Young and Hungry

Standard Questions: Chef Tad Curtz Dishes On His Popular Beer Garden’s New Menu (Think Cheeks, Not Tofu)

The corner of 14th and S Streets NW is about to get smoky once again.  On Mar. 1, chef Tad Curtz will fire up the smokers, tap the kegs, and reopen the doors of his popular beer-and-barbecue hangout, Standard, soon entering its second season of operation.  Equal parts inglorious and impassioned, easy-going and industrious, the cooking at Standard draws from the character of Curtz himself while nodding to classic barbecue technique and the American larder south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Y&H recently caught up with Curtz for a little Q&A about the return of Standard, his development of a new restaurant located just a few blocks away, and his refusal to adhere to one particular style of barbecue.

"A lot of people have asked me, 'What are you doing differently this year?'" Curtz says.  "We’re just planning to pick up where we left off and make things a little more interesting."

Y&H: So how did you spend your winter vacation?
Curtz: I spent a little time on the beach.  I was in Mexico, Florida, and Culebra – a little island off the east coast of Puerto Rico.  And I was in L.A. and San Francisco with friends for a while.

But frankly, it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be – I had been planning to just completely check out and not have any responsibilities.  But I’m opening this place down the street [in the old Well Built furniture space at 14th and Q], and I ended up having to be around to work on things for that.

I also just went to Italy for ten days to get some ideas.  I was in Rome, and then drove south from there to Naples and the Amalfi Coast.

The new spot isn't even in a restaurant space...
No, it has to get completely built out.  I spent the winter meeting with architects and code consultants because there’s nothing there at all.  It will be a lot of work and it won’t happen for a long time.  These things take time and evolve along the way.  Frankly, I didn’t know what Standard was going to be until a month or two after we opened!

But the new place is a good size, it’s a good location, I love 14th Street, and I live close by.  It’s going to take a lot of my energy to be in two places at once, so having something close by made a lot of sense to me.  It’s a great building, and I’m really excited about it.

Where did you eat while you were traveling?
I’ve put on like twenty pounds since we closed, so it’s been pretty bad.  I’ve been on a grueling tour of restaurants in San Francisco and LA and Italy, and ate hundreds of tacos in Mexico.  I had some great tacos in San Francisco, too.

Traveling so much, you must have picked up some inspiration. Will there be new menu items at Standard when you reopen?
There will be.  Not when we first open, but as soon as we get things under control in the first month or so, there will be some new stuff.

I want to play around with barbecuing things other than pork and brisket.  Last year, we had ribs and chicken and short-ribs on the menu intermittently, and I want to consistently have more options than just the brisket and pulled pork.

And I also want to barbecue more exciting meat.

Like what?  Offal?
No, like lamb shoulder, cornish game hens, and crispy cheeks – stuff like that.

Is there anything you wouldn’t put on the menu?
Tofu.  People have complained frequently about our lack of vegetarian options, but we’ll never do barbecued tofu at Standard.

But I do want to offer things that are more vegetarian friendly.  Sides, mostly; some stuff that’s not fried.  Some vegetables would be nice.

What about desserts?
I’m screwing around with a recipe for a new doughnut.  We sold over ten thousand doughnuts last year.  But we don’t have a doughnut guy right now, we’re looking for one.  Our other guy went back to school.  I want to make a chocolate-espresso doughnut with powdered sugar.

That sounds awesome.  Will there be any changes to the space itself?
The first year of opening a restaurant, it was really hard for me.  Being restricted by having a teeny-tiny kitchen and a teeny-tiny bar downstairs and having limited staff made it hard to do much more than we did.  I want to try to do a better job and not run out of things this year.  We got better about that towards the end of last year.

But yeah, we're opening a new section and that's going to put even more pressure on us.  We’re going to have a thirty foot-long table, and you’ll be able to reserve that for private parties.

Someone asked recently if barbecue is the new cupcake.  Do you feel cramped doing your thing in D.C. right now?
It’s weird because I’ve lived in DC since 2003 and there really wasn’t much at all for barbecue in the city.  And, in the year since we opened, half-a-dozen other places opened.

I don’t think it’s the new cupcake.  There are barbecue places that have been in business for well over fifty years, and cupcake shops seem like a new invention, kind of like a fad to me.

But it always seemed strange that there weren’t more barbecue places here.  It’s sort of a southern town, barbecue’s sort of a southern thing, and it didn’t really make sense.

Then again, I don’t think of Standard as strictly a barbecue restaurant.  I sort of think of it as a place to have fun.  I take our barbecue seriously, I’m super into barbecue.  I’ve driven around America eating barbecue, multiple times, for a couple weeks at a time.

But I think we're just a super-fun place to come and spend the afternoon.  I don’t put myself in the same category as, say, Smitty’s.  I would have never called myself Hill Country, for instance.  I sort of hate restaurants that appropriate someone else’s tradition.  Calling yourself “New Haven-style pizza” kind of sucks.  It’s a shitty thing to do.

Is there any barbecue that you don’t like?
I don’t like that weird white sauce they put on chicken in Arkansas.  It’s like a Big Bob Gibson thing, but they also do it in Arkansas.

Will there be new beer or drinks this time around?
I think the exciting new things we’ll have drink-wise will be some wine, some cider, and some gluten-free beer.  There’s a chance that we’ll play around with offering one or two cocktails in the summer.

I’m selling Peter [Pastan]’s wine, which I’m really excited about.  We’ll have a red and hopefully a white from him, too.

I like to put things on the menu that I care about or feel a connection to in some way, and this falls squarely into both of those categories. Standard probably never would have existed if Peter hadn't given me the opportunity to get my foot in the door of the kitchen [at 2 Amys].  I actually went to the winery [Piedrasassi New Vineland Winery] while I was off for the winter and spent some time there.

Hopefully having some time off restored your energy and enthusiasm.  Will it be hard to get the groove going again?
Yeah, I think so.  Some people that worked for us are coming back, some aren’t.  Not everything is going to happen the first week that we’re open.  The new area isn’t going to be ready.  I think we’ll be closed on Mondays for a while until we hit our stride.

But I’m excited to open again.  I miss hanging out with people, sitting around drinking some beer, making some donuts on the weekends.  I’m really looking forward to it.  We’ve got deliveries coming in tomorrow.  We’re gonna start filling this place up with beer and getting ready to go!

Standard, 1801 14th Street NW, www.standarddc.com

Photo by Justin Kennedy

...