There is a price to quality ratio which stands firmly at the core of every chain burger restaurant that pops up in the U.S. nowadays. It’s a ratio that reflects the priorities of the founder – whether to make a huge profit or to be the good guy that doesn’t, whether to attract the very limited “foodie” sliver of the demographic or to have mass appeal. As I try these semi-gourmet, non-McKing burgers I visualize them as points on an +XY coordinate system with the X-axis representing price and Y-axis quality. The point representing In-and-Out, for example, is closest to the origin, while Shake Shack has a slightly larger x- and y- value. Whenever the x- and y- values are significantly far from each other it raises eyebrows. When the y- is greater, it’s a good eyebrow raise. When the opposite, not so good.
In the case of the Alexandria location of The Burger Joint (BGR), I must admit that my forehead did wrinkle quite a bit. While only a few dollars more than the standard $6-7 burger, some signatures I tried were on par with a $14-15 gastropub gourmet burger in quality. And the wait was significantly less. The meat is prime, dry-aged (though not for too long…), chemical-free, grain-fed beef and is grilled to order over an open flame instead of being slapped unceremoniously onto a stainless steal sheet. It’s not really fast food, as there is a wait for each order – I would call it a streamlined experience instead. Effort is placed into hiring qualified grill-masters who by the looks of it actually care about the quality of food they’re dishing out. To alleviate wait-time boredom, they print fun multiple-choice trivia about BGR and burgers on their cups, head-scratchers to distract a crowd that might be more used to grabbing their brown paper bag of fast-garbage seconds after ordering. As the Director of Operations explained, they are very determined to keep their menu short, do fewer things but do them well. So, while the menu doesn’t have everything it has something for everyone, creatively suiting the dietary needs, preferences and peculiarities of a large range of eaters.
I’ve become quite jaded about sweet potato fries over the past few years as I’ve had too many variations that kept the spuds in large, starchy wedges that became mushy during the cooking process. I’ve allowed myself a single day to indulge in this ingredient and that is Thanksgiving Day, with a side of a whole bunch of other things. All that said, the SPF at BGR is surprisingly awesome. The spuds are cut into very thin strips, easy to crisp up in the fryer. The batter is paper thin and adds only the crunch without the grease or weight. That crunch is followed by the body of the potato which is airy soft, almost whipped in texture. Flavorwise, yes, it is sweet, but not that overdone sticky sweet maple sweetness, just the natural root sugars of the orange spud shining through.
The fries are doubled fried and salted in advance, making them nice and crunchy too, though not really anything to write home about as they lack a bit in flavor. To remedy the situation, BGR offers a signature mojo sauce to dip into. It’s tangy orange with a hint of garlic – quite nice though nothing to get too excited about. I’d recommend going with the sweet potato fries as they are very satisfying and stand out on their own.
In addition to the fries, BGR also offers beer-battered onion rings and grilled asparagus as sides. While I typically characterize myself as a member of the “thin-strings party” instead of the “thick rings” party when it comes to O-circles, these were pretty darn satisfying. A relatively thick beer batter but not dripping in oil, and fried to a nice color and crispy texture. A slightly healthier option is the grilled asparagus which is actually quite fresh, crisp and leafy green for being a side at a quick-serve burger joint. They’re honestly not too different from my mom’s own made-with-love version. They’re springy and have a nice snap still instead of becoming too soft and mushy. The parm dusted over the top is good too, crumbly and nutty instead of just salty as I first expected it to be. A side that does not sacrifice flavor for health points, one to feel good about overall.
BGR’s signature burger is the appropriately named The Works. It’s a modification on their Legend burger, which is the basic set up to which guests are encouraged to add toppings (grilled jalapenos, pepperjack, bacon, avocados, grilled pineapple), thus customizing into one’s own “legend.” The designation BGR seems to enjoy dropping the most is “dry-aged,” which their beef actually is, if only for a week or so. The quality is undeniably better than any burger I’ve had at the same price point, ground to a tender, crumbly, uneven texture and cooked to order over an open flame. It’s weird and awesome to wait 7-ish minutes for a burger that costs 9-ish dollars. My medium-rare came out nice and moist with a hint of pink in the center and a great charred flavor coating a darkened exterior. Some mojo sauce added extra juice and zing, pickled and onions gave a crunch, and a single thick slice of vibrant red tomato (grown just for them, as I learned) added a freshness to the bite. The sesame seed bun was nice too, spongy and buttery, though I could have used a tad more crunch on the toasted surface of the bread.
BGR even has an option for those pesky vegetarians out there, and it thankfully does not revolve around tofu. Their Veggie burger features a patty made by blending brown rice, black beans and oats with molasses as a binding agent. The result is a wonderfully hearty and legitimate beef substitute. There is a crunchy, smoky crust to every bite, followed by a mushy soft texture achieved by the starch in the beans. Other than just holding the patty together, the molasses adds a wonderful depth of flavor as well as a slight caramelized sweetness to mimic the caramelization of ground meat toasting up on the grill. The oats plump up from the moisture of the latter and from the moisture squeezed out of the beans and they swell to a substantially thick, hearty texture. Juicy tomato, lettuce and onions add some freshness and coolness to the warm, comforting patty. Not bad but I still prefer the moo factor which no vegetarian burger, in my experience, can completely achieve.
A burger I enjoyed very much was their Wellington, which also happens to be the pride-and-joy posterchild at BGR. It is made with the same prime beef patty as The Works but the meat is topped with caramelized onions, a goopy, syrupy mushroom gravy with a subtle hint of truffle oil and some blue cheese crumbles as well. The gummy little button mushrooms contrast very nicely against the texture of the crumbly ground beef and the flavors are harmonize nicely as well. The salty sauce coating the mushrooms are brought to a level of complexity by the black truffle added in, the funk of which is nicely balanced with the tart, pungent acidity of the blue. I like the moisture that the sauce adds to this one – it made every bite nice and juicy and it really made me appreciated the crunchy char on the exterior of the burger all the more.
Not feeling hungry enough to down a whole Legend? Prefer even your burger tapas-style? You’re not alone. And BGR has you covered with their 2-slider option, which gives you 2 smaller burgers for a slightly lower price. The slider includes the same prime, dry-aged beef patty, creamy mojo sauce, some pickles and red onion pieces in a small fluffy slider bun which is buttery and smooth. The only real difference besides the size is that there are no sesame seeds on the bun, the nuttiness of which I actually did end up missing a bit. The meat quality does not suffer from the smaller size though. It was just as juicy as its older brother and cooked to order to a nice medium rare.
And for the gourmet, there is the Greek, hands-down the most satisfying of them all. The patty is a puck of ground leg of lamb, topped with a cool tzatziki, some crumbles of feta, paper-thin slices of fresh cucumber, a few slivers of red onion, along with a beefy round of tomato and some lettuce. Raising this burger to my face, the lamb essence hit me in the form of an aroma even before it could materialize on my tongue as that slightly metallic, deliciously deep flavor so characteristic of this animal. The meat was seasoned with mint and a bit of thyme which complemented the flavors of the meat well and made good use of a classic combination. The mineral twang of the bleating meat was offset but not overpowered by the cool yoghurt in the tzaziki and the clean, tart flavor of the feta. The sharp flavor of the raw red onion added a nice little heat as well as a great crunch to the bite. All this packaged into fluffy, buttery bun. Crumbly meat kept relatively light by all the fresh flavors in there.
For those looking for something even lighter and more out-of-the-box, BGR also has a signature grilled Ahi burger with pineapple, teriyaki and ginger, which sounds delectable. I will definitely be back at lunchtime to try this one soon!