The last time I visited the guys behind Cracked Eggery, they were packed in their truck near the corner of 14th and U street NW, next to Trader Joe’s. The pandemic was in its early days and indoor eating was banned. We wiped our groceries off, kept our distance from strangers, and tried like crazy not to touch our faces. Everything to flatten the basket.
Mike Tabb, AJ Zarinsky and Ross Brickelmaier had launched their mobile venture on December 31, 2019, after first selling sandwiches at the Cleveland Park farmers market. Weeks later, when the new coronavirus changed lives as we know it, they must have felt as if they themselves had been hit by a truck and left for dead. But like their peers in the brick-and-mortar world, the guys improvised like crazy. They dropped their parking spaces in the center, near now empty office buildings, and moved their truck to where people were: In neighborhoods, next to grocery stores, anywhere, where people were still roaming around, hungry for more than they had in their pantry.
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The trio discovered that they could regularly change the address on their DoorDash account so drivers could pick up orders by truck and deliver them to nearby homes. They worked seven days a week, and did something long before the National Basketball Association came up with a similar idea: They created a work bubble. No one and nothing, not a returned right, could get into their vehicle. They knew that if one of them got sick, they would all get sick, and they could not afford to shut down the company for two weeks to isolate themselves.
Two years later, the Cracked Eggery truck is put in the mothballs, waiting for a new generator and a manager to run it. Tabb, Zarinsky and Brickelmaier are no longer on the road, insulated in a can with a hot baking sheet. They have taken over a fourth partner, Donald Patterson, and invested their hard-earned pandemic revenue in something more immovable: not one, but two brick-and-mortar locations in Cracked Eggery, one in Cleveland Park and the other in Shaw. None of the neighborhoods are exactly friendly to those with cars, which is a bit ironic for a group of guys who started a food truck whose livelihood depends on a good parking space.
Once you find a parking space and wander inside the restaurants, you will find that they are playful spaces, heavy on bacon and egg images, rendered in neon or cartoon-like illustrations, thanks to Tabb’s wife, Kara, a graphic designer. The shaw location is the next level. The square is designed by // 3877 and resembles an art deco subway station as rethought in an episode of “Miami Vice”. I mean that in the best possible way.
Cracked Eggery is, as the name suggests, dedicated to the fragile chicken oval, which has created some confusion throughout the young company’s lifetime. The owners, and the journalists they talk to, inevitably feel the need to explain that Cracked Eggery is not a breakfast shop, though one can certainly treat it that way. I mean, if you can find a better breakfast sandwich than the mayor’s – a scrambled egg pressed inside a toasted challah bun with two cheeses, a garlic sauce and strips of bacon glistening with the lightest, sweetest icing – then I dare you to present it to my front door. Right now.
That’s the thing with the egg: It has become stereotypical as a breakfast ingredient, though we still enjoy one encrypted in our fried rice or floating in our bowls with the shoyu ramen slowly releasing viscous egg yolk into the broth. The guys behind Cracked Eggery are trying, whether consciously or not, to release the egg from its jail early in the morning. They treat it more like bacon, an ingredient that knows no bounds. An army of diners still insist that bacon makes everything better, an opinion that only holds if you want everything to taste like bacon.
One of the luxuries, if that’s the right word, of a restaurant is that it allocates more space for cooking than your basic food truck, especially the compact wonders that roam our streets. The chefs at both Cracked locations have plenty of real estate to fry or stir your eggs before putting them in a dozen or so sandwiches developed under the supervision of Zarinsky, a former general manager who has been appointed to function as the culinary leader of Cracked Eggery, though I understand he is not entirely comfortable with the word “chef.”
In some ways, Zarinsky’s reluctant cooking role serves him well. He does not seem bound by the Convention. Take Hamilton Porter, a sandwich that is likely to border on heresy in some parts of the Carolinas. It takes pulled pork, slices the meat with a Kansas City-style barbecue sauce, tops it with slaw and a fried egg, sprinkles it with crispy onions, slips in a few pickle chips and serves the whole shebang on a challah bun. It’s a pileup of 10 cars on a black strip outside Spartanburg, SC, and I could not keep my hands off it.
Likewise, Bubbyen is a riff on the delicacy classic, where Cracked’s characteristic challah bun replaces the bagel as a delivery system for smoked salmon, cream cheese, red onion, caper tapenade and of course a fried egg. The flavors match, but the texture is off. The sandwich is as soft as mashed potatoes, and therefore eggs will never completely replace bacon as a garnish: An egg with the sun side up can add an element of chin-dripping richness to a sandwich, but it can never give the resistance that the human palate for some reason craves after. A similar squishiness characterizes other (and otherwise fine) sandwiches, including the Seussian-named Green Eggs No Ham, where scrambled eggs are paired with goat cheese, chives and a tomatillosalsa.
Many of my favorite sandwiches have survived the transition from truck to storefront. I’m looking at you, Inigo Montoya, a chorizo-and-fried-egg combination. Prepare to die! (Incidentally, the “Princess Bride” joke has been used so often that the invisible overlords on my Instagram app suggested that I write a different caption when I posted a picture of Inigo.) The only sandwich that does not follow with an egg is Cracked Burger, a twin stack by Pat LaFrieda patties paired with enough toppings to make you think a fried egg would be free. You would be wrong.
A restaurant, I think, is a natural invitation to explore a menu deeper than you might be on a food truck. I do not know how else to explain why I had never tried Cracked Eggerys bowls before, but I am now a serious fan of Rancheros Cucamonga, which is a kind of tater-tot version of chilaquiles rojos. The kids may get soft during the generous application of lime cream and ranchero salsa, but you know what? I did not care. I swallowed that bowl as if it was 2019 and we could hug our neighbors, touch our faces and eat as if we had no concept of mortality.
3420 Connecticut Ave. NW of Cleveland Park and 1921 Eighth St. NW and Shaw; crackedeggery.com.
Hours: Cleveland Park location: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Shaw location: 7am to 3pm daily.
Nearest metro: Cleveland Park Location: Cleveland Park, with a short walk to the restaurant. Shaw location: Shaw-Howard University or U Street / African-Amer Civil War Memorial / Cardozo, with a short walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $ 2 to $ 13 for all items on the menu.