Shack to the Future

Washington City Paper

“Is there somewhere around here I can get a quick lunch, like a half-smoke, maybe?” The question catches the man pushing his Fayette Street door open for fresh air off-guard.

“Sure, there’s a Five Guys two blocks that way.”

Are you kidding me? You live three blocks from the greatest, oldest, stubbornest carryout in all of Alexandria, and you send me to Five Guys?

If the shack known as the Blue and White doesn’t attract attention on the corner of Henry and Wythe Streets, so be it. But it’s an endangered species: the Old Town Alexandria carryout.

Once, you couldn’t go a block without seeing a sandwich shack–and shacks they were, if they were even buildings at all. There was a time when these places were portable aluminum trailers and, like the taco trucks of today, the trailers went where the workers were.

“If I couldn’t find a cup of coffee, I’d go to a construction site,” says Clarence Webb, 74, a retired corporal with the Alexandria Police Department. “They’d have 100 or 200 workers; they’d need coffee and sandwiches and soda and whatever. What they’d do is build a little one-room shanty and put a stove in it and a counter and a window, and you could walk up to it. The very first thing the guy that was breaking me in did, he went to one of those construction jobs and we got a sausage and egg sandwich and a cup of coffee. They gave it to us. I couldn’t believe that somebody would give us a sandwich.”

“Don’t put that in the paper,” he adds, as if he were still a rookie and the chief of police would dock him for a free sandwich accepted 66 years ago.

Well, Webb ain’t a rookie, and it doesn’t matter, because the cheap places for a cup of joe and a tuna sandwich are gone. As cliched as it is to point to Starbucks and high-end eateries as the driving forces behind the demise of carryouts, in Alexandria there’s some truth to the cliche. Look at King Street, with its glut of $30 entrees and that infamous $125 tasting menu at Restaurant Eve. Now there’s no Bar-B Q Chilli Parlor; now there’s no Mom’s Kitchen, no Joe’s Grill.

The latter two began as cop stops. In the ’40s, George Crowder, an Alexandria police officer, made the force promise to keep an eye on his place, Joe’s Grill at 728 Wilkes St. Joe’s was open 24/7 and everyone who worked the graveyard shift flocked there for a bite. Joe’s Grill sold burgers and coffee, sure, but also aspirin, cigarettes, chewing tobacco. It was CVS before there was CVS. Now there is a CVS next door.

Go a little farther north, and you’ll encounter more of those ugly little buildings and their ghosts: Here on Pendleton Street was Lil Jim’s. Here on Queen Street was Sgt’s, closed after a fire. There’s the old Weenie Beenie, now gone. A restaurant with the same name remains in Shirlington, but it isn’t related. Last, the improbably named Carry Out–closed now–and the survivor: the Blue and White.

The Blue and White’s exact age is hard to pin down–city directories show it appearing sometime around 1967. It was a cruddy-looking shack then, and it’s a cruddy-looking shack now, unchanged but for the enclosed area that lets customers order without being battered by the elements.

Every Tuesday, the owner, Alexander Truitt, buys a mess of chicken livers–a palletful, his customers say. (How many is it really? Company secret.) Every Tuesday, he sells out before 11 a.m. The rest of the week, there’re other popular staples: pork chop sandwiches, fried chicken, bean soup, half-smokes, bacon and egg sandwiches. But you get yourself one of those Styrofoam cups of livers, and you’re in heaven. Grab a forkful of liver, tuck it into the soft bread, scoop up smaller bits of liver and gravy and drippings, eat. Now is not the time to be squeamish about organs: These pieces of bird are juicy, rich, slightly chalky, but mostly just good. Sandwiches are epic; a pork chop sandwich comes with two juicy slabs of bone-in meat, both threatening to spill over the bread. Condiments? You get your choice of hot sauce, salt, and pepper. Beans are picked from a rotating menu of pintos, great Northerns, kidneys, limas and so on. Great Northerns, mild as they are, benefit most from a squirt of hot sauce, but the pintos are tasty on their own. Just beans, cooked almost to mush, with maybe some fatback thrown in for flavor. Fried chicken is crispy and moist; it ain�t free-range, but one bite and you might think you can taste the chicken skipping through the fields with joy. Yes, that’s right, it tastes like joy.

�I heard he makes a million dollars a year,� says George Crowder Jr. �Who, us?� laughs Candy Cureton, Truitt�s girlfriend. �I don�t think we�re going to answer that question.�

George Crowder Sr.�s widow, Rita, still owns both the Wilkes Street space and the former Mom�s Kitchen at 428 Pitt St. Mom�s has become a Chinese carryout, Ginger Beef Foody Goody (�open every day except Thanksgiving�). There, in addition to your General Tso�s and your egg foo young, you can get Crispy Shrimp with Honey Walnuts, Green Jade Scallops, and other fancy-sounding dishes. Everything�s sort of blandly greasy, but at 9:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, the three or four blocks around the place are dark, and that helps the bottom line: Stay cheap, stay open, or die.

The Blue and White, strictly breakfast and lunch only, combats limited hours with rock-bottom prices. Goody�s, another Chinese carryout on Queen, appears to have survived the past five years by serving �lunch� portions that feed four. And old Joe�s Grill, well, it�s now Corner Cafe and Sandwiches, and it�s neither cheap nor open. It closed in November.

�Everybody wanted to run this gourmet carryout with $4 and $5 sandwiches. It wasn�t meant to be like that,� says Crowder. The place became the project of Yvener Volcy, an accountant who got too busy when tax season rolled around to keep the shop open. �I had some good things,� Volcy says. �Steak sandwiches, ham and turkey, and I had some Caribbean stuff, which people like. [But] it didn�t work out the way I wanted it to. It wasn�t making enough to pay the rent.� Crowder says that Volcy�s lease is up in August.

And if the worst should happen to Rita, that may be the final nail in the coffin of the former Joe�s space as well. �She�s one of those people who doesn�t have any money, but she has a lot of property,� says Crowder. �[The city] will look for death taxes.� The place will likely be sold; it may become another carryout, or it may become townhouses. Another previous owner, Carmen Omeechevarria, swears Crowder told her he had a developer lined up to turn the land into housing; Crowder says he�s in talks with a guy who�d keep the place a restaurant�for now. �We don�t know in the future what it�ll be. It�ll probably be townhouses, but not in the immediate future.�

For now, Corner Cafe stands forlornly on Wilkes and South Washington. A sign reading menu and nothing else hangs next to the window. The adjacent parking lot is empty.

We may never know what the food there tasted like, but I like to imagine it tasted like joy.

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