The last time I visited the guys behind Cracked Eggery, they were packed in their truck, near the corner of 14th and U streets NW, next to Trader Joe’s. The pandemic was in its early days, and indoor dining was prohibited. We were wiping down our groceries, keeping our distance from strangers and trying like crazy not to touch our faces. Anything to flatten the curve.
Mike Tabb, AJ Zarinsky and Ross Brickelmaier had launched their mobile venture on Dec. 31, 2019, after first selling sandwiches at the Cleveland Park farmers market. Weeks later, when the novel coronavirus altered life as we know it, they must have felt as if they had been hit by a truck themselves and left for dead. But like their counterparts in the bricks-and-mortar world, the guys improvised like mad. They ditched their parking spots downtown, near now-empty office buildings, and moved their truck to where the people were: in neighborhoods, next to grocery stores, any place people still roamed, hungry for more than what they had in their pantries.
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The trio discovered they could regularly change the address on their DoorDash account, allowing drivers to pick up orders at the 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 dish, could enter their vehicle. They knew if one of them got sick, they all would get sick, and they couldn’t afford to shut down the business for two weeks to isolate.
Two years later, the Cracked Eggery truck is mothballed, awaiting a new generator and a manager to run it. Tabb, Zarinsky and Brickelmaier are no longer on the road, isolated in a tin can with a hot griddle. They have taken on a fourth partner, Donald Patterson, and invested their hard-earned pandemic revenue into something more immovable: not one, but two bricks-and-mortar locations of Cracked Eggery, one in Cleveland Park and the other in Shaw. Neither neighborhood is exactly friendly to those with cars, which is kind of ironic for a group of guys who started a food truck, whose very livelihood depends on a good parking spot.
Once you find a parking spot and wander inside the restaurants, you’ll discover they are playful spaces, heavy on bacon and egg imagery, rendered in neon or cartoonlike illustrations, courtesy of Tabb’s wife, Kara, a graphic designer. The Shaw location is next level. Designed by //3877, the space looks like an art deco subway station as reimagined in an episode of “Miami Vice.” I mean that in the best possible way.
Cracked Eggery, as the name suggests, is devoted to those fragile hen ovals, which has created some confusion throughout the life span of the young company. The owners, and the journalists they talk to, inevitably feel the need to explain that Cracked Eggery is not a breakfast shop, though you can certainly treat it that way. I mean, if you can find a better breakfast sandwich than the Mayor — a scramble of eggs pressed inside a toasted challah bun with two cheeses, a garlic-infused sauce and strips of bacon that glisten with the lightest, sweetest glaze — then I dare you to present it to my front door. Right now.
That’s the thing about the egg: It’s been stereotyped as a breakfast ingredient, even if we still enjoy one scrambled into our fried rice or floating in our bowls of shoyu ramen, slowly releasing viscous streams of yolk into the broth. The guys behind Cracked Eggery, whether consciously or not, are attempting to release the egg from its early morning prison. They’re treating it more like bacon, an ingredient that knows no boundaries. An army of eaters still insists that bacon makes everything better, an opinion that holds up only if you want everything to taste like bacon.
One of the luxuries, if that’s the right word, of a restaurant is that it assigns more space to cooking than your basic food truck, especially the compact marvels that roam our streets. The cooks at both Cracked locations have ample real estate to fry or scramble your eggs before tucking them into a dozen or so sandwiches that have been developed under the watch of Zarinsky, a former general manager who’s been drafted to serve as the culinary head of Cracked Eggery, even if I get the sense he’s not exactly comfortable with the word “chef.”
In some ways, Zarinsky’s reluctant chef role serves him well. He doesn’t seem bound by convention. Take the Hamilton Porter, a sandwich that probably borders on heresy in some parts of the Carolinas. It takes pulled pork, slathers 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 10-car pileup on a strip of blacktop outside Spartanburg, S.C., and I couldn’t keep my hands off it.
Likewise, the Bubby is a riff on the deli classic, in which Cracked’s signature challah bun replaces the bagel as a delivery system for smoked salmon, cream cheese, red onions, caper tapenade and, of course, a fried egg. The flavors align, but the texture is off. The sandwich is as soft as mashed potatoes, and this is why eggs will never totally replace bacon as a garnish: A sunny-side-up egg can add an element of chin-dripping richness to a sandwich, but it can never provide the resistance that, for some reason, the human palate craves. A similar squishiness besets other (and otherwise fine) sandwiches, including the Seussian-named Green Eggs No Ham, in which scrambled eggs are paired with goat cheese, chives and a tomatillo salsa.
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! (The “Princess Bride” joke, by the way, has been used so often that the invisible overlords on my Instagram app suggested I write a different caption when I posted a photo of Inigo.) The only sandwich that doesn’t come with an egg is the Cracked Burger, a twin stack of Pat LaFrieda patties paired with enough toppings that you’d think a fried egg would be gratuitous. You’d be wrong.
A restaurant, I think, is a natural invitation to explore a menu more deeply than you might at a food truck. I don’t know how else to explain why I had never tried Cracked Eggery’s bowls before, but I’m now a serious fan of the Rancheros Cucamonga, which is sort of a tater-tot take on chilaquiles rojos. The tots may get soggy under the generous application of lime crema and ranchero salsa, but you know what? I did not care. I devoured that bowl like 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 in Cleveland Park and 1921 Eighth St. NW in 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: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. 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.