CUISINE Burgers, International, Sweets
PRICE Under $12
HOURS Open for lunch and dinner daily.
NVM AWARDS None
NEARBY METRO Orange(Court House) Blue Line(Rosslyn)
By Warren Rojas
To hear Ray’s Hell Burger founder Michael Landrum tell it, decking out their already mammoth 10-ounce burgers with a 2-ounce slab of pan-seared foie gras was more about whimsy than focus group-driven deliberation.
“To me, it’s just another ingredient,” the renegade restaurateur suggested.
Landrum has made a name for himself by appeasing the masses with affordable, no-nonsense cuisine (next up, Ray’s the Heat and Ray’s the Net) while confounding his business contemporaries (complimentary sides/sweets, strict no-reservations policies).
It’s no surprise that he’s repeated that same formula—to critical and populist acclaim—at Hell Burger, a restaurant that relishes its singular purpose.
“I’m happy to say, I’m a specialist,” Landrum shared, noting that he finds the lack of single-focus restaurants in this area somewhat alarming.
“My goal is to make the best burger that I can make … with the approach and the style that I have,” he stated. So while he believes Palena’s and Central’s gourmet offerings may be the best burgers “of that type,” he’s gunning for more of a “heavily charred, steakhouse-style burger.”
Luckily, he had plenty of time to hone his craft.
Landrum said he used to sling burgers at RtS when they first opened, but had to stop once the place evolved from neighborhood joint to regional phenomena. After the down-the-strip spot opened up, Landrum simply bided his time until he was able to train a full-time Hell Burger crew (surreptitiously indoctrinated during shifts at RtS) that could hit the ground running.
After that, it was simply a matter of crafting the perfect brioche potato bun (specially prepared by a custom baker; the restaurant is currently serving the fifth iteration of the proprietary roll) and lining up the awe-inspiring roster of artisan cheeses—over a dozen dairy gems ranging from Vermont cheddar to AOC-certified Epoisse (Burgundian cow’s milk cheese).
“It was a very off-the-cuff, sort of side gig that came up,” he said of his calculated march back into the burger trade last summer.
But rather than join the ranks of so-called “rock star” chefs he claims have dived into the burger game more for the fame than the food, Landrum said he elected to tip his hat to old-school rap artists and R&B legends on his carte. Hence the nods to: Soul Burger Number One (James Brown), Let’s Get It On (Marvin Gaye), B.I.G. Poppa (deceased rapper) and The Dogcatcher (Snoop Dogg).
The resulting product, though clearly fanciful, doesn’t necessarily feel like food porn so much as more cleverly imagined grilling fare.
The burger itself—10 ounces of home-ground beef, plucked from the same cuts people swoon over at RtS—is fairly unfussy (respectable crust, delectably juicy interior). But the wealth of gourmet toppings and cut-rate prices make most meals here inherently special.
Of the two foie gras offerings, Landrum said the Seville was most closely designed to mimic classic steakhouse fare (bordelaise sauce being a meat-palace staple).
The cooked-to-order beef is crowned with truffle oil and sauteed mushrooms (luxuriant oil and caramelized shrooms produce a porcini-like sweetness) and then finished with the glassy hunk of offal (nutty tang, silky finish). One companion was stunned by the dribbling juices that escaped the bun as I hoisted the monstrous burger to my lips. “Is that the foie gras or the meat?” my compatriot inquired, having never indulged in foie gras till a few seconds later (final verdict: He liked it, but wasn’t rabidly smitten).
Still, the foie continues to excite.
“It’s not my biggest seller, but it is my biggest surprise,” he said, estimating that they forge over a dozen of the opulent combos on busy nights. “People go nuts for ’em.”