Ray’s Hell Burger really doesn’t need any introduction.
The Arlington joint has been lauded by just about everyone in the D.C. area, and beyond, for their quality burgers– and when the President hits up the spot, you know the world is hearing about it.
But that’s the thing: Ray’s doesn’t do publicity. You get the feeling they could care less about what people are saying about them. Everything about the joint screams “take it or leave it.” And that’s a big part of their draw. From the no-frills hole-in-the-wall location in a run-down strip mall on Wilson Blvd., to the paper menus and cash only register, it’s a rather unimpressive sight– save for what they serve up on your plate.
Hell Burger got its rabid cult-ish following much the same way Michael Landrum’s first restaurant, Ray’s the Steaks, got its fanbase: word-of-mouth. Simply put, if you hook it up, people will come. And the two spots have more in common than just their owner– both use the same, high quality prime beef; it’s just served on a bun at Hell Burger.
Ok, enough of the back story– on to the eats.
Now, we’ve been to Ray’s a good many times over the years and found that they CAN be hit or miss at times. But fortunately, a miss at Ray’s is better than many of the other area joint’s hits.
We visited them twice this past week to get a thorough experience of the goods (alright, we also did it because they make fucking great burgers.)
Ray’s has seven of their own burger creations ranging from the simple The Mack with American cheese, tomato, lettuce, pickles, onion and their Heck Sauce (why get G-rated here?) to the what-we-like-to-think is the Terror Squad-endorsed Fat Joe with seared foie gras, balsamic glaze, white truffle oil, shallots and tomato. The rest are somewhere in between and none will run you more than 10 bucks, save the blinged-out Joe at $17. (Lean back)
If you’re not feeling the pre-dressed up burgs, you can hook it up yourself. Unlike most other joints, Ray’s gives you four options for the burger, and no, we’re not talking about veggie or bird patties here. You can choose to get your beef plain, Au Poivre (black peppercorn crust), Blackened (Cajun spice blend) or Diablo (grilled with a spicy chipotle sauce). Any way you choose won’t cost you more than the base $6.99.
There’s a bunch of free toppings including all the regular stuff plus some highfalutin options like roasted garlic, cognac & sherry sauteed mushrooms and charred jalapenos. And if you love the dairy like we do, you’ll love Ray’s cheese selection– there’s 11 kinds. America, Swiss, Vermont white cheddar, smoked mozzarella, Muenster, pepper jack and provolone will set you back a buck, while the aged Danish bleu, Gruyere, double cream brie and mustard seed dutch gouda is $1.50, and if you’re livin’ large, the Epoisse de Bourgogne is 5 bills. Ray’s doesn’t stop there with the rich stuff either, the “luxury” toppings include some downright fancy shit: roasted bone marrow and seared foie gras with truffle oil. Ballin’.
We took both paths and went for a create-your-own and one of their concoctions. For our burger, we ordered a medium-rare Au Poivre with Vermont White Cheddar, Applewood smoked bacon, grilled onions, lettuce and tomato. All washed down with some Cheerwine. If you ain’t hip, school yourself now.
Not only does Ray’s hook it up with the quality beef, but they bring it heftily. No dainty patties here– it’s 10 ounces of pure cow.
Served up on a plain white plate, damn it, if it wasn’t just about the prettiest burger we ever did see. It’s not one of those steakhouse deals that come all garnished to the gills and is better suited for a photoshoot than to be stuffed in your face. Nah, the Hell Burger looks like something you got at a cookout off the backyard grill. It’s a proper burger.
The extremely long strips of bacon poked and reached their way out from mix, refusing to be constrained to the bun-y perimeter. The grilled onions were served up generously and were sittin’ pretty atop the cheese blanketed patty. The lettuce, strategically placed on the bottom of the burger, provided a much-needed buffer between the beef juices and bottom bun.
Now, when we talked about Ray’s hitting or missing, despite all the above aesthetic praise, this was not one of their better days. The burger was a bit overcooked –more medium than medium rare– and the flavor suffered some because of it. And the black peppercorn encrusted patty we have so come to love here was too sparsely seasoned. However, also like we said before, an off day at Ray’s is oftentimes better than a good day anywhere else and even with our misgivings on the burger, we were more than pleased to polish this sucker off. Despite the more well-doneness, the loosely packed patty was still plenty juicy and the char, that ever-so important feature of a well-cooked burger, was in full effect. We just wish everything else was on point too.
And that’s where Round 2 comes in.
A few days after our initial trip, we gave Hell Burger another go and this time it. was. glorious.
Bypassing our creativity, we let Ray’s do the work and ordered up The New Jack Zing– a blackened burger with pepper jack, grilled onions, charred jalapenos and roasted garlic. We didn’t mess around this time and went rare and it proved to be the right choice.
The pepper jack coming in the form of two wedged slabs, intersected with perfect melty harmony atop the cajun spice-rubbed burger. A healthy slathering of roasted garlic was on the top half of the bun along with a mountain of charred jalapeno and grilled onion mashup. And, like a preview of what was to come, a small puddle of beefy juice was chillin’ next to it all.
Oh, this was going to be fun.
The burger was downright amazing. The patty, which left a little bit to be desired our first go round, this time was spot on, expertly seasoned and cooked to a tee. The flavor of the beef was so prominent and distinctive– exactly the way a burger should be– and the cajun rub, jalapenos and jack cheese hooked up the smoky spice just like we hoped for. With the onions and garlic providing a balance for the heat, it wasn’t hot enough to leave us dabbing our foreheads with a a napkin every minute, but it provided enough of a kick to put our mouths in gear.
And talk about juicy. This thing was akin to a beefy water balloon. One of the BD crew was left with a wading pool of burger juice on his plate after biting into his. That was pretty spectacular.
Unlike with a lot of the other burgers we’ve had over the years, the bun at Ray’s is an afterthought. While other joints –especially the steak houses– may go for a fancier number, Ray’s serves up the beef on a plain, toasted white bun. During both visits, I never even noticed the bun while eating the burgers; I was completely and utterly focused on the beef. And that’s the way it needs to be. While I have enjoyed the buns at many a burger spot, be it a buttered brioche, onion or potato roll, it really does say something about the quality of a burger as a whole if you don’t remember the bread.
We can’t say enough about the flavor of this burger. In fact, we were still tasting it a full eight hours after we housed that bitch. Some may call that disgusting, we call it delicious.
When they first started out, Ray’s only offered up potato chips, but now they have a lineup of sides including regular and sweet potato fries, cole slaw and their ridiculously rich and gooey, seven cheese mac and cheese.
The fries are good enough, but at just two bucks, the seven cheese mac is an absolute steal. It’s served up in all its cheesey glory in a smallish styrofoam bowl and while you may be tempted to double up on the order, one is more than enough. One of the crew tried to pair the burger with a two-fer of the mac and had to call in some help finishing it up. For shame.
Hell Burger has been going strong since it burst onto the D.C. burger scene in 2008 and they haven’t let up one bit. While they’re prone to ups and downs like every other joint out there, when they’re on –which is a vast majority of the time– you’d be hard pressed to find a better burger anywhere. And when you can get a 10 ounce delectable beef monster, a drink and some kick-ass mac and cheese for just about 10 bones, it takes it to whole other level.
(Just a few doors down in the same shopping center is Ray’s Hell Burger Too offering up turkey, boar and bison in addition to the beef burgers. They also have table service, booze and can swipe your credit cards.)
Ray’s Hell Burger | 1725 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington | 703-841-0001