I just finished reading The United States of Arugula by David Kamp, an absorbing, breezy history of recent American cuisine. It's the story of how America went from a nation feeding on overcooked vegetables and can-of-soup casseroles in the 1950s to the land we know today, with readily available goat cheeses, many varieties of salad greens, and artisanal breads.
While the high water mark of this sort of cuisine is found at restaurants like L'Etoile and Harvest, where an employee specially designated as a forager finds the freshest in local ingredients, the trend for selling foodstuffs that at least sound gourmet has filtered down even to the deli case at your local gas station.
Yes, I'm back dining at the gas station.
This time, it's the new PDQ on Third Street at Pennsylvania Avenue, near Demetral Field. While most area PDQs boast a bakery case, this new outlet has close to a full-fledged deli, with rotisserie chickens, a case of premade sandwiches, potato and pasta salads, pizza slices, some kind of taquito, and yes, the requisite wieners on rollers. (The store also has a spacious walk-in beer cooler whose doors automatically roll open as customers stroll past it. Most inviting.)
The gourmet touches come with some of the sandwiches, where in addition to such straightforward items as "roast beef sub on white" you'll find "chicken salad croissant" and "maple peppered focaccia sandwich." The good news is, these sandwiches aren't half bad.
Would you be better off going to Mildred's? I think so.
But aside from the bread, the sandwiches were pretty decent. The roast beef sub ($3.50) with provolone stood up to those from Madison's popular sub chains. The major downfall was the sub bun, which tasted like cottony mass-produced bread. The chicken salad in the croissant ($3.50) held generous chunks of white meat chicken, lots of mayo, and some onion seasoning. The croissant was again undistinguished, concocted to be a little sweeter than the sub bun, but similar in texture, or, texturelessness.
The maple peppered focaccia sandwich ($4) features ham and cheddar, chipotle mayo and a maple-peppered bacon on a supposed tomato herb focaccia roll. Again, the downfall was the bread, which, despite the brush of tomato-coloring across the top, tasted as spongy and, well, whitish, as the undistinguished sub bun. It certainly bore no resemblance to focaccia.
The pasta salad, made with bow tie pasta, was pleasant, not mushy, but was just the pasta with Italian dressing -- no vegetables or olives or anything to spice up the product.
The Third Street PDQ is certainly a convenient stop for residents of the Emerson East and Eken Park neighborhoods, and anyone commuting to points north. And it sure was handy to pick up a rotisserie chicken there on the way home last night ($5, with a six-pack of dinner rolls, which tasted somewhat better than the sandwich breads). The chicken was as good if not a little better than similar birds on sale at supermarkets, with a heavy coating of black pepper sprinkled on the skin -- skin that was more edible (if you're a skin lover) than many of the "lemon pepper" or "mesquite"-flavored chickens found on the rotisserie skewer.
The bakery case cookies with white chocolate and macadamia nuts make a nice dessert.
In short, if PDQ invested in better breads, they might have a real thing going here.