There is a restaurant inside a gas station and it sells sandwiches that are really good. I’ve known this for months now. A friend suggested the place last summer, when I was still very new to DC’s food scene. It seemed like a quirky idea but I generally shy away from gimmicks when searching for good food, especially food worth writing about. What I did not know until a few weeks ago is that said gas station is actually the Lowest Price across from the 14th Street Busboys and Poets that I walk by almost every day. I was also unaware of the fact that the place is run by two brothers from Uruguay, sons of a retired diplomat who ended up in D.C. One of them, apparently, is married to an Argentine. The signature dish, the sandwich they are so well known for, is a chivito of all things! Had my friend not left out these crucial bits of intel, I would’ve gone months ago. Hell, I probably would’ve gone on the same day he told me, which is exactly what I did on that night when my (kind-of-)date brought up how delicious a milanesa he had eaten there a while ago was. I stopped chewing my sweetbread po’boy and neglected to swallow before blurting out, “Milanesa?” and with cautious hope adding, “Like Argentine milanesa?” When he responded in the affirmative I insisted we pay our check and go there immediately. He was confused, but charmed by my madness perfectly played off as youthful spontaneity.
So we headed over, bearing with the whole gas station gimmick that was all very close to what I was expecting. We walked through the pumping stations into a little store as if in search of late-night cigarettes or RedBull. What we got instead was a very well manicured pizzeria-lookin’ place with high ceilings, concrete floors, a green and black palette, a TV playing non-FIFA soccer and a chalk-board menu hanging above the counter. The man who takes the orders is a homesick porteño. When I asked him where Argentines in D.C. hang out, he offered no recommendations. I ended up talking to him for quite some time about the owners and the menu and about my recent trip back to Argentina. We also talked about Uruguay and Punta and Maldonado. He bitched about how they’ve raised the prices at Medialunas Calentitas and we weighed the pro’s and con’s of Chivito Rex vs. Mr. Chivito in La Barra. Finally I ordered one to share and sat with my long ignored date. He got some sort of crazy Marley’s Mellow Mood drink out of their bev fridge, which is actually packed with quite a few interesting sodas and juices, no doubt to make up for the lack of an alcohol license.
But let me save that chivito for last, as it was the saving grace of the place and the sandwich that made me trust that the rest of the menu is just as decent. It’s cool too, and varied. Chaotic, even. The two main sections of the menu are “Urban Taste” and “Flair.” The former features popular stuff like roast beef, BBQ chicken, pulled pork sandwiches and a burger, while the latter houses the signature stuff: the milanesas, the napolitana milanesas, the empanadas, the pascualina. There are also some salads and wraps there to be swiftly disregarded. And they do 1/4th, 1/2 and whole rotisserie chickens. Since that night I’ve returned to Fast Gourmet once with a friend I met in Argentina who is just as famished for something from that shared past as I am. The first time I went they had been out of ham and cheese empanadas, which the cashier guy told me was one of their house specialties. I had more luck the second time.
The empanadas at Fast Gourmet are fried. ‘Nuff said. Well, okay, maybe I can spare a bit more. I got the Ham and Cheese to stay true to the Uru-Arg roots of the place. It’s one I never normally got in Argentina, despite it clearly being the most popular choice among locals. I always preferred de pollo, with shredded bits of chicken and a creamy, slightly picante base. H+J always just kind of seemed bland to me. It’s the same story with the filling of the jamón y queso at Fast Gourmet. The little cubes of ham were only very slightly salty and the melted mozzarella was gooey and soft, but did not provide much flavor either. The golden-brown and crunchy fried coating made up for it, though. God bless deep-fryers. But next time I’m getting the carne…
At some point during our Italian-accented Spanish banter on that first night at Fast Gourmet, I asked the guy whether he liked the milanesa or chivito more and he was pretty adamant about the mila. So when I returned with a friend, we split one. A breaded NY strip with hard-boiled egg, green olives, escabeche, lettuce and mayo on fluffy bread. An impossible amount of fries dumped all around it. I wasn’t too impressed with this sandwich, but then again I was never really impressed by milanesas to begin with. The exterior was nice and coarse, like that of a sandy foot after a day on the beach. But while the thinly pounded tenderloin of the chivi (spoiler!) was melt-in-mouth tender, I found the mila’s strip a bit chewy and heavy, especially with the breadcrumbs. Something I have not had on a milanesa sandie before was escabeche. Fast Gourmet adds one made of mushrooms and peppers marinated in red wine vinegar for an added tang. Escabeche is a thing in Argentina but it doesn’t often go in sandwiches. It’s usually reserved for fish, rabbit and guinea fowl. It was nice here, though there almost wasn’t enough mayo to balance it out in flavor or to hydrate the sandwich, which consequently ended up a bit dry. The fresh tomato that added juicy moisture to the chivito was painfully lacking in the milanesa. And while the egg kind of made sense in the chivito because of the saltiness of the ham with which it pairs so well, the hard-boiled slice just seemed a bit lost in the mila, wedged desperately between meat and lettuce.
But that first night at Fast Gourmet I had the kick-ass national sandwich of Uruguay and it was great. And that’s all that matters. It’s a chivito alright. The meat is churrasco (tenderloin) pounded until thin and tender. It’s seasoned lightly with salt and pepper and sports a very feint grill smoke to pair with the taste of beef. There’s also crunchy, smoky bacon along with more delicate and sweet Black Forest ham right underneath. Lettuce provides crunch and tomato hydrates. The escabeche suits this sandwich perfectly; its acidity and the zing from the garlic cut the bacon fat and the saltiness of the ham. The green olives sprinkled around the sandwich do the same. And finally, mayo in ginormous quantities. I’m no stranger to this; in fact, copious amounts of mayo is the basis of pretty much every Argie/Uru sandwich. It, along with the melted mozz, glued the contents of the chivito to the spongy, airy, slightly sweet bread (baked in house!!) and provided a great creamy texture that made swallowing each bite a bit easier. It’s a real chivito and eating it felt like eating a real chivito – the same sensation as sitting in a Coca-Cola chair in a sunny spot of an outdoor restaurant in La Barra. Perhaps the only thing missing was the frosty pint of Patricia. Hopefully the place will get rights to serve that soon.
While writing this article I explored further the menu and decided to order a Bondiola and a Cubano, along with an empanada de humita and one de carne to round out my review before publishing. I learned two very unfortunate facts in the process: 1) They no longer deliver. 2) They no longer make bondiola. Good news is they’re getting a parrilla for the summer, so hopefully they’ll be churning out something like an asado criollo in no time. Hopefully they won’t leave out the morcilla. I’m not sure how they’ll pull it off, given that they are located in a gas station full of highly flammable petroleum. But if they managed to get a fully working kitchen in there, I’m sure it’s not impossible. Either way, I’ll be back.