavor was 100 percent pesto, which is what everything tastes like when you put pesto on it. It was an improvement over the brisket flavor.
The chicken was overshadowed by the other meats, but in some ways it was the best prepared meat we ordered. It was juicy and had good flavor throughout, and the barbecue sauce glaze on the skin was applied with a light hand. Even the breast was juicy. It came with a creamy cole slaw, which was a little too creamy.
The cheese grits were very good, good quality grits cooked al dente with a good quality cheddar. The okra also was good, the spears served whole, but the smoked yogurt didn’t really do anything to help them. I longed for the sauce at the Heirloom Market. The heirloom tomatoes were good, and I liked the watercress with which it had been tossed. The asparagus spears were very thin and cooked properly. The fresh herb sauce, lemon and anise, however, had turned into pesto. I have scoured the America Eats menu, which includes all sorts of foods, but there is no mention of pesto on the menu and I have yet to find anything that really goes with pesto. Where did it come from? At any rate, the asparagus tasted like pesto. And the rye bread was good.
Oh — the house-made pickles were pickled baby carrots, beets, long beans and the like. They didn’t have much flavor, but then it takes a lot of time to pickle a carrot. I sometimes have sliced carrots very thin, about 1/16th of an inch or less, and have left them in a jar of jalapeño peppers (which probably is an invitation to salmonella), and it takes forever for them to pick up flavor. For pork and brisket, you just can’t do better than the vinegar bite of standard hamburger dill chips.
America Eats was a decided mixed bag, with both hits and misses, not to mention the Great Pesto Mystery. At about $50 per person, with tip, it was a bit more expensive than the truly outstanding pork barbecue at Bum’s Restaurant for $9.00, and nowhere, nowhere near the same league. But that’s Washington for you. (Actually, I would pay $50 for a meal at Bum’s in a heartbeat, but don’t tell him that.)
I’ve heard that the crab cakes are very good, and I trust that other, non-barbecue dishes are excellent; and that they will be pesto-free. If you can stand the noise, give it a try. Give it a try at lunch. It has to be quieter. And see if they’ll give you brisket from the moist end only.