In the world of DC dining, Burger is apparently the new Black.  No sooner did we get home from Good Stuff Eatery last night than Elizabeth and I learned that Michael Landrum – the chef responsible for DC steak greats Ray’s the Steaks and Ray’s the Classics – opened a burger joint just a few doors down from his original Ray’s The Steaks.  

Thinking ahead, we figured we’d swing by and take a few exterior pictures this evening and plot our visit in the coming days. We were expecting to see a line out the door, judging by the response Landrum’s announcement received throughout the DC blogosphere. 

What fools we were!  Like it was even remotely possible that we would park, walk up to Ray’s Hell-Burger, snap some photos and just leave?

As you might expect, we found ourselves drawn inside by the promise of juicy, delicious burgers and a line that was only three people deep when we arrived (though it grew considerably by the time we received our food and it remained busy throughout our meal).  Staycations be damned, the holiday weekend seems to have led enough people out of town to get us to the counter without too much delay.  What we found there after the jump.

Walking through the restaurant, we were greeted by a handful of tables (including three or four cocktail rounds) and walls decorated with posters from classic horror films.  The open kitchen and register share space in the back. Chalkboards detailed the ways the burgers can be prepared: au poivre (cracked black pepper), blackened (dusted with cajun spices), or Diablo (bathed in a chipotle marinade).  Fans of Ray’s the Steaks will immediately recognize these presentations and they are a welcome addition to the basic burger.

Guests can add additional toppings: classics like grilled red onions and pickle chips are joined by roasted garlic, cognac-sauteed mushrooms and charred jalapenos.  Bacon and guacamole are both available for an extra $1.50 each, and a surprisingly diverse group of cheeses can be had for $1 (for basics like imported Swiss, smoked mozzarella and Vermont white cheddar) or $1.50 (for fancier varieties like aged Danish blue, Gruyere and a double-cream Brie).

Ray’s Hell-Burgers distinguishes itself from its competition as much by what they don’t offer as what they do.  There are no fries or shakes to be found on this menu; Landrum pairs his burgers with corn on the cob and a slice of fresh watermelon for no additional charge.  MOORenko’s ice cream is available as well.

Elizabeth and I both decided to try basic medium-rare burgers.  She topped hers with the double-cream brie and the grilled red onions.  I opted for roasted garlic (which came spread on the upper bun), sauteed mushrooms and Swiss cheese.  While our burgers were cooked to order, we had the chance to chat with Landrum, who took time away from hand-trimming beef to talk to us about what sets Ray’s burgers apart.  He explained that most steak restaurants settle for small to modest marbling in the steaks that they serve customers. These levels qualify for Choice grade, but in reality are a few levels below the “moderate” and “slightly abundantly” marbled cuts of chuck that Landrum uses for his burgers.  He told us that all of his meat comes from breed-specific farm-raised cattle, resulting in superior quality and flavor that come through whether served as steak or hamburger.

Once our burgers arrived, we were able to taste for ourselves.  Each burger is served with a knife and they recommend that you cut it in half to make the otherwise overwhelming 10-ounce patty more manageable. 

Did they live up to expectations?  You have no idea.  The beef had a rich, meaty flavor so frequently missing from your average restaurant burger. It almost made us regret our toppings (as good as they were) because they were mere distractions from the main event.  The accompanying corn was sweet and firm and the fresh watermelon ended the meal on a sweet, summery note.

What was most impressive was the price.  Even with the quality of beef that Landrum is using, he has priced his burgers at $6.95 each – half of what some establishments will charge for their bland, mass-produced versions.  Old Dominion Root Beer is available on tap for $2 a glass or $3.50 a pitcher (which holds roughly two glasses).  Our entire meal – burgers, cheeses and beverages – ran us less than $25!

In Ray’s Hell-Burger, Michael Landrum once again shows why he has built up such a loyal following among Washington carnivores.  There’s nothing new about the concept, but the execution takes it to an impressive new level.  Let the competition for best new burger begin!

Ray’s Hell-Burger
1713 Wilson Boulevard (three doors down from Ray’s the Classics)
Arlington, VA  22209

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