OK. I'll have the cheeseburger.
We were visiting the nation's capital, and everyone knows the way to judge a town is not by the number of shining white marble buildings or world class museums it has, or its famed and gorgeous cherry blossoms, its suitability as a setting for marches and moving speeches, or its silent and moving memorials to tragic times in history. Even the fact that the leader of the free world happens to reside there should not color your thinking.
The true measure of a town is its burgers.
That's why LA rules, by the way. We have long history of great, great, burgers here*, and we can get In-N-Out anytime we want**.
Could the capital possibly compete? We did our best to find out.
The first stroke of luck was finding an outpost of New York's cult burger joint, Shake Shack, smack in the middle of Dupont Circle.*** I excitedly posted pics of the exterior signage to facebook as we stood in line, ready to taste the burger that de-throned the double double.
Initial signs were positive. The place was great looking. There was a line out the door, but it moved quickly. The staff was friendly and very patient with the starry-eyed Californians who crowded up to the counter, cameras in hand, when it was our turn to order****.
When the (adorable! real cookie sheets! cool logo parchment paper!) trays arrived, overflowing with food, the anticipation of burger nirvana had almost reached a fever pitch. We put aside our dismay at seeing the crinkle cut fries***** and focused on the gorgeous burger specimens in front of us. The lettuce was green and leafy! The tomatoes were red and ripe! The onion was crisp and crunchy! The bun was warm and golden! The cheese was all melty and gooey! The patties were thick and well browned and nubby! Oh, baby!
Oh! Oh. Um. Er. What the...? This burger was a total poser! Underneath those magazine cover looks was a pile of flavorless, unseasoned meat, oozing equally flavorless meat juice. Couldn't taste the toppings. Couldn't taste the cheese, or the sauce, or anything but hot, bland (admittedly freshly ground, moist and well-cooked) beef. Really? I am fraught with disappointment. Now I have to eat the stupid crinkle fries.
Everyone at the table agrees. No need to come back to the Shack. Strike one.
Next up? A true pretender to the In-N-Out throne: Five Guys Burgers and Fries, founded originally in Virginia, but now spreading like wildfire across the country. There's even one back home in Culver City now, but we felt it was only fair to judge the hometown outpost.
The first thing you notice about the place is the bags of potatoes piled up when you walk in. There's even a sign telling you what farm they came from. Nothing crinkle cut about these fries, thank you very much! Score one for the guys. Especially since the guys making the fries also seem to have access to salt and pepper shakers. Are some of the fries a little soggy, a little greasy? Yeah. But they're a big step up in freshness, so we're OK with that.
The second thing you notice is that you can put A LOT of stuff on your burger, for no extra charge. Jalapenos. Bacon. Grilled mushrooms. Grilled onions. This sounds awesome to us! We build away. We retreat to a table and mull over why there would be barrel of peanuts around the corner from the bags of potatoes. Ingredients as decor? Free bacon and free peanuts? Very strange, but this could be the secret to their surging popularity.
It certainly can't be the actual burgers. Maybe they were good in the kitchen, but every burger is wrapped in paper, and then foil, so it's effectively steaming itself soggy on the way to the counter. Then, even if you are eating in, it goes into a paper bag. The bun arrives deflated, the army of toppings are all a bit flat and colorless, and the meat itself is boring.
|But there is free bacon, so some people are OK with that.|
Was there no hope of getting a great burger in DC? A change from these less-than-satisfying lunches? A burger we could believe in?
Hope. Change. A burger we could believe in?
That sounds familiar. Let's ask Barack.
Mr. President! Mr. President! Where should we go for a burger in this town?
Barack says, Ray's Hell Burger******.
The Au Poivre burger, peppercorn encrusted, with swiss cheese. All the burgers are 10 oz. of prime filet, the toppings not only look great, but they're hand cut, utterly fresh, and taste terrific.
And the burger itself was one of the best I've ever had it my life. The meat was freshly ground, rich, full of great beefy flavor, charred on the outside, done to perfection on the inside, and as juicy as can be. In the best sense of the word.
Next time I go to DC, I'll still have the cheeseburger. But only at Ray's. It's a one burger town.
* Additional reading on this important topic:
30 Burgers in 30 Days - LA Weekly eats through LA's burger scene, a day a a time.
Burger City - The history of the burger's roots in LA. Did you know that the cheeseburger was invented in Pasadena in 1922?
Gourmet Burger Battle - An intrepid blogger visits some of the best in town.
The Foodie Girls - Episode 6, Episode 9 and Episode 19
** Unlike these previously deprived people in Texas:
*** OK, my sister looked it up the night before, we made an extra metro stop, then walked about 8 blocks using a cell phone as a gps. Then we happened to run into it.
**** For example, asking "Do the T-shirts shrink much?" and "How can you be out of the Fair Trade Shake? It's not even a special, and you have a logo for it and everything. What's up with that?" before paying and going to find a table.
*****I have yet to have a great crinkle cut fry. Whatever machine makes them crinkled must also automatically erase every shred of real potato flavor out of the fry, so it's hopeless from the start. But I digress. Hence, this universal truth is being placed in a footnote.
****** He speaks with his feet (or his motorcade). Not only has he treated the press corp and Joe Biden, he took the Russian president here for lunch, too.