Fast Casual

Ray's Hell Burger Too: Gourmet Burger Redux?

RaysHellOutside1 Local beef Impresario Michael Landrum has been a busy man of late. Hot on the heals of opening Ray's The Steaks East River, Landrum has done a whirlwind overhaul of one of his Ray's Hell Burger locations in Arlington, re-dubbing it "Ray's Hell Burger Too." Of course, everyone knew he was going to do something with the space, but I hadn't heard anything about the launch until this Thrillist article hit my inbox the Friday before last. Some friends and I popped around that evening, in the hopes that it flew under everyone else's radar, as well.

Ray's Hell has become the go-to gourmet burger location in the DC area since opening in July 2008. Their fresh-trimmed, hand-ground 10 oz burgers and myriad decadent toppings have become a favorite of burger fiends inside the beltway. Despite some brilliant press and some high-profile, repeat customers, NOVA's premier gourmet burger bar has had its share of detractors and complaints. Ray's Hell Too, it seems, is an attempt to address those most frequently voiced quibbles. A sign they'd taped to the front door summed it up nicely:

RaysHellSign Ray's Hell Burger Too


Hate Waiting in Line?
Hate Fighting for a Table?
Want a Smaller Burger?
Vegetarian?
Into Exotic Game?
Wishing for Waitress Service?

Check Out our New, Exclusive Menu
Offerings and Sit-down Service

HERE

Not mentioned above is the oft lamented lack of booze, which was also purportedly remedied. This, plus the lack of a smaller option were always my greatest complaints, so I was pretty psyched.

RaysHellShirt1 The restaurant is set up much like the old Ray's The Steaks location, with forty or so tops jammed into a tight, sparsely decorated space, with an open kitchen off to the back. Where the old Ray's had a touch of class with its open wine racks and wood floors, Ray's Too is all linoleum and cheap paneling, with neon Coke coolers and framed T-Shirts telling us to "Go To Hell." But then, it is a burger joint -- just don't go expecting the Ritz here.

RaysHellInside1 While none of the diners seemed crowded or put upon, the waiting area is a bit on the small side. We crowded into the 6 by 4 foot vestibule with a few other wannabe patrons, until we overflowed and started a line against the wall. There is no host or host stand, but a competent waitress was quick to give us menus, take our head counts, and give us some time estimates. Once our party was fully formed we were seated very quickly, which was impressive on such a busy night -- can never say a Ray's doesn't know how to flip tables!

The new menu offers the same beef behemoths as always, along with some new points of interest: Vegetarians finally have an option in the form of a 1/3 lb veggie burger, and lovers of more exotic fair will be tempted by the fruit glazed venison burger, or the 'Hanoi Style' wild boar burger. The real draw is still the classic, now also available in the more modest 1/3 lb form, cleverly dubbed the "Lil Devil," for $6.99 plus toppings.

RaysHellMyMeal The wait would prove to be the most well orchestrated portion of our evening, as from here, organization flew out the window. Our server was very sweet, but had almost no idea what was going on concerning the menu or otherwise. When asked about the new Hanoi burger, which is only vaguely described on the menu, she had nothing to offer in the way of description. Ray's had yet to draw up a drink list, and we got very different opinions on what it actually contained, depending on who we asked. I don't know whether to blame lack of time for training, last minute changes, or what, but if we hadn't already been well acquainted with the original concept, we would have been lost.

As best I can tell, Ray's offers Bud Light, Bell's Two Hearted Ale, and Delirium Tremens by the 12 oz bottle -- strange selections for such a tiny list, as each of these occupies some sort of fringe in the wide world of beer. Baby bottles of Beringer Merlot and Cabernet were also served, along with Pinot Grigio, which was already out of stock. We were told that all drinks were $4.00 a piece, making the Tremens a tremendous deal (if you like that sort of thing), and the Budwater a terrible ripoff. The drinks were a long time in coming, and were then unceremoniously dumped on the table, sans glasses, with the soft drink bottles not even opened. I know I'm not the bloody Duchess of Kent or anything, but come on...

RaysHellElizasBurger

We'd all ordered incarnations of the "Lil Devil," which arrived in various states, ranging from overcooked to underdone. As often happens when given too many options, I panicked, and ordered my burger with what some may call a revolting combination of bone marrow and cave aged cheddar. It didn't work at all -- which I admit is totally my fault -- and I was very disappointed to find my "rare" burger just a hair under medium. Eliza ordered more sensibly, opting for the always delicious sherry and brandy sauteed mushrooms (a longtime staple at Ray's The Steaks), but her's, too, was about one shade too brown. 

Worst of all, one of our companions ordered the boar, which came out underdone! He made a terrible face when he tried it, and voiced his concerns. Unfamiliar with ground boar, we all thought that maybe it was supposed to be a little pink, but the texture was undeniably gummy and unpleasant. The waitress was less concerned than I would have hoped that they'd served us raw pork, but did take it away and fire a new onRaysHellMyBurgere. In the interim, we were offhandedly informed that we would not be allowed to order any more drinks, as they were running low, which at that point was pretty much cool by all involved. The bill came to about $74.00, which included five burgers, several sides of fries, our beers, and truffled mac and cheese.

I know its not fair to judge a restaurant on its first week, much less on what might have been its opening day. But folks, this ain't remotely Michael Landrum's first rodeo, and this isn't even really a new restaurant, so much as a new concept shoehorned into an old space. Landrum knows how to open a restaurant, which makes our disappointing experience all the more puzzling. 

