We're trying something new at DC Foodies -- group reviews. The cost of dining out is hitting us all in our wallets and since most of us are usually dining at the same place, we've decided to begin combining our efforts, which means you hear about the restaurant quicker because we don't have to make two or three trips each and we keep more money in our pockets.
For our inaugural group review, we decided there was no better place to start than with a first impressions review of Ray's Hell Burgers. I'd be lying if Michael Landrum's other restaurants (Ray's the Classics and Ray's the Steaks) don't hold a special place in all of our hearts, so we've made a good attempt, I think, to keep this objective.
Ray's Hell Burger is a natural addition to the Michael Landrum's D.C. beef empire. Burgers are the only thing on the menu (which means no fries), but you'd be surprised at how large the menu can be. Between the large selection of cheeses (including some artisinal selections which no doubt Mike will like) and the list of others high quality ingredients, much like those that you can get on your steaks a few doors down, the combinations are endless.
Instead of fries, the burgers currently come with sides of juicy watermelon and corn, but I imagine that's only for the summer. Look for the sides to be seasonal and fresh. I wonder if the lack of French fries is because the kitchen couldn't get the fries just right, or if it is Michael's attempt to make up socially for the portion size of the burgers which are a massive 10 ounces of the same aged prime beef used at the other Ray's establishments (ground fresh throughout the day according to Mr. Landrum). Cooking methods are similar as well and you can get your burger blackened, cajun, or just plain grilled.
Last week, we at DC Foodies each visited to Ray's Hell Burger. Here's what each of us thought.
As you may have guessed, what really caught my attention was the impressive list of cheeses that Ray's offers. Sure, you can get quality basics like Gruyere, Vermont cheddar, smoked mozzarella and Danish blue for $1, but you can also go all out and top your burger with imported Brie, Italian Taleggio or even Epoisses for $1.50 to $4 each. A hint: make sure to ask about what other cheeses and toppings are available when you get to the counter. Although Epoisses was not listed on the chalkboard when we visited, it was available to anyone who asked.
My burger was delicious, if a bit messy. The size of the patty is a blessing on the grill, allowing it to cook through and develop a dark, meaty crust without sacrificing the juicy, pink interior. Unfortunately, the size becomes a liability on the plate - Ray's recommends cutting their burgers in half to make them more manageable. I did, but the burger's juices still turned my bun to mush in minutes. It was a small price to pay for a depth of flavor that I haven't experienced in any other burger here in Washington. The grilled corn on the cob and fresh sliced watermelon that accompany each burger free of charge gave the whole meal a great cook-out feel.
The authentic meatiness and spot-on grilling of the burger; the toppings that are upscale but not pretentious; the cheese list
The seemingly unavoidable messiness of the meal; the size that makes it near-impossible to fit it in your mouth if there are any toppings
I'll definitely be going back, but I'll be armed with the knowledge that less is more when it comes to toppings. When too many great flavors are forced to compete for attention, no one wins.
It's always hard to judge a restaurant in its first week of operation -- procedures aren't down, the staff isn't limber, etc. Using that as a lead up, let me say that Ray's Hell made me very nervous. I'm used to the controlled chaos that is Ray's the Steaks: they have it down pat, and the place runs like a well-oiled machine. Ray's Hell had all the crowd of that other endeavor of Michael Landrum's, without the grace. Even at the late hour of 8:00 p.m., service was harried, space for waiting patrons was limited, our table was never bussed, and they forgot our side of corn!
That said, my burger was good. Very good, in fact. The selection of preparations, toppings and cheeses was phenomenal, and the meat was quite obviously above the usual grade (getting it at the recommended medium-rare is definitely the right choice, at least for dining in). I ordered my burger topped with mustard seed gouda, grilled red onions and sauteed mushrooms -- if nothing else, the ingredients were obviously fresh, and the sauteed mushrooms had quite nearly the same delicious sherry flavor as they do from Hell's big brother.
The myriad combination of quality cheeses and toppings, just waiting to be discovered.
The absolute inability to ponder any such combinations, for want of space or time to consider the menu. Oh, and again, I never got my damned corn!
Amy, Noah, and I were able to visit Ray's Hell Burgers on Wednesday night. There wasn't a giant crowd like others have experienced and I was able to take my time ordering, but the list of ingredients was still daunting. Regardless, the list of toppings is nice to see. I imagine that ordering is going to take some practice. I ordered simply with with mayo, roasted garlic, pepper jack, and pickles my first time because I didn't want to distract from the flavor of the beef.
After ordering, we went to find a table. The restaurant is small and could obviously use more seating. Since it's a burger joint, I don't think that anyone should be worried about packing people in there, but who knows, it could be a fire code thing.
My burger was very good overall, but I wouldn't say it was the best I've had in the area. The meat and toppings are obviously excellent and I expected nothing less, but the weak buns don't do the burgers justice. It falls apart within minutes of eating and since there are no forks, you end up with quit a mess on your hands. I'd just as soon lose the bun and eat the burger with a knife and fork, but then I might as well be a few doors down at Ray's the Steaks.
The freshness and flavor of the meat; the quality selection of toppings; and the accurate cooking of the burger.
The weak bun that deteriorate under the juiciness of the burger and lack of timely busing of tables.
I know if I'm in the area, I'll likely be back for sure and hopefully a little better at ordering. However, by the time I make the planned trip there, it almost seems wrong to be only having a burger and not eating a Cajun ribeye at Ray's the Steaks.
Ray's Hell Burger
1713 Wilson Boulevard
Opens weekdays at 5 PM
Opens Saturday and Sunday at Noon.
No Phone Number
No Web Site