MLK Deli's crab cake sandwich Credit: Crystal Fernanders

Sign up for our free newsletter

Who would’ve thought that one of the best crab cakes in D.C. would be found on the ground floor of a rowhouse in a historic neighborhood?

MLK Deli in Congress Heights serves up traditional classics with unique twists. Originally founded in 1986, this popular neighborhood deli reopened in 2017 with new ownership. Tyrone White says he was on a mission to “create more jobs in the community and give a fresher option besides fast food.” Before relaunching MLK Deli, White hosted community events in Ward 8. He was made aware of a search for new ownership and jumped at the offer.

Throughout the establishment, you’ll find several pictures dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr., along with a mural featuring other Black historical figures, including Frederick Douglass, Barack Obama, Marion Barry, and Malcolm X. Look around and you’ll also find vinyl records resting next to a record player and a boombox sitting on top of an old stand holding a “big back” TV that’s just for decoration. 

Aside from the dope decor, employees immediately make everyone feel welcome. Andre, one of the store managers, made it clear to me that while MLK Deli is in a historically Black neighborhood, they “attract all walks of life and treat everyone equally.” 

Never having visited before, I immediately felt like I was a returning customer. You can tell that the staff members genuinely love what they do. Super personable without being overbearing, they make me want to move into the rowhouse next door. Even the other customers picking up their orders made me feel at home. I wondered if I’d met them before based on how they engaged with me. You can definitely tell that this neighborhood deli has a strong bond with the community.

While I waited outside for my order, I chatted with a few locals. Everyone—and I mean EVERYONE—told me to get the crab cake sandwich! While the regulars do have other options that they love, it’s the crab cake that’s raved about.

The crab cakes come in three sizes. A quarter-pound and half-pound sandwich, served on a brioche bun, and a whopping one-pounder that’s too big to fit on a roll. One regular customer said she orders the 16-ounce, $50 crab cake once a week, traveling through rush hour traffic from downtown D.C. to get her fix. She questioned how I was able to hold out on biting into my sandwich while I was photographing it. 

I finally took that first bite of the crab cake, and in that moment, it all made perfect sense. It’s truly a damn good crab cake, and I regretted not ordering a size up. No fillers, the right amount of seasoning, not overly salty, properly seared, and made with lump crab meat. Wheeeww! I loved it!

This spot isn’t just about the crab cakes though. There are lots of deli classics, and a few are named to pay homage to some of D.C.’s icons and landmarks such as The Big Chair Reuben, named after the humongous monument in Anacostia; the John Wall ham sandwich, for the former golden child of Washington Wizards; and the Marion Barry salmon cakes, in honor of the mayor-for-life. 

Photo of MLK King Club by Crystal Fernanders

Another popular item is the MLK King Club. Shaved turkey and ham are layered with fresh tomatoes, lettuce, bacon, and pepper jack cheese. Cooks slather the bread with “king sauce,” their signature house mayo, which is also amazing on the crab cake. Oftentimes, when I order any sandwich from a deli with bacon as an additional topping, the bacon tastes as if it’s been sitting for a few hours. This bacon has some freshness to it, still holding that necessary crunch that bacon is supposed to give. 

MLK Deli also serves an all beef hot dog, rightfully named The Glizzy, on the menu. You don’t always see a hot dog at a deli, so I ordered it. Now, this is not some boiled hot dog being thrown onto a measly little hot dog bun, OK? 

Photo of The Glizzy by Crystal Fernanders

The Glizzy is an 8-inch quarter-pounder that MLK Deli grills, tops with chili and cheese, and places on a warm roll. Its name used to solely be slang for a gun in D.C., but it evolved over time to refer to hot dogs because of their long shape. You can add additional toppings like onions or condiments like mayo and ketchup. Go crazy with the toppings if you’re in the mood. I love myself a good quality glizzy, and this fulfilled my needs. 

There’s also house-made lemonade. It was a pretty cool evening when I visited, and their pineapple lemonade made me feel like it was the middle of summer again, especially with a glizzy in hand. If you’re in the mood for something sweet at the end of your meal, a rotation of sliced cakes are also available. 

MLK Deli packages the food very well, as seating is not available. I ended up with some leftovers, or as I like to call them, “meal planning.” The food reheats perfectly and tastes just as good the next day. 

Photo of MLK Deli by Crystal Fernanders

And now for some news! MLK Deli is expanding. White says he’ll open another carry-out in the beginning of 2022 in Deanwood called MLK Deli—Seafood. This should excite your heart. Definitely keep an eye out for the opening date. With their crab cake being as good as it is, I’m looking forward to their next spot.

If you’re seeking quick service, fresh ingredients, delicious AF food, and amazing customer service, MLK Deli is where you need to go. I may or may not have to copy one of their regulars and get the one-pound crab cake frequently. 

MLK Deli is open Mondays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. You can place orders online, over the phone, or in person. Dishes and drinks range from $6 to $50. 

MLK Deli, 3113 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE; (202) 597-5897; themlkdeli.com