RaysHellBoar1 Since our visit, we've talked to a couple friends who have been since the renovation, and they had a pretty good time, so hopefully things are settling in. I'm hoping that our experience was just an isolated event, or that matters have much improved by now. So I throw it out to you -- have any of you guys been? If so, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Ray's Hell Burger Too
1713 N Wilson Blvd
Arlington, Virginia 22201
(703) 841-0001
Map



Stoney's Bar and Grill

The Venue: If Stoney’s were an entry in a thesaurus, words like lived-in, comfy, cozy and maybe even homely would pop up next to its name. Although a staple in our post-theater rotation, how would Stoney’s hold up to the “pre-theater mandate”: quick service, light fare, value and variety. DS and I decided to grab a quick bite before the 8 o’clock show at the Studio Theatre.


The Cast of Characters: Most will tell you that the star of Stoney’s is the Super Grilled Cheese – comfort food taken to a new level with the addition of tomatoes, bacon and onions. However, the (regular) Grilled Cheese is more to my liking – lots of cheese, melted, between slices of thick bread. Both are served with fries.


DS ordered the crab platter and got more than he bargained for: two crab cakes and two sides – mashed potatoes and salad. (The menu was a bit confusing: Crab cakes are listed as an Appetizer ($9.25), Sandwich ($10.25) served with fries and coleslaw, and Platter ($17.50). Although both the sandwich and platter come with sides, DS didn’t realize he had ordered the platter until the bill came.) Although the crab cakes looked a suspicious shade of gray – maybe it was the lighting – they were really quite good: just the right amount of filler, a light hand in the seasoning department. I’ve not developed my palate to be able to distinguish between mashed potatoes that come from a box and those that come from the ground, but with enough butter and salt it doesn’t really matter.


A creature of habit, I ordered the cheeseburger with fries. The cheeseburger was… well, just a cheeseburger. And, although I’ve eaten my share of burgers at Stoney’s, they’re nothing to write home about. I have learned, over time, that a rare Stoney’s burger often leaves the kitchen medium rare; medium rare is closer to well done. You do get your choice of toppings, ranging from Black & Bleu to Texas with BBQ sauce and coleslaw to the One-Eyed, a burger topped with a fried egg and Swiss cheese. All burgers are served with fries and range in price from $7.75 to $8.95.


DS and I both made the mistake of ordering as if this was just another evening out. We forgot we had tickets to the theater. The goal – eat light, drink less, stay awake – was totally forgotten. Although the portions are adequate our selections proved to be too much for a pre-theater meal. Stoney’s does offer salads and pizzas – and there are daily specials that include pastas and solid comfort food – and we could have easily chosen lighter fare.


Performance: We were, however, able to enjoy a leisurely meal. The food came from the kitchen at a reasonable pace. Yet, water or wine refills are another story: don’t expect much attention from the wait staff. They are quite content to leave you on your own. Past experience told us it’s easier to glance at the chalkboard, rather than ask the wait staff, for the daily specials.


Set Design: Stoney’s is divided into two distinct areas: a bar and a dining area. Beer tap handles – at the top of the back bar, extending around both sides – provide sporadic bursts of color among the dark wood and an interesting distraction while waiting for food.


Stoney’s does attract, as well as reflect, the diversity of the neighborhood. On any given night you might find: sixty-somethings celebrating a birthday in the dining area; twenty-somethings discussing the World Cup qualifiers as they watch on one of the two big screen TVs; neighborhood folks chatting up newcomers and regulars alike; or, actors gathering to unwind, critique or congratulate.


The Mark: Our expectations weren’t high. After all, we had eaten at Stoney’s many times after the show; however, this was one of the few times we had visited before the show. Stoney’s is a tavern, in the true sense of the word: a place to gather, socialize, drink and eat. The crowd is eclectic and the food is reasonably priced, dependable and, unlike other neighborhood restaurants, available for both the late-night and pre-theater diner.


Stoney’s Bar and Grill

1433 P Street, N.W.

Washington, DC

Map

(One block west of Studio Theatre)

202-234-1818

(Stoney's is so unpretentious that it doesn't even have a web site.)


Chipotle Disappointment

After going to the gym last night, I stopped by Chipotle in Tenleytown for dinner - you know, to take in double the calories I had just worked off. I ordered the Carnitas bowl with black beans, cheese, guacamole, and corn and green tomatillo salsas. The pork was really fatty, much to my disappointment. This is the second time this has happened. For some reason, Chipotle has changed the way they make the carnitas. I think I will be ordering the chicken from now on.


Qdoba Mexican Grill

In case you've never heard of it, Qdoba is a Chipotle style, fast casual restaurant. One recently moved in by my office in Largo, I have eaten there a few times for lunch.  (In case you are wondering where Largo is, it is in the middle of nowhere in PG County where south of where RT 50 intersects with the Beltway.) In some respects, I am impressed, and in others, eating there just makes me crave Chipotle.

First, let me talk about the positives. They have more variety than Chipotle. On top of burritos, Qdoba has quesadillas, soups, and salads. I ordered a Chicken Taco Salad today for lunch and I was pretty impressed. On the salad, they put a black bean corn salsa and a spicy ranch dressing. Add the extra hot salsa, and you have yourself a fantastic salad.

I have not ordered it yet, but the Grilled Vegetable Burrito sounds very appetizing. Unlike Chipotle's boring Vegitarian Burrito, this one has zucchini, scallions, eggplant and sweet red peppers. If I were a vegetarian, I would prefer Qdoba over Chipotle. However, I'm not a rabbit.

Now for the negatives. First of all, Qdoba's burritos are not nearly as flavorful as Chipotle's. The meats and rice are not seasoned well and the salsas are not as spicy (of course for some, that might be a positive). The "Extra Hot" salsa is about as hot as Chipotle's medium salsa. Also, the Guacamole is especially bland. If you order a burrito at Qdoba, expect a blander, but possibly more complex, version of what you will get at Chipotle.