Eat at Lil’ Peckers just once and chances are you’ll be lulled into wondering: Can fast food really count as “fast food” if it isn’t delivered fast? Lil’ Peckers has all the earmarks of an American eat-and-run archetype: the menu slapped high behind the counter, the staff dressed like human logos, the serve-yourself soda fountain, the canny appropriation of a left-for-dead piece of suburban retail architecture (in Peckers’ case, an old car dealership). The restaurant’s design is both its boon and its bane. You’re lured in by the promise of a quick fix—and by most reasonable standards, Lil’ Peckers’ service does count as fast. But all of those ready-made Big Macs have programmed our brains to expect near-instant gratification after ordering at a cash register. Thus five minutes of waiting for food at Lil’ Peckers feels more like 10.
The good news is that the wait is usually worth it. Buffalo wings are the restaurant’s signature; owner Nick Margas says he sells more of them than any other item. Gooey in a dark-red sauce and batter-fried to a crispness that causes them to rise above the bar-food staple, the wings deemed “Hot” are just that—the heat’s utterly satisfying, rounded out by a vinegary tang. The “Damn Hot” wings are another matter; perfectly tempered after a trip through some blue cheese dressing, they are so fierce that I’m not even curious to know what the “Holy Inferno!” wings are all about. Margas says his “famous” wing recipe comes from his dad, who ran some wing joints himself back in the day.
My first trip to the clean, cutely named takeout mostly was inspired by professional curiosity; by Trip 5, Peckers had graduated to an obsession. For this I blame the wings, although they’re hardly the sole culprit. One morning, I’m up way earlier than I should be en route to a simple egg-and-cheese sandwich—an homage to the classic, only with scrapple available in addition to ham, bacon, and patty sausage. During lunch another day, I make a last-minute run up Georgia Avenue and arrive to find a message waiting for me: A friend has caught wind of my Peckers junket. He wants me to pick him up “some kind of chicken sandwich. You make the call.”
Peckers is not a newfangled fast-food restaurant promising to transcend the same-old. In fact, some of its food could actually make you long for a lesser restaurant’s drive-through. Fries, available plain or under cloaks of gravy or liquid cheese, could stand to be rethought. Each time, they come too hot to touch, yet still the spud strips are soft and barely golden, bending limply if they’re dredged through ketchup. The macaroni and cheese looks to be of the packaged variety; the cheese is liquidy, a far cry from the real baked cheddar that carries superior versions toward a crusty, oily sublime. And, although the Carolina fried chicken sports the kind of spicy, cornmeal-based coating that has kept scores of well-meaning Southerners from ever moving away from Mom, the meat itself is so dry that I quit picking at it even before I’m full.
Such are the pitfalls of trying to consume a day’s calorie allowance for under seven bucks. But more often than not, Peckers delivers the above-the-neck carnal pleasures you anticipate upon reading its sign. Hamburgers, juicy and hand-formed, with mayo dripping over the ridge of an iceberg leaf, are served inside hoagie rolls—two patties give the vision some symmetry. The barbecue sandwiches are even better. If the pulled pork outshines the shredded chicken by a hair, it’s only because chicken simply isn’t pork. Both impart hints of smoke beneath a sweet coating of sauce.
And if you ever needed to be reminded how a deep fryer could be man’s second best friend, grab some Action moist towelettes and take a seat. Onion rings flake and crackle like good tempura, and a friend swears he can taste beer in their batter. Neither the hush puppies nor the fried mushrooms could be done any better; both are molten hot, deeply browned, profoundly crunchy. All of the chicken sandwiches, from the one topped with bacon and melted American cheese to the Smokey Mountain, a guilt-inducing oozer that holds barbecue sauce, provolone, and ham, are better for their trip through the oil (although you can get the breasts grilled).
Peckers’ unironic, unapologetic fast-food sensibility comes free of any corporate chill. Margas is a good guy who addresses customers by name, and the fact that he didn’t feel compelled to build a faux roadhouse just because he serves fried chicken and barbecue is rather endearing. He launched the place spurred by memories of his Carolina childhood—memories brightened by the fact that the fast-food joints of his youth pushed more than just burgers. There’s only one Lil’ Peckers at the moment, but if you look closely at the menu, you’ll notice that the name’s been trademarked. You never know.
Lil’ Peckers, 7925-A Georgia Ave., (301) 587-6615.
Since it opened over a year ago, opinions on Matisse have undulated between foodgasmic praise and damning censure. Only one reader has been able to muster something close to a wishy-washy assessment: “Sometimes it’s great and sometimes it’s not. I go because I like the bar.” There’s no arguing that the space isn’t delicious; carved into a storefront that seems to go back for blocks, with a staircase coiling dramatically in the middle, this is the kind of restaurant where one might expect to find pearls in her endive salad. It’s the food that’s the problem. My roasted beet salad is strikingly homely; the thrown-together produce represents nothing so much as a botched opportunity to compose a dish that looks as good as it tastes. Veal medallions suffer the same problem in reverse. Is it too much to ask for meat strewn with apples to deliver some flavor? My waitress suggests a reason behind the restaurant’s struggles. When asked who’s running the kitchen, she says she doesn’t know: “We have a lot of turnover here.”
Matisse, 4934 Wisconsin Ave. NW, (202) 244-5222. —Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.