After spending the summer in France on business, there was one new restaurant my husband was dying to take me to upon my return: Ray’s Hell Burger.
After all, what could be more appropriate to celebrate my re-entry to the good ol’ U S of A than a hamburger? Especially for a gal who, despite learning to consume foie gras and escargot as an adult, was raised by a mother who believes in one major food group only: beef.
So my husband and I met in Rosslyn after work Wednesday night to give it a try. Good thing he showed up. I walked past the place twice without seeing it before he arrived.
Signs were still up for the former business that resided there and there is no banner with the restaurant’s name marking the spot.
Ray’s Hell Burger (Photo/Madeline Muravichik)
Once inside, the bedlam began. Every table, each gamely equipped with a roll of paper towels and a bevy of condiments including three types of mustard, ketchup, hot sauce, A1 and the like, was taken. The crowd was a diverse mix of 20 and 30-somethings with a few couples in the 50 or over category.
The extra bar height tables with no chairs quickly got filled, too. And the line to order stretched half way to the door and further as the night progressed. I was actually thankful for the wait because it gave me time to peruse the menu.
You’d think it’d be simple, this being a burger joint and all. The only question I’m really used to in such environments is “Do you want fries with that?” But this isn’t your ordinary burger. Nor are there any fries on site.
Ray’s Hell Burger (Photo/Madeline Muravichik)</div></div>Burgers are served with sweet but oddly chewy corn on the cob and a slice of watermelon. Those who consider it a sacrilege not to consume some form of fried potato with their burger can buy a bag of chips.
The first vital question on the menu: what type of burger to have? Grilled? Seared with pepper crust? The picante Diablo burger? Next the desired doneness must be selected ranging from still mooing to well done.
After that, there is a list of accoutrements, principally cheeses, including several gourmet varieties of which I’d never heard, ranging in price from $1-5. Also, there is a list of free add-ons including sautéed mushrooms, onions, or peppers, pickles, and a variety of other veggies.
Another benefit of the do-it-yourself set-up was not having to wait for a table to order, which, in a traditional sit-down dining establishment, could have taken all night.
The downside, of course, is that there is a high probability of receiving your food and still not having a place to eat it. This was a possibility I wasn’t looking forward to since I didn’t realize we’d have to do carry out and I wasn’t sure how the burgers would hold up on the 20-minute drive home.
But when, from the corner of my eye in the ordering line, I saw a chair sliding back, I shouted my order to my husband, and made a beeline for the table. I swooped upon it as soon as its occupants vacated and took a seat before their plates had been cleared, which happened just a few moments later. Triumph was mine!
A few minutes later I was joined by my husband who carried over our drinks – a super-sweet homemade lemonade for me and a cream soda for himself, which was a first for him.
Turns out they’d run out of their “on tap” root beer. A situation clearly rectified a bit later when we saw the large cardboard box of root beer being carted through the front of the restaurant and the root beer floats started appearing on other tables.
Our burgers were delivered by a waitress shouting my husband’s name. Good thing his hearing is better than mine. I couldn’t distinguish one name from the others being called in the din as I eagerly glanced at all the burgers floating above our heads hoping two of them were ours, but which two?
Fortunately our fare arrived relatively quickly and mostly as it had been ordered – though my bacon and pickles were attached to my husband’s spicy Diablo burger, which we remedied by simply switching bun tops.
But the mushrooms he’d ordered were nowhere to be seen. (We didn’t catch the sign advising patrons that if their burgers arrived missing anything that the mistake would gladly be corrected if it were brought back until we were walking out the door.)
But none of that changed the absolutely best moment of the evening when we hoisted our burgers to our mouths and saw the juice run out of the bottoms. That’s when you just know you’re going to have a good burger. And it also explained the paper towels.
Indeed my burger was cooked to juicy perfection, precisely the pink I’d wanted. We ate without too much chatter one, because handling the huge burgers took concentration and two, because it was rather hard to talk over the noise.
We did get to people-watch though and witnessed a showdown for a table since the next one to clear was one adjacent to ours. It was approached simultaneously by a young man from the back of the restaurant and a woman at the front by the door. She made it to the table first. But that didn’t seem to convince the desperate man the table wasn’t his until he realized she was visibly pregnant and then conceded a good-natured “You win.”
(There are also typewritten signs on the walls, along with a smattering of movie posters, asking patrons to not rearrange the furniture and to give seating priority to those who need it.)
Ironically, my one complaint about my burger is that it missed a certain je ne sais quoi while my husband ultimately deemed his Diablo burger was too spicy and said next time he’d go for a simple grilled burger instead.
I left wondering if I had chosen one of those more exotic cheeses or another of the less typical toppings if it would have offered the kick my burger lacked. There’s only one way to find out. Though next time, I’m putting my husband on table patrol so I can ask some questions. Like what exactly is the Bourgogne, the only extra clocking in at $5, and truly figure out the best way to top my burger.
It’s research I’m looking forward to.
Ray’s Hell Burger is owned by Michael Landrum, recipient of Washingtonian’s Restaurateur of the Year Award in 2007 with his other venues Ray’s the Steaks and Ray’s the Classics.
1713 Wilson Blvd.,
Arlington, VA 22209
Open Tue-Thu 5:30pm-10pm; Fri-Sat 5:30pm-11pm