Joe's Burgers Restaurant in McLean smells like the hamburger joints I grew up with in Georgia. The offerings may be gourmet -- Kobe beef, ostrich and venison -- but the smell of cooking grease is straight out of another era.
Back before preformed meat patties were loaded onto a conveyor belt for grilling, the short order cook was the master of the burger. He watched over hand-formed patties as flames licked up through the open grid of a gas burner to char the burger, releasing a delectable aroma.
The old-fashioned, made-to-order way is what I found at three-month-old Joe's on Old Dominion Drive. And these burgers taste good the old-fashioned way, too.
Joe's is just a tiny place, 19 places to sit including three bright red bar stools. One person, manager Cristian Bravo, works the room, taking orders, serving drinks, delivering the heaping platters. The dining room is so small that it is more like an eat-in kitchen. It's the same space that spawned the Corner Bistro, now relocated a few doors away in this strip of businesses. Joseph Alonso is the man behind the restaurant's name; he also owns Corner Bistro and the nearby Le Mistral.
Joe's menu includes more than a dozen burgers, a chicken sandwich, chicken wings, a couple of veggie options, french fries and onion rings. It's perfect, and a great way to reacquaint yourself with a hamburger as slow food.
All the meat is delivered fresh to Joe's, and the eight-ounce patties are hand-formed at the restaurant. Onions that are caramelized to top a couple of varieties are hand-cut and sauteed on a burner beside the grill. Every burger is accompanied by a good slice of tomato, leaves of butter lettuce, a slice of raw onion and occasionally a couple of thick dill pickle slices. The fries that spill over the plate are frozen, but they are cooked to a crispness that puts those drive-through places to shame. The fries actually taste like potatoes.
Chicken wings and onion rings are the only starters. Opt for the rings, crisp-cooked perfect circles arranged around a dipping sauce. The rings start out frozen, but you'd be hard-pressed to know that when you are eating them.
All of the burgers are two-fisted whoppers that almost scream "adults only." Unless you have strapping teenage boys, youngsters aren't likely to finish these beauties. (The children I saw eating at Joe's rarely finished more than half of a burger.)
A few specialty burgers mostly include unusual toppings: Gorgonzola cheese, pesto and pancetta for Tino's Italian Burger and pepper jack cheese and guacamole for the South of the Border burger. The Joe's Burger matches beef with Spanish Manchego cheese and pieces of grilled chorizo. But mostly the differences are in the meat.
The basic burger is just that, ordinary hamburger. But there are also an organic beef burger, a Black Angus burger, two variations of Kobe beef burgers, a buffalo burger and an ostrich burger.
The basic burger is very good, but the Black Angus burger has a richer, meatier taste. The venison burger has a grainier texture, doubtless because of its lean nature. It also has a strong, gamey taste, matched by Gruyere cheese and mellowed by pancetta (Italian bacon), mushrooms and caramelized onions.
My surprising favorite -- and, according to manager Bravo, the overall customer favorite -- is the Kobe beef burger. I say surprising for me because I have tried Kobe burgers at other restaurants and found them to be mostly flavorless, flabby brown patties.
At Joe's, I can sense the velvet texture of the meat and the richness of the added fat. Cooked just shy of medium, it's juicy, with a distinctive charred, smoky flavor, courtesy of the fire from the grill. It's a very good burger and a taste I can't duplicate at home.
But there are limitations to Joe's. Service can be slow, most of the burgers tend to be slightly overcooked and although there is a choice of drinks, it is limited. Don't think you can get in and out in a few minutes, either. If you are in a hurry, call ahead and order, give them about 20 minutes and your food will be ready when you arrive.
Joe's represents a different time. Slow down and smell the grease.
--Nancy Lewis (Oct. 25, 2007)