Z-Burger Busts Out In Columbia Heights
Is Z-Burger the next Five Guys?
If Peter Tabibian, owner of the D.C.-based mini-chain, has his way, it just might be.
Z-Burger first opened in Tenleytown in 2008 and has since expanded to a total of six locations (open or soon-to-open) in D.C., Maryland and Virginia. While there’s still a long way to go to match the total of the other D.C.-area born burger chain, Five Guys, (over 1,000 locations nationwide), Tabibian told us he wants to have 100 of his joints churning out burgers in the next five years. And you know something? We wouldn’t bet against him.
Tabibian’s latest restaurant opened up last month in the former Tivoli Theater lobby space in Columbia Heights, the same location that’s been touting “Z-Burger: Coming Soon!” for about a year. Yes, it’s finally open. Due to an extensive remodeling of the historic theater, the construction of the burger joint took a lot longer than he anticipated. In fact, Tabibian estimates he paid about $180,000 in rent before they even served their first burger there.
But all of that seems worth it, as the brand new spot is quite the looker. The outside, adorned with theater lights, still sports the “Tivoli” sign, while the words “Burgers,” “Fries,” and “Shakes” scream at passersby on 14th Street and Park Road. The old theater ticket window now looks in on Z-Burger’s custard and shake station which Tabibian plans to open up to street-side service in the near future.
On the inside, gone are the walls that kept the location looking like a cave. Now, large, bright windows let in the sun during the day and advertise tasty, delicious burger-eating patrons to onlookers at night. And while it’s been fully converted into a burger slinging joint, Tabibian still pays homage to the place’s history. Original frescoes still decorate the walls and columns and the original theater molding which runs around the perimeter of the restaurant have been touched up and repainted. A “Z”-emblazoned curtain leading to an employee-only upper level and a brand new mural on the wall keep with the theater theme. It really is a gorgeous spot.
And when it comes to the grub, Z-Burger does the fast-food and it does it very, very well.
One look at the menu and you’ll instantly notice the similarity to other Guys. Single and double burgers? Check. Hot dogs? Check. Fries in a sack? Check. But Z-Burger does them much more than just one better. Not just content with burgers, dogs and fries, Tabibian’s joint hooks up a lineup of cheese steaks, shakes, malts, custard and some of the best damn onion rings we’ve eaten. Ever.
We got a taste of just about the entire menu when we visited last week and, while we inhaled everything put before us, there were three things that really stood out: the hot dogs, custard and the onion rings.
The hot dogs are Hebrew National and come butterflied on some really kick-ass buns. The toasted bread is flatter than the typical dog wrapper– it’s like a wee, mini-baguette. Our dogs were dressed up with ketchup, cheese and jalapeno (an exquisite combo of toppings recommended by Tabibian) and if we weren’t teetering on the edge of 5+ lbs. of meat consumption that night, we would’ve gladly taken several more of them to the face.
On the side front, the rings made with fresh-sliced onions and coated in a secret Z-Burger batter recipe were just plain silly good. Hot, crispy and just a bit sweet, the circles of fried goodness maintained their integrity through it all too– there were no occurrences of onion and batter separation after a bite. Now we’ve had many Burger Days’ battles over which type of onion ring reigns supreme: the breaded or battered. But after our round with Z-Burger’s rings, there were several members of the “breaded” camp questioning their loyalty. They’re that good. (Also, don’t miss the mango mayo for dipping– so good.)
As for the dessert, Tabibian was eager to show off and serve up his new custard, the Z-Concrete, which we gladly tossed in our bellies. This stuff is so thick, it makes a Blizzard seem like a Slurpee. We had trouble pulling our spoons out of the thickness but once we did we were treated to some deliciously dense and rich frozen goodness. And while it may be difficult to pass up Z-Burger’s 75 different shake flavors (including KRISPY KREME!!) we strongly recommend dipping into their custard.
Back to Tabibian’s plan on Z-Burger hitting the triple digit mark in five years. While it certainly seems like a tall order, especially with how long it took to open this latest spot, the guy certainly has the drive. At 17, he managed a Burger King in L’Enfant Plaza and later, went on to be General Manager at a Jerry’s Subs and Pizza in Capital Heights for eight years. There, he was robbed 12 times in a year, had a guy working for him who later turned up on America’s Most Wanted and once came out to the parking lot to find all four tires on his car slashed by a cashier’s jealous boyfriend. But still, he kept doing his fast-food thing.
Fast forward to today and six burger-slinging joints under the belt later, and Tabibian is still just as committed to his restaurants, though he admits he doesn’t make it up to his Baltimore store as often as he should (“That spot was a mistake,” Tabibian said, “it’s just too far to manage.”) Still, he’s been putting in the hours and then some (he’s routinely out until 3 to 4 a.m. each night giving employees rides home after close), ensuring that his operation runs as smoothly as possible which we got to see in full effect during our visit– both from up front and behind the scenes.
So now, with fugitive employees and slashed tires behind him, is 94 more Z-Burgers in five years possible for Tabibian?
Like we said, we wouldn’t bet against him.
Z-Burger | 6 locations in D.C., Maryland and Virginia | zburger.com