A better burger on U Street
By Justin Rude
October 1, 2010
With Five Guys, Z Burger, Elevation Burger, the Burger Joint, Ray's Hell Burger, Rogue States, Good Stuff, Thunder Burger and the imminent Shake Shack, the local burger scene is getting pretty crowded. So what can a new, and relatively unheralded, burger place to do to stand out among the competition? Well, a good burger is a must, but targeting a specific audience and having a gimmick helps. In the case of Desperados, a red-walled burger bar that opened on U Street in August, the target audience is New Orleans ex-pats and the gimmick is burger home delivery.
Before its opening, there was buzz that Desperados was a local outpost of the famed New Orleans burger, baked potato and booze mecca Port of Call. Indeed, Desperados offers its burgers with baked potatoes, and I have seen patrons walk through the restaurant's door proudly brandishing plastic Port of Call 16-ounce cups. But, in fact, this is a locally owned business. Sure, it has ties to New Orleans, but it takes only its inspiration from the famous Crescent City destination.
Restaurant owner Koray Bozkurt, who has a stake in Angelico Pizzeria in Tenleytown, is also partners in a Desperados Pizza in New Orleans. Bozkurt knew he wanted to create an oasis for wayward New Orleans natives. The kitchen in his new space was far too small for pizza, but it was easily big enough for burgers.
On the menu: Let's get this out of the way first: I have never eaten a burger from Port of Call, but according to first-hand accounts, eating a burger there is like having a choir of angels sing in your mouth. The Desperados burger is a well-seasoned half-pound of beef on a fresh bun with a nice variety of toppings, but it's no celestial revelation. The beef is not quite up to the pinnacle that Ray's Hell Burger has achieved, and I prefer some of Spike Mendelsohn's topping combinations at Good Stuff. (I have dreams about the bacon, blue cheese and onion marmalade on the "Obama burger.") But these are personal quibbles. At Desperados the patty isn't too dense, nor is it so large that it's hard to eat. It's juicy without being messy, and its seasoning stands out without obscuring the natural taste of the beef. It's a good burger. The best in its neighborhood, which, until Desperados moved in, didn't mean much.
The crispy fries are a serviceable foil to the burger and come with a choice of dipping sauces. I liked the Cajun and roasted garlic varieties. The baked potato, the choice of those pining for Port of Call, could have been a little fluffier, but buried under bacon, cheddar, mushrooms, butter and sour cream, it didn't matter much.
At your service: Other than having my starter show up with my main course twice, my service has always been friendly and attentive, even when busy. But the real story here is the fact that Desperados delivers. The $15 minimum door-to-door burger service is available in the U Street and Columbia Heights neighborhoods, and is surprisingly successful. Our medium burger showed up with just the right amount of pink. The bun hadn't been too soaked with burger juices, and everything was still warm. Quite frankly, we were surprised: How did the kitchen manage that? With a lot of fuss and worry, apparently. "It's so tricky, and it still worries me," says Desperados chef and business partner Cema Rodriguez. "Getting a fresh cooked patty is important. If it's cooked medium rare and you wait five minutes it's going to be medium. If you wait another five it's going to be well done. The timing of deliveries is important." Rodriguez's concerns are well founded, but her care was also apparent in our surprisingly good experience.
What to avoid: You know how you haven't ordered spinach and artichoke dip in, gosh, who knows how long? Desperados doesn't give you any reason to break that streak.
When ordering medium-rare, medium and medium-well burgers side by side I thought the medium-rare burger was well executed, but the medium didn't have enough pink and was almost indistinguishable from the medium well. If you like your patty with a pink center, I suggest ordering a little bloodier than you normally would.
Wet your whistle: The beer list is a predictable selection of domestics, imports (Stella) and smaller brands from the big breweries (Shock Top), but I was surprised when I wasn't offered an Abita brew. Instead, the Crescent City inspiration is noticeable in the cocktail list, where you can get hurricanes and a New Orleans-style bloody mary. "It's heavier," my server said with a smirk. These are bound to be especially popular on Sundays when Desperados shows New Orleans Saints games.
Bottom line: On U Street? Want a burger? This comfortable basement bar is a very solid option.