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José Andrés Launches Rotating Food Lab With Pepe Sandwiches

The chef's new test kitchen ThinkFoodLab marks next step in ramping up fast-casual offerings

Placing high-end restaurants around the country may have been just a warm up for chef and food activist José Andrés, who is now turning his attention to fine-tuning a host of quick-service dining ideas.

The first grab-and-go eatery getting field tested at the newly minted ThinkFoodLab (701 Pennsylvania Avenue NW) is Pepe, the sandwich truck Andrés’ company, ThinkFoodGroup, rolled out in Washington a few years back. “I think we started Pepe with the idea of having many Pepes, but trucks are a very particular thing,” ThinkFoodGroup executive chef Joe Raffa told Eater about the learning curve involved in going mobile. “Doing a brick and mortar ... it’s easier for us to navigate that world.”

Eric Martino, COO of FastGood Concepts at ThinkFoodGroup, said the company wants to keep the momentum going now that vegetarian-friendly Beefsteak has taken off by perfecting the next big thing — whatever that may be. “There have to be incredible flavors coming out very fast, very quick because people are on the go, especially in this area,” Martino said. In addition to the flagship spots he’s sprinkled across the DMV and the spin-offs that have cropped up elsewhere, Andrés cut a deal earlier this year with Compass Group USA to plant new eateries everywhere from sports stadiums to museums.

According to Raffa, moving towards counter service makes perfect sense. “We know that in our mainstream restaurants, at the check average that we have, we’re only gonna touch so many people. Getting into the fast-casual world allows us to put José’s message and José’s food in front of a much larger audience,” he said.

Retooling Pepe was mostly a practical decision. “After Beefsteak, it’s our most developed fast-casual concept,” Raffa said. Some sandwiches share the same name as those on the still-active truck, but Raffa said everything offered at ThinkFoodLab has been tweaked — “José wanted Pepe 2.0,” he noted — to provide a different dining experience.

New additions include a half-dozen cold sandwiches (pre-wrapped and served on crustless white bread), a few salads, and soft serve ice cream. Raffa said ThinkFoodGroup corporate pastry chef Rick Billings has been “dreaming about doing this for years;” that professional goal has now been realized as an eggy vanilla cream punctuated by a burst of lemon, as well as a fresh and fruity strawberry sorbet (used in the swirl along with the leche merengada).

Featured items include a handful of offerings layered on bread imported from Barcelona, Spain that delivers a satisfying crunch when toasted in the oven (pan de cristal means “bread of glass”). There’s two other tiers of prepared sandwiches, the “hot” type (served on a baguette), and the self-explanatory “sandwiches on a roll.”

Raffa billed the fried chicken sandwich and cachapo, a two-handed feast featuring a ham- and cheese-filled slab of breaded pork that hangs out both sides of the bread, as the most popular items. Pollo frito marries a juicy fried chicken patty to crisp Spanish peppers and wine-spiked dressing. The B.E.L.T. is very hearty, delivering a fried egg, multiple strips of bacon, and stone ground mustard pressed between the signature bread. “Jose loves his eggs,” Raffa said of the souped up summer staple. An order of patatas bravas chips summons a Frito pie-like snack of Spanish potato chips (fried in olive oil) sprayed with savory aioli and spicy brava sauce.

Patatas bravas chips at Pepe.
[Warren Rojas]

Raffa declined to offer an end date for this iteration of Pepe. “When we feel that we have it buttoned up, we’ll move on to the next thing,” he said.

Pepe is expected to operate from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Status: Opening at 11 a.m., July 11. 701 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

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