PEPPERY PASTRAMI The “I Barbarian.”
Mike's, downtown on Congress, bills itself as "home of the rock n roll sandwich." This deli doubles as a shrine to local music — sandwiches are named after local bands, and show posters cover the walls in the back room — and to the idea of rock music in general. Indeed I noticed Ian Svenonius — frontman of the legendary Washington DC bands Nation of Ulysses and Make Up, ordering grilled cheese off-menu. He chatted with a member of the Portland band Batshelter about the challenges of rock and roll life — keeping the group together, paying the rent, day jobs. Seeking to understand this effort to channel a musical subculture through foodstuffs, I chatted up Svenonius and pondered his book of musico-political theory The Psychic Soviet (known to many as "the little pink book") while we ate.
Svenonius was impressed by the craftsmanship of the lettering on the Mike's chalkboard, and by the wall of Pepsi products (since corporate sponsorship, and reciprocal loyalty, is rock's last remaining lifeline). He forewent the back dining room, windowless and screening a rockumentary, to sit in the front window. His book describes rock as a musical catalyst for a post-World War II transition of Americans from "mostly agrarian, pious, and proudly autonomous" to "a nation of sucker marks mesmerized by their next purchase." Mike's sandwiches, though we must purchase them, offer the taste of the wheat-fields that once back-dropped American lives, and in their portability can offer autonomy. In this way they are a throwback to the pre-rock era.
But these sandwiches are also appropriate to modern times. Svenonius describes how the transition to contemporary capitalism "would require a conversion from the Christian doctrine of denial to a new capitalist religion of eating a lot. This religion would be called 'Rock n' Roll.'" Thanks to its many big sandwiches piled with meat, Mike's is a suitable shrine for this sort of worship. Two of the best sandwiches were the simplest. The big pile of tender corned beef on the "Fat Mike" tasted of pepper and other spices rather than just salt. The pastrami on the "I Barbarian" is wine-red, tender but not fatty, and more peppery still. Each sandwich came on a marble rye with a smear of fancy mustard.
Sandwiches with pork and chicken were also filling on their big, bulky rolls. The pulled pork barbecue combined a vinegar base with a sweeter red sauce. It might be better with a dollop of Mike's terrific crunchy-sour fresh slaw rather than the pieces of bacon that top the pork. The bacon worked better on the "Bakura," where the salt and crunch add to the quieter grilled chicken breast and pesto mayo.
Just as the rock musician has given way to the DJ as cultural star — Svenonius describes them as "artists of pure consumerism, exalted for their taste" — musical hipsters now often take pride in eclectic lunches of Peruvian ceviche or Burmese noodles. The transitional objects were burritos and artisanal ramen. Mike's offers a eclectic version of the former — an "East Wave" burrito which balances salty black beans with the sweetness and juiciness of jerk chicken, caramelized onions, and bits of pineapple. The tortilla was grilled, but still had a nice stretch and give to it.