In a city full of great gourmet and fast-casual (and fast-casual gourmet) burger joints, it wouldn't be a stretch to call Ray's Hell Burger the heavyweight champ. Like any good competitor that's enjoyed a reign of success, Ray's Hell Burger has its legions of fans and pockets of detractors alike. But even the most ardent critic of the place would have a hard time arguing that any competition for the best burger in DC wouldn't include this place.
The place itself, with its no-frills storefront and sign, is easy to miss. Located in a strip mall on Wilson Boulevard, there's limited parking immediately in front, but there are usually some curbside spaces on neighboring N Quinn Street. When you go to order, make sure you bring cash (there's an ATM available if you need it) and DO NOT sit in the seats outside reserved for the Mexican place next door.
We arrived at Ray's at lunchtime on a sweltering Sunday afternoon during the 4th of July long weekend. Even with a large part of Arlington resembling far more of a ghost town than its normal identity as a vibrant, youth-infused suburb of the District, the place is nearly full when we sit down.
Instead of eating at the more "fast-casual" style Ray's, we actually chose to eat at Ray's Hell Burger Too, the slightly "nicer" sit-down venue that's been built and refurbished in the location that was actually the original Ray's Hell Burger (confused yet)? Due to the overwhelming popularity of the place, the owners decided to build a second restaurant—just four doors down—which they eventually re-named Ray's Hell Burger, turning the first place into more of a sit-down style restaurant where they can also serve alcohol.
Taking a quick look around, it was apparent that this place must serve a damn good burger. Why? Because half the tables there had a mix of guys and girls under 35--and the majority of those girls in particular didn't exactly seem like the type of girls you'd find stuffing down an oversized hamburger. Or, how about this: seated just behind us was a table of four Indian people. Anyone who knows anything about people outside the good ol' U-S-of-A would likely know that Indians aren't exactly well-known for devouring large cuts of cow (present company obviously excluded).
While waiting for our burger, I could easily overhear two or three different groups of people seated at adjacent tables mentioning how President Obama had actually dined at Ray's Hell Burger (He's been there twice, if you want to get technical. Once with Vice President Joe Biden and a second time with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.) You want to talk about free advertising? If the Leader of the Free World thinks this place is good enough to visit twice, you know you're really doing well.
I ordered an au poivre burger (you can choose how your meat is cooked and seasoned) with cheddar, lettuce, onions, roasted garlic and charred jalapeños. I also order my burger cooked medium rare—partially because the waiter indicated that the chef recommends all burgers are cooked to that temperature, and also, because I'm banking on the fact that it'll probably come out a little closer to medium as, we've found out, is not too uncommon.
When the burger arrives, I swear on my life, the first words out of my mouth were: "holy shit." The burger was HUGE; there are no other words to describe it. I was absolutely ravenous, to the point of gnawing off my own arm, when I walked into Ray's and, even given that, I knew I was going to have my hands full trying to put away this burger.
I was absolutely ravenous, to the point of gnawing off my own arm, when I walked into Ray's and, even given that, I knew I was going to have my hands full trying to put away this burger.
After the first bite? The burger was cooked a perfect medium rare, which was worth the theoretical price of admission alone. The meat was incredibly moist, juicy and filled with that simple but rare meaty deliciousness. This is one where you'll need to grab some extra napkins. Invariably, a good amount of that juiciness will find its way onto your plate--especially when cooked medium rare.
It was seasoned decently--just a touch of salt--which worked well with the pepperiness of the au poivre preparation. The bun was above average. It was soft and bready, a bit lacking in moisture, but it still bordered on overpowering the burger, which was no small feat. The cheese was just simply there. It didn't really bring anything to the table, but it didn’t take anything off of it either. I definitely wouldn't call it a difference maker, particularly considering how outstanding the rest of the burger was.
I dinged the presentation of the burger a bit, because it looked like it was constructed on a table where one of the legs was taller or shorter than the rest. The meat, lettuce, cheese and toppings were all slanted in different directions on the burger, hurting the aesthetic appeal of the burger slightly.
A personal word of advice for any fans of spicy food: the charred jalapeños were HOT. They were cooked with the seeds still on--and, as everyone knows, the seeds are where the heat is--and you felt it. Some of us actually had to remove a good handful of the jalapeños off their burger. And we're people who can certainly hold our own with really spicy foods.
As far as other accoutrements: there's the Ray's Hell Sauce. I wouldn’t exactly say they reinvented the wheel with their sauce. My stab at deconstructing it: it was nothing more than ketchup, mayonnaise, relish and horseradish. The fries were tasty and had a good balance of seasoning, but I wouldn’t call them outstanding either. You could say that they're there just to appease the masses since Ray's didn't initially serve fries alongside their burgers.
Overall, there's a reason this place gets the notoriety it does: this was a great, textbook burger (even if I did order a couple of extra bells and whistles on it). There are tons of options to get it exactly the way you want it, but Ray's makes sure to shine the spotlight exactly where it should be: the burger itself. When our forefathers first placed ground hamburger steak between two slices of bread, this was exactly what they had in mind.
Original Hell Burger at Ray's Hell Burger