November 10, 2017

Launch Test Kitchen v. 2.0

It's Friday, the Wizards won last night and I'm writing about food. How bad can things be. Don't answer that if you are a Wizards fan.

In March of 2015, I made my first pitch for the Washington Wizards to engage a real chef and get him or her to open a food stand in then Verizon Center. The intent of my plea was so folks like me could spend some bucks on some food that actually tastes more interesting than the typical stadium fare that is hot dogs, popcorn, pretzels and the like.
Last year, I got my wish, a rotating pop-up food stand operated by Wizards season ticket holder and chef extraordinaire José Andrés under Aramark's Launch Test Kitchen program. In an unexpected twist, we actually got four different Andrés storefronts throughout the season: about two months each of Beefsteak, Pepe and Oyamel before they mashed them into a Frankenstein-like combination of all three featuring what I assume were the most popular dishes from all three spots.

New season. New building name. New chef. New joint. Head over to the east side of the lower concourse at 601 F Street and you'll find a spot called Lucky Buns, a reduced version of chef Alex McCoy's full menu restaurant over in Adams Morgan. Alex has opened a number of pop-up experiments and full restaurants in D.C. recently (including the still active Alfie's) which would seem to match well if the Test Kitchen format from last year (i.e. multiple menus smashed into one at the end) is followed. I mean he already has a few menus developed with different sorts of foods, right? So switching things out will be easy, right?

Maybe a little context before we get to my thoughts on the switch. Alex McCoy for sure is not the household name in Washington that José Andrés is. If you are a Food Network fan, you'll maybe recognize Alex as one of the former contestants on their Next Food Network Star show, the show that seems to offer future stardom to ordinary folks but which lately has produced few stars and little entertainment over and above the contest itself. I'm not trashing it; I love the show and watch it religiously. It's just that some of the winners are never heard from again after they win.

A line is a good sign. We need to make sure places like this succeed.
So what's with Lucky Buns? Well to me any time the word buns is used in a restaurant context I think steamed buns from the east side of Asia. I'm wrong. Sort of. There's some Asian influence in some of the dishes, most notably in the chicken "bun" but there's stuff from many other parts of the world going on. I use bun in quotation marks there because while the sandwich (and the two burgers on menu) is presented on a hamburger bun, you usually don't call sandwiches on hamburger buns just "bun"s. Too much nit-picking here I'm sure.
It's a sandwich place. Two burgers. One chicken sandwich. All come with fries (which McCoy calls chips to introduce yet another different influence into the whole deal). There are also two separate fries dishes with different sauces.
Last year I tried sampling all of the dishes at the stands Jose Andres opened but failed, mostly because they swapped out before I got through each whole seven or eight dish menu. This year, I'm better situated with just five dishes and I made it even simpler than that. Let's get to the food.

The Burgers (Lucky Bun / Alfie's Bun)
There are two burgers on the Lucky Buns menu: one with an amazing array of toppings (gouda, lucky sauce, onion, pickles and arugula) and one with even more toppings (the Alfie's Bun is the same as the Lucky Bun but with pineapple, pickled beet and an egg). For the purposes of this post, I've only tried the Lucky Bun for two reasons: (1) I hate beets and (2) I couldn't taste the beef in the Lucky Bun so I pretty much can guarantee I won't be able to taste it with more stuff on it.
So therein lies comment number one: I can't taste the beef in the burger. Burgers are inherently unhealthy. If I'm going to eat a ground beef patty, I better be able to taste that beef grease as I take bite after bite of the thing. I couldn't. I got maybe a little of the caramelization of the meat from the flattop in one mouthful but I think the amount of stuff on the sandwich (mostly the lucky sauce, arugula and onion) obscured the taste of the beef. You can see in the photograph how the burger to other stuff ratio is on this sandwich. It was cooked to the right done-ness there just wasn't enough of it.

One other note: the chips were cold. Well, not cold exactly but somewhere between warm and cold. Maybe room temperature. We'll come back to that one.

The Chicken (Hot Chicken Bun)
This is a good sandwich. I mean pretty darned excellent in fact. I love the spicy heat; I love the textures from the pickles and onion; and I love the sauces which look messy when the sandwich is handed to you but don't overwhelm the chicken. I'd eat this thing again. And I probably will sometime between now and when Lucky Buns gets swapped out for a different menu. It is a messy sandwich so I'm not sure eating it at your seat is going to work super well (I downed mine at the Budweiser Lounge on the Club level) but I was satisfied with what I bought here. I like food with a ton of flavor and this dish has it in spades. Good job on this one.

My Hot Chicken Bun cost me $15. As did the burger for that matter (both burgers cost $15; I guess the pineapple, egg and beets are free?). That's a lot to pay for food at a sporting arena. The price point is my comment number two. One of the great things about last year's Test Kitchen launch is that José Andrés set his prices at a pretty reasonable level. Two of my favorite dishes last season were a beefsteak tomato burger which sold for $6.50 and the ham and cheese quesadilla which went for a mere $8. At those prices, I ate lots of food from this stand last year. At $15 per sandwich, I'm not sure I'm so inclined to eat them so often. I'd put the right price point at about $12 but that's just me. Yes, I'm angling for a discount here.

The Fries (Proper Chips / Curry Fries)
After complaining about cold(ish) fries under both the Burgers and Chicken part of this post, I'm sure you are wondering why I decided to order more fries from Lucky Buns. Well, I have to give these things a chance. With two strikes, you are not out. I had to give the place the benefit of the third strike if they were willing to swing. And in a surprise, they hit a home run.

They were hot, plentiful (like I'm thinking about two potatoes worth or something) and well cooked but just pre-crispy which I think is about perfect. Plus the malt vinegar aioli (which comes with the Proper Chips) is a big hit with me. Vinegar is my anti-beets. Give me all the vinegar I can stand please. I was actually asked when I picked up these fries if I wanted the aioli. Do people actually pass on this stuff? My first order was sprayed with sauce on half of the fries. I'm going to see if I can get it on both halves next time. And I think there's going to be a next time.

So why the hot fries this time vs. cold(ish) fries with my sandwiches? Well, I'm thinking that is has to do with timing. When I ordered my burger and chicken sandwich, I was pretty much the first one in line after Capital One Center opened which leads me to believe I got some non-fresh fries that had been sitting for a while. Comment three for Mr. McCoy: don't let Aramark do this to you. Insist on fresh fries. When done right they are awesome. When they sit...not so much. I still need to get to the Curry Fries. Maybe sometime next week?
If it seems that I'm complaining about the food at Lucky Buns, I'm really not. I love that this kind of cuisine has made its way to 601 F Street this year and last and I'll do everything I can (meaning eat it frequently) to make sure that this idea survives. Until this place gets swapped out for another concept, I'll continue to dine on the Hot Chicken Bun and Proper Chips. I just won't get them right after the doors at Capital One Arena open. Once it's gone, I'll tackle the new menu although I'm not likely to blog about the next iteration.

Go eat food here, Wizards fans. Make your own mind up about everything they have to offer up and embrace this idea. We've come a long way from Papa John's and hot dogs. Let's keep going. Hawks up next tomorrow. We'll see if the Wizards are out of this funk or not tomorrow.

From Lucky Buns' website. It's CapitAl not CapitOl.

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