(by Corbo Eng)
When José Andrés contemplated the idea of opening a food truck, he couldn’t have scratched his head more than once or twice before settling upon the idea of selling flautas. Served in slender ficelle loaves that mimic the look of a flute (thus, the name), flautas are a popular street food option in Barcelona.
Naturally, with Andrés entering the fray of DC’s food truck scene, it’s quite understandable that he would want to sell these unique sandwiches. They tap into Andrés’s own storehouse of food memories, can be efficiently churned out within the relatively restrictive confines of a food truck, and, are, at least theoretically, discrete and easy to eat by hand on the street. After all, most folks in Barcelona, reared on them from childhood, can eat a flauta with one hand while hailing a cab with the other.
However, few people here would concede that the flautas offered by Pepe are that easy to eat. Instead, most of the flautas (all of which are about ten inches long), are, in fact, quite unwieldy, especially when they’ve been peeled away from their paper wrapper upon being consumed. The temptation, of course, is to peek inside to see what’s between the bread; but, once that’s done and the paper wrapping is off, the flautas are prone to oozing out sauce, condiments, and grease with each bite. Besides, most customers aren’t used to peeling the paper away as they eat. Americans are used to seeing a sandwich fully exposed from the start.
So, the mess is on; and, no sandwich, seemingly, has garnered a more messy reputation so far than the daunting Pepito de Ibérico, Pepe’s signature offering. Given the sandwich’s heft, it’s no wonder that this is the case. It might very well be the heftiest of the eight sandwiches on the menu (and not necessarily by weight and girth only). At $20, some have already jokingly claimed that the Pepito de Ibérico, discounting all of the illegal competition, is the most expensive item for sale on the streets of DC.
Made with decadent, ultra-exclusive Ibérico pork and glorious Serrano ham, the sandwich boasts some of the finest ingredients that a sandwich could hope to have and is further graced with roasted green peppers, caramelized onions, and an authentic garlic-infused aioli. The pork is tender but inordinately greasy; the ham is luscious but salty. With the pasty lather of onions and aioli, the Pepito de Ibérico is a delicious, unmistakably messy indulgence.
Whether it is worth its price tag is debatable. Certainly, the simple but assured Jamón Serrano y Queso Manchego flauta, which is essentially a suped-up ham and cheese sandwich, is a more than adequate substitute for the Pepito de Ibérico at half the cost. Other sandwiches also rival (if not surpass) the Pepito de Ibérico in flavor and taste.
The Fútbol Club Barcelona, reported to be Andrés’s favorite on the menu, is well executed and deceptively assertive. Consisting of thinly shaved chicken and bacon topped with lettuce, tomato, and shallot mayo, this flauta truly shines. It’s a taut torpedo of a sandwich and a perfect melding of meat and mayo. With one bite, the bacon might offer a tempting cameo; then, with another, the crispy ficelle or an array of shallot notes may rear its head for attention. And, unlike its cohorts, the Fútbol Club Barcelona is clean and unexpectedly neat.
The Spanish Grilled Cheese is ultra-thin, crusty, and features a seductive blend of Manchego, Murcia, Valdeón, Membrillo, and fresh goat cheese (with the blue cheese notes of the Valdeón gaining favor but not dominantly). The Escalivada is Pepe’s lone vegetarian option, which, intentionally or not, showcases the wonderful ficelle bread at the expense of the nonetheless tasty roasted eggplant inside it.
The Butifarra Burger and Pollo Frito, featuring a pork loaf and a boneless fried chicken patty respectively, are admittedly good (with an oozing tomato-based brava sauce at play in each instance); but, like bad violin notes, they strain to be special. However, only the Pepito de Ternera is a clear miss on an otherwise solid menu. Its seared beef tenderloin is bland, chewy (even sinewy in spots), and, with its slather of caramelized onions and piquillo pepper confit dripping out at the edges without offering much in the way of flavor, this flauta is, in a word, unappetizing.
Overall, these flautas aren’t the most aesthetically pleasing product. There are more refined, more visually appealing sandwiches out there. Think El Floridano and Rolling Ficelle for starters. But, what José Andrés has done is brought his vision of Barcelona’s street food to DC and in an uncomprosingly bold way at that. He held nothing back. For that, his loyal fans and customers will surely put up with a bit of fuss and mess.
Copyright 2012 (Corbo Eng). All rights reserved.
All photos by Corbo Eng.