Are you the kind of eater who dreams of steakhouse-style burgers—all about a juicy, inches-thick patty, possibly fashioned from sirloin or some other fancier-than-chuck beef? Or do you crave diner burgers, a more gestalt sort of species? Squishy bun, melty American, a mess of ketchup and mayo, and a patty so thin and smashed that specifying how you’d like it prepared is usually out of the question. (It tends to arrive brown all the way through.) It’s about the sum, not the parts. It’s certainly not about the beef.
If the answer is “Can’t decide,” head to Dupont Circle’s narrow Red Apron Burger Bar, where chef/butcher Nathan Anda aims to please both types. Many of his creations aren’t much bigger than a Five Guys burger, with skinny patties. However, his first move when you get to the counter is not only having you specify how you want your burgers cooked but also what kind of beef you’d like them made from.
Two Virginia-raised varieties are offered, Black Angus and Ancient White Park. The well-known former is grass-fed and grain-finished and leans luscious and juicy. The latter is a lesser-known breed that’s exclusively grass-fed, but well-marbled so it’s not too lean. The differences are subtle, but the Ancient White Park stands out as a bit nuttier and gamier, while the Black Angus’s flavor tends to take a back seat to any accessories. If you’re a steakhouse-burger person, you might want to spring for the Ancient White Park, which adds a couple of bucks to each burger’s price.
As a diner fan, I was happy with the standard Black Angus burger ($5.85), with its shaved onion, tangy-creamy special sauce, pickles, and white American cheese. (Bigger appetites may want to go for the double patty, $8.95.) Upscaled fast food is harder to pull off than it sounds, and Anda’s entry-level creation is pretty terrific.
It’s worth roaming through the more offbeat burgers, too. My favorite is the Double Vision ($11.95 to $14.35), a salty-sweet layering that includes pimiento cheese, bacon, and tomato jam. The El Jefe ($8.75) gets a South American spin (avocado, chimichurri, sour cream), but its chorizo patty is as rubbery as it is zesty. You’d be better off with the Trifecta ($11.95 to $14.35), a jaw-stretcher that sandwiches a layer of the spicy pork sausage between two beef patties. Among the non-beef offerings, the clear winner is the Yardbird ($8.35), with yogurt-marinated chicken. It tastes like a Greek salad on a bun.
The Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which is behind Red Apron, is known for smart beer and cocktail lists at most of its restaurants. Here you’ll want to stick with Greg Engert’s lineup of drafts. The boozy punches ($8) sound a lot better than the concoctions that arrive—the tequila/mezcal version was simply watered down; the vodka-and-citrus tasted like it was three-quarters simple syrup.
Really, the best accessory to the burgers is a paper basket of beef-fat fries ($6.50)doused in chili and another brilliant Anda upgrade—house-made “Cheez Whiz.”
This article appears in the May 2017 issue of Washingtonian.