Build Your Own Burger
By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 14, 2008
At first glance: Tucked into the circular courtyard of an upscale condo development in Ballston, this eco-friendly eatery wears its philosophical colors: The walls are a cheery apple green; posters point out its recyclable and biodegradable supplies (check out the oil drums-turned-garbage cans); and the low-wattage restroom lights are long-life fluorescents. Wall decorations include T-shirts with obvious puns ("I love Big Buns") and nice black-and-white photos of area landmarks.
On the menu: This is the column one, column two system with a modern twist: Choose a protein (Angus beef hamburger, chicken, mahi-mahi) or grilled portobello mushroom, have it served on a bun or a bed of romaine, and layer on the toppings (the usual pickles, peppers, salsa, onions and others). Cheeses (American, blue, cheddar, havarti, pepper jack or Swiss) are 35 cents each, and a few premium toppings -- bacon, avocado, fried onion straws and guacamole -- are 75 cents. Fries (both sweet potato and regular), chips and cookies fill out the menu. The condiments on the center island are unusually varied: cider and balsamic vinegars, brown and yellow mustards, four kinds of hot sauce, ketchup, barbecue sauce and pepper grinders. There's even a rack of syrups for your drink: vanilla and cherry for Cokes, raspberry and cane syrup to sweeten tea.
At your service: Although you order at the counter -- the four-step menu is writ large overhead -- drinks and trays of food are delivered to the table. The staff is unusually friendly and not too scripted. They explain the process, regularly check on counter supplies as well as diners and "hope this won't be the last time" they see you.
On the table: Of the many combinations, the juicy and rich-tasting grilled portobello sandwich -- portobellos, actually, filling out the bun nicely-- comes in at No. 1; try it with Swiss cheese, grilled onions and honey mustard. The mahi-mahi over greens is a close runner-up, best with black bean-mango and corn salsas, avocado and pineapple with sweet chili vinaigrette. (As a salad topping, however, it would be nicer if the kitchen cut the fish into chunks rather than leave it as a sandwich fillet.) Sweet potato fries -- $1.85 for a fairly big portion -- are very good, light and greaseless. The chicken breast, which is marinated in a light, vaguely teriyaki-ish sauce, is a good alternative for either bun or bowl.
What to avoid: Although the 7-ounce burger is probably the obvious draw, it's a little greasy, and (contrary to the menu) the meat is unseasoned. The regular french fries are not as tasty or as well drained as the sweet potato version, but they're still better than many, meaty and hot out of the oil. Also, unless you're in wash 'n' wear, be careful about loading too many slippery toppings on a sandwich.
Wet your whistle: Big Buns has soft drinks, fountain-style floats, shakes and malts, and a few beers.