By Mandy Simon
There’s been a lot of hype about Ray’s Hell Burger in Arlington. You might want to believe it.
Brief history of Ray’s. Michael Landrum owns both Ray’s the Steaks on Wilson Boulevard in Arlington and Ray’s the Classics in Silver Spring. Both restaurants were great successes, but Landrum found that the leftover meat was too good to waste, so he began offering 10 oz Aged Prime Beef burgers at the spin-off Hell Burger, hosted in a storefront in the same Alexandria stripmall as Ray’s the Steaks. Landrum’s waste-not-want-not mentality has translated into what’s being hailed as the best burger in DC.
Walking into Ray’s you’ll find that the dining room is fairly nondescript. Tables, chairs and a kitchen are pretty much all a restaurant needs if the food is up to scratch and it sounds like the lack of décor may be Landrum’s general M.O. And, frankly, if you’re looking at the walls it just means your food hasn’t arrived yet.
Ray’s burger comes with lettuce, tomato and an orange slice on the side and the options for additional toppings vary from the benign (dill pickle chips) to the absurd (foie gras). If cheeseburgers are your thing, welcome to a whole new world. They have the usual American and Swiss but, for a little more, you can get gruyere, stilton or even Epoisses. It used to be that your side-dish options were limited to corn on the cob and watermelon. Now they offer cheesy tater tots, cole slaw, and gourmet potato chips.
I added aged bleu cheese and dill pickle chips to my burger. Spencer had the applewood smoked bacon, swiss, cognac-and-sherry-sauteed-mushrooms and grilled red onion, finished off with the dill chips. It’s possible to get your burger blackened, au poivre, or marinated but I suggest you keep it simple your first time out. On the side we had the cole slaw — pretty good, not great — and the tater tots (I call them cheesy poofs, recognizing that they’re not the regulation-issue snacks of South Park fame). Those are pretty good as well, but molten hot inside. Spencer was foolish enough to bite into them and scald his mouth, while I more sensibly sliced through them with the side of my fork; let them cool; and then nommed away. We both took advantage of the Old Dominion Root Beer Ray’s keeps on tap.
The one overarching criticism I found during my research on Ray’s was that the bun was simply not strong enough for the burger. This, I can report, is true. But you’ll be so happy with what’s inside the bun you’ll end up giggling excitedly as you do your best to hold it together.