Fire-Thin: Matchbox partners Perry Smith, Drew Kim, Ty Neal, and Mark Neal serve lots of bacon without a lot of fat. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

The most daunting question about the new Matchbox on Capitol Hill isn’t the obvious one—is it any good or is it as good as the original in Chinatown?—but one that’s much more difficult to answer: Why write about it at all?

I mean, the public has already rendered a verdict with no ambiguity whatsoever: The place with the combustion theme is as packed as a wood box in winter—no matter what day or time you visit, you’ll likely have to put your name on a list and wait. Maybe you’ll wait at the long, sleek bar made from shuffleboards salvaged from the vending warehouse that once occupied this space. Or maybe you’ll wait at a nearby watering hole because you can’t even get a seat at Matchbox’s bar.

Yep, from all appearances, the place would seem to be not only critic-proof, but recession-proof as well. It’s enough to make me think my role here is less about deliberating on Matchbox’s quality than solving the mystery behind it: What the hell is the secret to its success?

I’m not convinced that it’s the food alone. After all, two of Matchbox’s major draws—pizza and burgers—don’t stack up well against the area’s best players. You can sit there and watch the pizzaiolos stretching and flipping the dough until you practically ache for a pie, but the round that arrives at your table doesn’t always live up to the promise of that handiwork, at least not if you measure a pizza’s success by its crust. Matchbox’s pies are Neapolitan in spirit—thin-crusted, charred, and wood-fired—but Californian in their reliance on specialty toppings.

That’s not a criticism. Matchbox’s pizzas are not aiming for Italian authenticity, in which every last rise of dough is measured against Neapolitan legal requirements; no, they’re aiming squarely for the broad American palate, and they often hit their target.

Take the “fire & smoke,” a pie marketed to people who like to get their heads blown off. It’s a study in red and black, its hues rarely straying beyond variations on those two demonic colors. The pizza is layered with a chipotle-pepper-tomato sauce, roasted red peppers, and rounds of smoked gouda so symmetrically arranged they look like crop circles. Well, if hell had crop circles. The cheese is meant to help smother the heat in a blanket of fat, but the fire cannot be contained. This is a pie for people who consider four-alarm chili wimpy.

If the “fire & smoke” is about heat, then the prosciutto white is about salt. The latter is an artistic arrangement of cured ham, Kalamata olives, garlic, and ricotta and mozzarella cheeses, a combination that shows, as if we need more evidence, the power of salt to intensify and glorify the flavors all around it. Both pizzas, though, are like strippers: They’re top-heavy and proud of it.

The one round, however, that cannot skate solely on toppings is the Margherita, although Matchbox’s version tries hard; it comes choked with fresh buffalo mozzarella (the sheer volume of the cheese and its elastic texture made me think it was actually regular mozz) and swimming with a “zesty tomato sauce,” which forces the basil leaves to work hard to counteract the not-inconsiderable heat. But in this case, the overly muscular toppings can’t compensate for dry, flavorless crust. It’s the one time you’ll wish Matchbox’s pie-makers placed more emphasis on their dough. With a Margherita, after all, you expect to eat the crust on its own, happy to savor its yeasty qualities, not toss it aside like shells from a fresh oyster.

Matchbox’s semi-famous mini-burgers, available as always in groupings of three, six, and nine, are far more successful in creating an identity for this budding chain. Served on toasted brioche buns, paired with a pickle chip, and stacked around a busy hive of onion straws, the Angus sliders are old-fashioned comforts stylishly repackaged to validate our prole tastes; they’re simultaneously cool and calculated to limit our caloric intake. Brilliant, that.

Outside of these all-American bites, Jonathan McArthur, Matchbox’s head chef, has put together a couple of entrees that I’m surprised to report I like even better than the burgers. The crispy seared salmon is a marvel of kitchen technique, its exterior as crackly as caramelized sugar on crème brulee but its interior still moist and pink and flaky. The accompanying Tillamook cheddar grits (which strangely tasted more like Gruyère to me) serve as an unctuous escort without drowning out these crunchy bites of fish. A similar relationship can be found between the herbed risotto and the mollusks on McArthur’s seared sea scallops, whose sweet meatiness finds its expression even amid the rice and coconut red curry.

If you dine at Matchbox enough, you start to notice patterns—perhaps an ingredient (I’m looking at you, flat-iron steak) that makes repeated appearances, whether thrown on a salad or pizza or served as a stand-alone entree. But the kitchen also has an obsession with bacon. The cured pork comes wrapped around shrimp, wrapped around green beans, crumbled and sprinkled on the wedge salad, and even dumped into the wilted frisee on the “fried chicken two ways,” adding yet another note of heaviness to a plodding entrée that doesn’t need it.

These patterns strike me both as smart efficiencies and culinary cheats, particularly with the bacon, which acts as a fatty flavor enhancer for everything it touches. And yet the patterns don’t begin to explain Matchbox’s popularity. I feel like I’m noticing only the tiniest rivets to a much larger piece of machinery. Which is why I spent some time with Perry Smith and Ty Neal, two of the four owners. They helped me understand the whole Matchbox mystique.

It turns out not to be so mysterious, unless, that is, you’re mystified by the lack of quality restaurants in the mid-range of American culture, which is dominated by chains. The Matchbox owners understand the economic forces—the exorbitant rents, the expensive ingredients—that favor high-end restaurants and eat up the soft middle. They’ve merely devised a business plan that makes sense for their niche. They often buy the same pricey products as their fine-dining counterparts but prepare and sell them at a fraction of the cost. Long ago, Smith says, the owners decided that Matchbox would be “two-star prices, three-star experience.”

They make the numbers work through sheer volume (which only works, of course, when you serve volumes), but they’ve also invested their own cash and sweat equity into their properties. The owners personally designed the casual, wood-heavy rooms on Capitol Hill and even helped with the demolition and build-out of the space, shaving probably half of the usual costs, says Neal, who also builds those custom-made tables embedded with matchboxes. The guys, in other words, don’t have a ton of debt hanging over their heads, waiting to crash down on them if they don’t hit their numbers every week.

The more I talked with the owners, the more I realized the difficulties inherent in operating a quality mid-tier restaurant, an American version of those mouthwatering, mom-and-pop bistros and trattorias so easily found in Europe. But Matchbox has achieved it, and on its best days, I totally get why you have to fight for a seat.

Matchbox, 521 8th St. SE, (202) 548-0369

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