It’s not even noon, and customers are already descending the steps into the subterranean solace of Bub and Pop’s. Some are alone and harried, eager to return to their cubicles with a fully loaded sandwich, likely the only comfort in an otherwise grinding day. Others arrive in pairs or packs of four, looking to score a table inside this tiny, strikingly colorful space on M Street NW.
All of them, I suspect, are attracted by the nurturing, no-nonsense quality of the place. At once personable and professional, Bub and Pop’s is the genuine articulation of a concept that so many cafes and so-called “casual” restaurants try to create via cold calculation: an eatery that offers high-quality, scratch cooking in a setting that feels unaffected, perhaps even homey. Often, I just want to take a lazy, Sunday-afternoon nap after eating here, full and content as a lap dog.
Your introduction to Bub and Pop’s can be rough if you stumble onto the place during prime lunch hours. The line backs up fast, forcing you to hover over customers already seated at a table in the middle of the cramped dining room. The ice/water machine and condiments are on the opposite side of the same table, which creates traffic jams in two lanes. A kitchen runner will regularly attempt to navigate through this congestion to deliver a sandwich. It’s Metro Center at rush hour, in miniature.
All will be well, however, when you reach the counter. There, you’ll meet Arlene Wagner, co-owner, order-taker and the official anti-depressant of Bub and Pop’s. She greets everyone as if they’ve just returned from war. She says thank you for every tip, no matter how miserly it is.
She, her husband and her son, Jonathan Taub, opened this sandwich shop last year and dubbed it Bub and Pop’s in honor of Wagner’s parents, who once ran a grocery and deli in West Philadelphia. A formally trained chef, Taub has higher goals than slinging subs. His resume, dotted with stints at Alain Ducasse’s now-shuttered Adour and Art Smith’s Art and Soul, hints at his ambitions. But like any Philly native, Taub loves cheesesteaks, Italian hoagies and roast pork sandwiches as if they were blood relatives.
After a day in the kitchen, “I don’t want to eat sweetbreads,” Taub says. “I want a cheesesteak.”
For now, the chef is channeling his drive into Bub and Pop’s, a classical painter biding his time with poster art. Taub braises his own briskets, roasts his own porchetta, forms his own meatballs, whips up his own mayonnaise, fries his own addictive chips (complete with custom-made French onion dip, which I would lick off the sidewalk if necessary), pickles his own vegetables (the terrific kiwi with Napa cabbage faces East for inspiration) and bakes his own desserts. For bread, he worked with Lyon Bakery to develop a roll that delivers more flavor than your standard squishy Philly loaf.
Taub’s lone weakness may be his generosity, a lavish impulse no doubt derived from his central approach to life: “I love to eat,” the chef told me repeatedly during an interview. His lusty appetite might explain why he packs his sandwiches so densely (available in half or full-roll portions), which can create minor, but noticeable, issues. Example 1: The Real Obama, his take on Chicago Italian beef, boasted such a thick tangle of meat that it dominated the giardiniera and aged provolone. Example 2: The heavy application of mayo-based “special” sauce in his cheesesteak caused the roll to disintegrate.
I should note: I still wolfed down that perfectly seasoned cheesesteak as if a pack of hungry Eagles fans was closing in.
This was a recurring theme: I found tiny defects, but none that diminished my enjoyment of any one sandwich. I would have bowed before Pop’s beef brisket, topped with translucent chips of aged Gouda, if the apple-horseradish cream had been spread evenly, allowing a more fully integrated bite. The Bolognese-parmesan grinder, an ambitious meatball/pork belly/brisket amalgam pulled together with a tomato ragu, was a 10-napkin mountain of meaty pleasure, save for a jiggly piece of belly that was, approximately, 99 percent fat. The roast pork, stuffed with that house-made porchetta, exploded with flavor — and salt.
Unequivocal hits were unearthed on the extreme ends of the spectrum. The Bulgarian-feta sandwich layers vegetables of varying preparation (caramelized onions, grilled zucchini and fennel, roasted tomatoes, eggplant-garlic confit puree) with two cheeses, to delirious effect. The meat-centric Bub’s Italian hoagie perhaps took liberties with the classic Philly preparation, including a final, furious shaving of pecorino Romano, which looked like a fright wig of cheese. But I could not care less as I devoured the thing and considered a second.
I might have even heaped praise on the lopsided Obama sandwich had it been dipped in jus, a standard option in the Second City. Taub later told me dipping is available to those who ask. So several days later, I sampled the Real Obama again, this time soaked in veal jus. The liquid tamed that overbearing block of beef and taught it to respect its partners. The other ingredients suddenly had room to express themselves, and they were operatic in their low-rumbling and high-coloratura notes.
Once finished, I noticed the tabletop was drenched in jus, which I promptly mopped up with napkins. You might have every right to leave a mess at a restaurant, but within the homespun confines of Bob and Pop’s, such behavior only proves one thing: You need to learn some manners from Arlene Wagner.