4401 Wilson Blvd.
Arlington, VA 22203
CUISINE American, Burgers
PRICE Under $12
HOURS Open for lunch daily, dinner, Monday through Saturday.
NVM AWARDS None
NEARBY METRO Orange(Ballston-MU)
By Warren Rojas
The name elicits titters. Their store is locked within an urban courtyard. And the press seems determined to pigeonhole them as “just another burger joint.”
Yet Big Buns cofounder Craig Carey takes it all in stride.
He threw in the towel on a staid sports-marketing career (Carey’s got a marketing/finance degree to fall back on) and later learned the nuts and bolts of restaurant management by working his way through the ranks of the Great American Restaurants machine (Has everyone in the biz worked for these guys at some point?).
But the restless soon-to-be restaurateur was already analyzing the rise of made-to-order, Mexican fast-casual eateries—which he figured were reaching their natural tipping point—and reworking their model to fit his plans for an American grill.
Once he found kindred spirit Tom Racowsky, a Johnson & Wales grad yearning for his next culinary challenge, the partners set about bringing their custom grill to life.
Though still in its infancy (the store debuted summer 2007), Carey estimates that around 300 customers march through their doors during a “busy” lunch rush. Work days bring businessmen all too happy to pin their ties back to avoid sporting a stray ketchup stain back to the office, while fry-sharing couples and book-reading singles lay siege to the dining room most weekends.
Carey credits their success so far to the plainspoken but pliable menu. The five-step program involves selecting:
“I really wanted to provide a simple menu … but with thousands of possibilities,” Carey said of the mix-and-match malleability of the ordering process.
Although traditional burgers remain the strongest seller to date, Carey noted that the burger salads continue to gain converts.
“So many people come in and get the bowls because they want the salad option,” he said.
The fiber-rich feast begins with a bowl of shredded lettuce anchored by the plainspoken patty (lean yet wide burger delivers on its promise of grilled beef sans any fanfare). The party really starts when you begin piling on the toppings, like: tangy-hot roasted peppers (fantastic), plentiful blue-cheese crumbles (piquant and creamy), chunky-style grilled onions (ambassadors of sweet), arresting bits of raw jalapeno (bring the spicy) and half-moons of fresh avocado (well worth the splurge).
The sweet chili vinaigrette sounds better on paper (subtle zest is easily overwhelmed by the avalanche of add-ons), while the buttermilk-herb ranch does its job with less interference.
Spice lovers, however, will definitely want to go the chipotle-pesto route. The frothy fire-starter—part creamy, part kerosene—hooks you in with the seductive aioli base, and then zaps the back of your throat with peppery heat seconds later (hurts so good).
According to Carey, the homemade aioli became such a hot commodity early on that they now give it away free as a complimentary dipping sauce with each order of fries.
“People ask if they can get it to go,” Carey said of the fiery condiment.