Washington is no stranger to the truly great burger. There’s the rarefied patty with oozy truffle cheese at Palena Cafe , the wonderfully drippy bacon cheeseburger at Central Michel Richard, and the hulkers at Morton’s and Charlie Palmer Steak. It’s been tough, though, to find a memorable burger that doesn’t require a reservation—and a couple of ten-spots. No longer.
The burger wars have erupted, with three new burger spots duking it out for fast-foodie supremacy.
The flashiest of the bunch is Good Stuff Eatery, which launched with a red-carpet party and a mention in the Washington Post’s gossip column. The cause of all the hype: Top Chef castoff Spike Mendelsohn, who recently departed New York City’s Tribeca for DC’s Capitol Hill. Not surprisingly, Good Stuff, which throbs with the sounds of AC/DC and the Doors, is set up to show off its star: As the line of House staffers and bocce leaguers inches closer to the counter, the fedoraed Spike comes into view, joshing with his line cooks in Spanish and schmoozing with the customers. (Actually cooking? Nah.)
The main reason to endure the long lines isn’t the burgers but the thick milkshakes ($5.25), especially the toasted-marshmallow version, which tastes like liquefied crème brûlée—a dollop of Greek yogurt keeps it from being too sweet. Onion rings ($3.49) and fries ($2.59), even the ones scattered with thyme and rosemary ($2.79), are sodden and skippable.
Good Stuff’s burgers—thin, griddled patties that lean toward the gristly—are small and compact, and saved by their creative toppings. The Blazin’ Barn ($6.69) is treated like a banh mi, with shredded carrot and daikon, fresh mint, and Thai basil—all it needs is a thicker slathering of Sriracha mayo to keep it from being too dry. Spike’s Five Napkin ($6.89) is a hangover-curing pileup of bacon, American cheese, and a fried egg. Our favorites: a beef patty topped with chili, sour cream, and scallions ($6.89) and a mango-chutney-accented turkey burger with avocado ($6.89).
Though BGR Burger Joint (4827 Fairmont Ave., Bethesda; 301-358-6137) is a lower-wattage affair, it has something in common with Good Stuff. The best thing about it isn’t the burgers—here it’s the thickly cut fries (Yukon Gold for $2.89, sweet potato for $3.89) and crisply battered Vidalia-onion rings ($4.89).
The burger menu aims to please a variety of palates, with straightforward grilled cheeseburgers ($7.98) on sesame buns and cleverer concoctions like a Cuban burger ($8.99) topped with Serrano ham and sliced pork (delicious); a Greek burger ($12.99) with feta, cucumbers, and lots of cumin (good but a little dry); and a black-bean-studded veggie burger ($7.99), as sweet as maple syrup.
The best sandwich is the seasonal lobster burger ($14.99)—really a lobster roll. The chunks of fresh meat are lightly bound with sweetly flavored mayo and served on three slider-size potato rolls that haven’t been pulled apart.
The problem you’re likely to have with Burger Joint isn’t the food or the upbeat, faux-small-town atmosphere, complete with kiddie-drawn burger art. It’s the tab. Unless you order the basic $8.99 lunch special, you’re looking at $15—at least—for a burger, fries, and root beer.
Both spots could learn a thing or two from Ray’s Hell-Burger (1713 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-841-0001), the brainchild of Ray’s the Steaks provocateur Michael Landrum. The thick ten-ounce patties, made with prime beef, are charred and messy, like the best kind of cookout burgers—and at $6.95, they’re a steal.
They don’t require much embellishment, but a blackboard lists about a dozen cheese options ranging from Vermont cheddar and pepperjack ($1 extra) to haute varieties such as Smokey Blue from Oregon and cave-aged Amish cheddar (both $4). Other add-ons—bread-and-butter pickles, blistered jalapeños—are free. Or you can let Landrum play burger artist and go for preset combos like the excellent Big Poppa, an au poivre burger loaded with grilled red onions, sautéed mushrooms, and bleu cheese, or the blackened New Jack Zing burger with roasted garlic and pepperjack.
You won’t find fries here—or alcohol—but who needs them when the burger’s this memorable?
Word is that Michel Richard will open a burger joint of his own next year. Will the four-star chef surpass Landrum’s accomplishment? We’ll see. But until then, the patty war has been won.
This review appeared in the October, 2008 issue of The Washingtonian.