(Update: Due to a Landlord-Tenant Dispute, Ray’s Hell Burger closed on January 16th, 2013, as did Ray’s Hell Burger Too. Ray’s to the Third across the street at 1650 Wilson Boulevard, however, remains open.)
Well, sometimes the combination of work and personal travel means that there literally is no rest for the weary. I had barely done laundry from the back-to-back-back Chicago, Dayton, and Austin trips, when my travels again had me heading out for 5 days to the DC are for a conference. I rather like going to DC (and do so a lot, usually 4-5 times a year), but it’s never convenient getting there from my house in New Hampshire; I either have to deal with planes, trains, and metros (BWI), a long bus ride (BOS), or inconvenient flight times (DCA). This time I opted for the last of these, since I was staying in Crystal City. Indeed, my with 6:45 am flight, I arrived at DCA and was out the door with my bags by 8:10am on a fabulous Sunday morning, with nothing on my slate until 1:45 in the afternoon (yes, my client scheduled things for Sunday…). After a nice, pleasant walk to the hotel (Yes, Crystal City is only about a 20 minute walk from DCA), I realized I had the better part of 4 hours to get something useful done. So I grabbed a bike from Capital Bikeshare (which is one of those bike rental services that’s just perfect for a visitor like myself), and decided to take a scenic ride north on the Mount Vernon Trail to Arlington, and Ray’s Hell Burger.
This wasn’t my first visit to Ray’s Hell Burger. I first discovered Ray’s shortly after it opened in 2008, since it’s in Arlington in the little strip mall down from Courthouse Metro that also contains Pho 75, one of my favorite Pho joints. The location used to be the original location for Ray’s The Steaks (which is still a favorite of my for steaks with a really good quality-to-price ratio), and when it moved a few blocks down on Wilson, the Ray’s folks turned it into a burger joint. It’s definitely a burger joint, too, since it’s got almost a lack of decor: tile floor, simple tables, an ordering window, and white wall adorned with an occasional movie poster (and hey, nothing whets the appetite like a poster from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari!). Heck, four years after Ray’s opened, there’s still just a simple, temporary-looking banner outside instead of the more-normal lit signage. You literally could miss this place if you didn’t know it was there (this trip, as I was sitting outside eating my burger, someone asked me where Ray’s was…. But this was my first trip with a decent camera.
The simplicity of the decor is part of the whole approach to Ray’s. It’s not about the decor, it’s about the burgers, and everything is optimized around that (Ray’s the Steaks has a similar approach to steaks, although they did spruce up the decor). This simplicity also carries over to the menu, which is basically burgers (two sizes), fries, rings, coleslaw, mac and cheese, milkshakes, and sodas. However, they make up for this simplicity by having a rather large number of toppings, ranging from the free ones (lettuce, tomato, onion, jalapenos, mushroom, garlic, and various “special sauces”) to a large number of cheeses (all the way from the simple American up to brie and cave-aged Irish Cheddar), supplemental meats (bacon, as well as the more notable roasted bone barrow or seared foie gras). They also help with the people that find this much choice troublesome by having a menu of pre-defined burger combinations as well.
But for me, it was relatively simple, I went for a variation on one of their classics: The Big Punisher: Diablo Burger, Pepper Jack Cheese, Charred Jalapeños, Onions (I replaced the cooked onions with raw), and their Pirañha special sauce. I also went for an order of fries, and a cherry soda. The last of these resulted in a pleasant surprise: my cherry soda was made by Foxon Park of East Haven, CT. I’ve always rather enjoyed Foxon Park, every since getting addicted to their White Birch soda back in the early ’80s when I was staying with my cousins for part of the summer. I’ve also never seen it at a restaurant outside of Connecticut before. Whoever is buying the sodas for Ray’s has good taste in soda.
But let’s get on to the burger… Going for the full 10 oz version of their burger, this is a pretty substantial meat patty. But they show that they’ve got this burger thing down pat, since they actually manage to cook the burger well (usually I find that most places making burgers over about 1/3 pound have a hard time getting the entire cooking process right). Like the previous week’s visit to Thurman Cafe), this was a nicely done burger: the outside had a nice char and was fully crisped, but then the burger quickly transitions to the nice, soft, and delicate warm, pink interior that’s the hallmark of a proper medium rare burger. Indeed, they’ve got a really nice meat blend going here, since it had just enough fat to be moist, tender, and juicy, but without being excessively greasy. Add a layer of nice pepper jack cheese, some nicely crip red onions, and some jalapenos, places on a nicely bun that was substantial enough to absorb the drippings without overwhelming the burger, and this was a near perfect burger (only room for improvement I saw was that I like a little toast on my bun). The fries were also nicely done, with a crisp exterior and a fluffy interior, showing that they are taking a bit more care than just tipping a Sysco bag of fries into the Frialator.
Basically, Ray’s continues to please me by cranking out some excellent burgers in a no-frills environment with a good price, good toppings selection, and some good sides and beverages (they also make a great milkshake). Probably my only problem with Ray’s is the location, being next to Pho 75, I always have a bit of a struggle figuring out which one I want to go to more…