Word of Mouth: Ray’s Hell-Burger

From Kliman Online’s “Word of Mouth”

The patty wars are over. Leave it to the iconoclastic Michael Landrum to put an end to the skirmishes, and, perhaps, to the trend. Ray's Hell Burger (1713 Wilson Blvd.; 703-841-0001) arrived on the scene three weeks ago, suddenly and without warning, the H-Bomb that levels the field.  

Nothing—not the burgers at the new Burger Joint or the newer Good Stuff Eatery, not the ready-for-its-closeup rendition of the classic at Central Michel Richard or the truffled cheddar-topped version at Palena Cafe (the area's standard bearer of haute burgerdom)—approaches the magnificence of Ray's gorgeous, gargantuan patty.
Landrum owns and operates two other restaurants, Ray's the Steaks and the de-facto steakhouse Ray's the Classics, and has fashioned a burger that loudly proclaims his status as the go-to-guy for beef in the area. I was a fan of the short-lived burger at Ray's the Steaks when it first opened six years ago, writing, in another space, "The half-pound sirloin patty, ground fresh every morning, is seasoned only with salt and pepper, then left to sit on the grill until it develops a thick char. The kitchen, it's nice to see, has a good understanding of the difference between medium rare and medium, but more important, Ray's obeys the First Law of Beef: Juiciness matters more than seasoning. Sure, there are 16 toppings to choose from, including charred tomatoes, roasted jalapenos, crumbled blue cheese, wild mushrooms, and grilled onions, but a burger this good doesn't really doesn't need any dressing up."  

That was a good burger. This is a great burger.   

Ten ounces of freshly ground, hand-trimmed aged prime beef, cooked to order over an open flame. The patty, thick and mounded and carefully charred, resembles a steak a lot more than it does a burger, and, in fact, eats like a steak, too; you can even order it "au poivre."  

The only burger I've had that's better is the Boulud burger, at Manhattan's db Bistro Moderne, a marvelous, mouth-defying patty stuffed with foie gras and braised short ribs. But that set me back nearly thirty bucks. This one sells for $6.95.  

The free toppings include a good beefsteak tomato, grilled red onions and sherry- and brandy-spiked sauteed mushrooms. The pay-extra list includes a roster of cheeses that would be good enough to stand on its own as a cheese plate. Among the choices are Queen Anne Stilton, Taleggio, Bel Paese and, for five bucks, a small slab of Epoisses; its inimitable runniness and slight stinkiness is an inspired partner for a juicy, medium-rare hunk of beef. There are simpler, cheaper cheeses, too including two kinds of cheddar—both of them aged.  

Don't look for fries; for the summer, Landrum is offering, free of charge, half of a buttered ear of corn and a small slice of watermelon.  

The space, like Ray's the Steaks, a few doors down, is spare and no-frills, adorned only with slasher movie posters and beef charts. At the moment, there isn't even a sign out front; Landrum was going to put up a decal on the window for "Butcher Burgers," but has had second thoughts and is toying with changing the name to "Ray's Hell Burgers."
Richard, who kicked off the burger mania by showing what could be done with a simple mound of ground meat, tuna, shrimp and lobster (and, not coincidentally, what could be charged for such a simple mound), is set to open a burger place of his own sometime next year. I wouldn't bet against a four-star chef, but I doubt he can do much better than what Landrum has done, and especially at the prices the great meat maverick is charging.

-July 22, 2008