June 5, 2016
Nothing says “Old School Tradition” like an authentic New York Deli – except maybe a Italian Trattoria, with red checkered tablecloths. While the trattoria routinely gets the modern update (witness trendy spots like Fiola or Bibiana), it seems the Deli is a relic from an earlier time — a time when people were slightly less conscious of their cholesterol and gluten intake. Dupont Circle’s DGS Delicatessen is something of an anomaly. Billing itself as a “next generation delicatessen,” it attempts to add a bit of style and pizzazz to a time-honored genre. By comparison, Chutzpah in Fairfax, Virginia, (which labels itself a “REAL New York Deli”) relishes its own square-ness, which is doubtless the way some deli enthusiasts like it. Washingtonians are now free to decide whether their taste for delis leans more toward the conservative or the progressive side of the spectrum – and fortunately for them, the research required to properly make this decision may involve ingesting copious amounts of corned beef.
In many ways, DGS looks like another fashionable urban bistro. Its narrow two-story space and walls of exposed brick make it an ideal environment for brunching twenty-somethings. (And this block, which is also home to popular dives like Lucky Bar and The Big Hunt, is prime brunching territory.) Snappily dressed waiters, as well as chefs working efficiently behind a counter near the entrance, give the place a cosmopolitan, Manhattan feel – but the vibe is more Upper West Side than Lower East. Still DGS insists on staying true to its roots. The name is — according to its website — “a nod to the mom-and-pop District grocery stores that lined street corners in DC at the turn of the twentieth century.”
Management, led by cousins Nick and David Wiseman, are well aware that these old stores were often judged by the quality of their cured meat and their pickles, and in deference to this tradition, they insist that all curing, brining, smoking and pickling be done in-house. The result is richly-flavored corned beef and pastrami, piled between slices of Jewish rye bread. The stacks aren’t quite as high as they are at some traditional delis, whose sandwiches sometimes appear to have been constructed for giants, but in this case, less is more.
While cured meats are the main event here, DGS doesn’t skimp on its sides. Coleslaw and cucumber salad, both pickled in a trademark house-made brine, are appealingly fresh. It’s no exaggeration to say that the Montreal style bagels — made by native Washingtonian chef Brian Robinson — are already some of the best in the District. A roster of original cocktails, created by beverage director Brian Zipin, represents a bit of a break from traditional deli offerings. But to be sure, you won’t hear many complaints, not even from the staunchest of purists.
An obscure strip mall in Northern Virginia is home to a deli that might feel a little more familiar to your grandparents. Chutzpah is so named because, as its website puts it, “to be a real New York deli outside of New York…takes Chutzpah!” (To the uninitiated – read Gentiles – that means “guts” or “nerve.” And it’s pronounced with a guttural “ch,” as in “challah” and not as in “chair.”) Meat may not be smoked in-house, but in true deli tradition, portions of just about everything are massive. The colorfully named sandwiches – including the “Fuggedaboutit,” an unwieldy pile of corned beef, pastrami, chopped liver, Swiss cheese and coleslaw – tend to be sloppy, but delicious affairs.
Chutzpah may not be a kosher deli in the strict sense, but it respects the unwritten rules of deli etiquette. In fact, the main rule, which is already obvious to anyone who knows their delis, is helpfully printed on the menu: “Don’t ask for mayo on corned beef, pastrami or brisket. (C’mon, do we really need to explain it?)” Chutzpah is decidedly unhip, but that’s not important. In terms of both cuisine and attitude, it’s hard to find any closer approximation to the Carnegie Deli around these parts.