September 21, 2017
Over the past few years, chef and butcher Nathan Anda has established his presence on the Washington, D.C. restaurant scene in a big way. Less than five years ago, he was carving his meats in a small backroom at Arlington’s modern American restaurant, Tallula. Today, he runs a small food empire. His stylish gastropub EatBar has been gaining increasingly more buzz, but it’s Anda’s butchery, Red Apron, that serves as the empire’s bedrock.
Red Apron’s three locations (Union Market, Penn Quarter and Fairfax) all have their own vibes. There are some differences between the menus also — the Penn Quarter outpost offers the most variety and is the only one that serves all-day breakfast sandwiches, for example — but all three have in common a menu centered on meat. In health-conscious and increasingly vegetarian D.C., it takes guts for a chef to focus so unabashedly on serving meat. Anda was always aware of the potential risk factor, but based on the steady popularity of Red Apron, business doesn’t seem to have suffered. “The meat industry got a bad rap for a while — deservingly so — but now there are farms and farmers out there with morals. They are raising animals from start to finish on good diets without hormones and antibiotics,” says Anda. “I even have customers that don’t eat meat, but buy the products for their friends!”
Certain items are staples at all three restaurants. The Porkstrami sandwich ($10), whose main ingredient is pastrami style pork brined and seasoned with black pepper, coriander and other spices. After fourteen days of brining and eight hours of smoking, the pile of savory meat is topped with pork au jus, bacon, mustard aioli and bacon-braised sauerkraut. Thick baguettes are perfect for wiping up the saucy pork run-off.
On the marginally lighter side is the Yogurt Marinated Chicken sandwich ($10), featuring an incredibly juicy and flavorful chicken breast topped with whipped feta and Harissa mayonnaise. It’s what a Wendy’s chicken sandwich can only dream of becoming when it grows up. The Italian ($11), which features four different types of house-made cold cuts straight from the butchery, is another excellent take on what is so often a pedestrian sandwich. Burgers like the Chorizo Burger ($10) and the Red Apron Original ($10.50) are juicy and satisfying without being unwieldy. A savory plate of fries ($4.25), fried in (what else?) beef fat, and sprinkled with garlic and rosemary, makes a fine complement to a main course.
The sandwiches alone make Red Apron a fine lunch destination, but what sets it apart is its butchery. On any given day, patrons can find a staggering number of meats behind the glass, including, but not limited, to Merguez sausage, duck rillettes and Wild Boar pate. Anda, who won a 2014 RAMMY Award for regional food and beverage producer of the year, is widely known as a Master of Meat. He has held demonstrations open to the public in which he carves a whole pig while explaining to an audience all of its delicious possibilities.
It’s a testament to his quality as a chef and restaurateur that Anda has earned the endorsement of Baltimore’s highly regarded chef Spike Gjerde (Woodbury Kitchen, Parts & Labor). When it comes to the question of whether or not good and ethical butchery still matters, Gjerde says, “Nate’s come up with probably the most interesting answer yet.”
If there is any remaining doubt that Washingtonians love their meat, witness the long lines in front of Red Apron at Union Market. It’s one of the most consistently popular counters in a hall full of outstanding eats. Also worth nothing, Anda and company know that nothing compliments a good meaty sandwich like a pint of craft beer. A stellar roster of local Virginia brews is always on tap. The age of vegetarianism may still be upon us, but rest assured, as long as a place like Red Apron is open, carnivores won’t be going anywhere for a while.