Bethesda’s City Burger is Worthy of a Trip to Maryland
Our beefy adventures have taken us near and far in our search for burgers and while the D.C. area is our primary stomping ground, Maryland oftentimes gets overlooked in our quest. This is not meant as a slight to our northernmost D.M.V. member (it’s mostly a logistical decision) and we’ve taken it upon ourselves to explore the greasy MD landscape in much more thorough fashion.
One Maryland joint we’ve been frequenting lately is the fast-casual City Burger from the Food & Wine Co. crew in Bethesda. Our first impression when we stepped inside the spot on Wisconsin Avenue earlier this summer was “Damn– this place is tiny.” Because it is. It’s really small. There’s space for maybe 25 people – and if you’re one of those 25, you’ll be praying the other 24 took showers that morning.
But size aside, it’s an efficient operation, with everything cooked-to-order (as every burger joint worth its grease should be), the wait for our food never reached an unacceptable length of time.
Despite opening less than six months ago, the lineup of burgers here has already received an overhaul (and this was even before Chef Michael Harr left last month). Gone is the burger topped with a slice of fried cheese (dammit) and the popular pineapple-and-ham Hawaiian. Now, the lineup of nine burgers – three of the non-beef persuasion – consists of City Burger versions of classic combos (the BBQ, cheddar and fried-onion topped Pit Stop, the District Blue with blue cheese and bacon and the mushroom, Swiss and caramelized onion City Proper) and two other standouts.
Meat-on-meat always makes us smile, so it shouldn’t be a shock to hear that the Brooklyn Deli with its pastrami, Swiss, coleslaw and mustard makeup was our top pick of the bunch (at least when it came to the beef). The ratio of components was spot-on as the mustard tickled our taste buds before making way for the cool, creamy slaw, both sitting on a perfectly Swiss-covered patty. And while most other burger joints would be content in tossing a limp pile of meat on top, technically satisfying the meat-on-meat prerequisite, City Burger crisps up the pastrami, adding a salty, bacon-like crunch to the mix. We loved it.
As egg-topped burger lovers, we were let down by City Burger’s attempt at the combo, which also happens to be the most popular burger on the menu, the Downtown. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: runny eggs and runny eggs only on burgers. At first, we were optimistic at the sight of a tiny river of yellow pouring from beneath the bun, but our dippy egg hopes were soon dashed as our mouths met the mostly-hard yolk lurking beneath. What a tease. And unlike the harmonious ingredients of the Brooklyn Deli, the Downtown was drowned out by a cilantro-heavy green chile mixture which, even if served more sparingly, we didn’t like paired with the beef.
As much as it may hurt our “beef-only” street cred, perhaps the tastiest thing we put in our faces during our visits to the Bethesda joint was actually the “burger” made of lamb. Yeah, shocking, we know. The Spice Market was topped with the same green chile from the Downtown, but here it worked and combined beautifully with the feta, onion and arugula. Seriously, we love the pastrami-topped beef, but there’s just something about that juicy, seasoned lamb patty that left us wanting to go another round or three.
We ran the spectrum of cow burgers on the menu and one of the most impressive takeaways from our beefy encounters was the consistency of the cook. Medium rare is the rarest you’ll get from City Burger and in every one of our visits, our beef was hot, well-seasoned and sufficiently juicy. In addition to properly regulated time on the grill, helping keep the patties from drying out is a fattier-than-standard 75/25 mix of beef. And while we found the 4.5-ounce patties sufficient in keeping us satiated until our next meal, we love the option to increase the meat and double stack it here (it’s not on the menu, so just ask).
There are fries, onion rings and fried green beans on the side, with the sea-salted spuds our favorite of the bunch by far. For the wiener lovers, all beef and half smoke dogs are also on tap including a frank done up with pastrami, Brooklyn Deli style, but we’re content sticking to the burgers when we venture up here.
Though not a burger, there is another menu item that has quickly become a must-order each time we visit: the shakes. The in-house, hand-spun milkshakes are phenomenal here. Ranging from simple chocolate or vanilla to the Nutella, banana, chocolate sauce and salted caramel City Slicker, our top pick is the Farmer’s Market with swirling gobs of crushed-up berries mixed with vanilla custard. While it may be a struggle fitting 16 ounces of thick-as-hell, sweet, frozen goodness into your belly along side a burger or two, trust us, it’s worth it. Every. Single. Time.
Last but not least, the prices here are surprisingly excellent for a D.C.-area burger joint. Especially for Bethesda. No beef burger on the menu is a more than six bucks (the lamb is $6.75) and a combo meal gets you a burger or cheeseburger with fries and a drink for $6.59 and $7.59 respectively. That’s a steal compared to other burger slingers like Elevation, Five Guys or Z Burger.
When it comes to fast-casual burgers in D.C., City Burger has earned its way into the top tier. It won’t touch a Shake Shack (but really, who can?), but it’s miles ahead of the other “better burger” chains that have invaded the area over the last few years. Our only concern is possible adjustments to the formula that tend to come when someone new takes over the kitchen. Attempting to put our minds at ease, we’re told there are no major changes planned, the only minor tweak made thus far was a move last month from Martin’s Potato Rolls to in-house, fresh-baked potato bread. Let’s hope it stays that way.
City Burger | 7015 Wisconsin Avenue | Bethesda | cityburgeronline.com