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Frank’s Burger Place in Wheaton is just the balm we need

The all-American burger at Frank’s Burger Place in Wheaton. (Laura Chase de Formigny for The Washington Post)

As you stare out the window at Frank’s Burger Place, tucked into the Wheaton Triangle on a street that feels like a city planner’s footnote, you can see the community’s past, present and future in one sweeping vista. In the foreground, you can see the squat cinder block structures that house a few old-timers: Barbarian Comics, Chicago Bakery, Filippo’s Italian Specialties and other local favorites. But you can also see the Arrive Wheaton high-rise looming in the background, a reminder that America moves in only one direction, sweeping aside whatever gets in the way.

Frank’s fits in fine here. With its dedication to burgers, the shop trades in classic comforts, the gustatory equivalent of paging through a comic that you loved as a child, oblivious for a few sweet moments to the problems of an adult world. But Frank’s also approaches its task with a contemporary mind-set, relying on the kind of ingredients usually reserved for chef-driven restaurants, not a neighborhood burger joint where just about everything on the menu can be had for 10 bucks or less.

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Frank’s may even be a peek at a post-pandemic future, in which chefs who once toiled in kitchens with far greater ambitions, serving arguably more demanding customers, have reconsidered their career plans. They’re giving their bodies a break while giving the people what they want at a time when everything — American democracy, the economy, the environment, the ability to agree on basic facts — is crumbling right before our eyes. Who wouldn’t want a burger right now?

Maybe I’m just projecting.

Chef Pedro Matamoros opened Frank’s Burger Place last summer in Wheaton after years of working in more refined kitchens. His story has a cinematic sweep: He’s gone from a teenager living off the streets of Leon, Nicaragua, his hometown, to a chef catering to some of Washington’s most sophisticated palates. As a chef, he’s been a journeyman, bopping from one restaurant to another, from the historic Tabard Inn in Washington to the neighborhood-y Barrel and Crow in Bethesda, with many spots in between.

But whether or not Matamoros’s cooking struck a chord with customers, he could rarely attract the attention of two diners who mattered most: his mom, Ana Rosario-Espinal, and his stepdad, Francisco Reyes. “My mom and him are not foodies,” Matamoros tells me. “I don’t think my mom has ever been to any of my restaurants. She likes just Nicaraguan food. That’s all she wants to eat.”

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The pandemic gave Matamoros, 53, time to flesh out an idea that he had previously considered only in the abstract: to open a more casual restaurant, one with just a handful of dishes but each produced in-house from quality products. The chef’s younger son, Marlon, 20, made sure to keep his father on track, reminding the elder to avoid the kind of ingredients that push up prices — and push Frank’s into more rarefied territory.

Matamoros suspected he had a hit when he asked his stepdad to sample a burger that the chef had assembled at home, months before Frank’s ever served its first patty. You have to see this impromptu tasting through Reyes’s eyes: A native of the Dominican Republic, Reyes didn’t grow up with American food culture. When the elder thinks of a burger, Matamoros says, he thinks of McDonald’s or Wendy’s, with patties pressed with cheap commodity beef. Matamoros’s burger was built with a good local ground beef.

“My dad just fell in love,” says Matamoros. “He couldn’t believe it could taste so good.”

As a way to honor the man he calls Dad, a sign of how much goodwill Reyes has generated in the Matamoros household, the chef named his new project after him: Frank’s Burger Place, a Maryland restaurant started by a Nicaraguan immigrant, named for a Dominican native and dedicated to burgers, fries and shakes. Did I mention that Matamoros started his culinary career as a dishwasher? If you need a story to make you feel good about America right now, I suggest this one will do.

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The burgers are as good as advertised, largely due to Matamoros’s obsessive search for the right beef. He worked with Creekstone Farms to develop a blend for his three- and five-ounce patties, which incorporate not just brisket and chuck but also scraps of tenderloin, rib-eye and New York strip. The kitchen doesn’t cook the ground beef to temperature, but the patties usually sport a light shade of pink at the center, more medium-well than medium-rare. They often exhibit the crispy edges of a solid smash burger, too.

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The best delivery system for this beef is the all-American burger, a twin-patty tower with white American cheese, lettuce, tomato and pickles, all packed into a fresh brioche bun from Lyon Bakery. I might have liked the Oklahoma fried onion burger more had it adhered to its Depression-era roots — and came stuffed with more softened rings of sliced onion. My smokehouse burger would have been superb had it actually had some barbecue sauce on it.

The smokehouse burger underscores an inconsistency that can creep into the operations at Frank’s. One day, you’ll pledge allegiance to the kitchen’s fries, which are hand-cut from Idaho potatoes, soaked, fried twice and dusted with enough coarse salt to amplify the earthy flavors of those spuds. The next day, you’ll practically swear off the soft, soggy straps of fried potato, even as you continue to dunk them, time and again, into the housemade ketchup or garlic aioli, the latter of which may actually be a gift from the gods.

Despite its name, Frank’s Burger Place serves up some decent chicken, too. Matamoros prefers thigh meat over the breast cutlets favored by most other sandwich shops, and that decision makes all the difference. The juicy dark meat, for instance, prevents the chipotle coffee-rubbed chicken sandwich from exploding into a vapor cloud of spice. I’d suggest pairing the sandwich with a vanilla shake, its cool rivulets of blended ice cream offering a kind of balm after every bite of that potent bird.

Matamoros tells me that his mom has become a regular at Frank’s, though she apparently likes the chipotle-coffee chicken over the burgers. But earlier this year, Matamoros also introduced a secondary concept to his Wheaton restaurant, one that will no doubt delight Ana even more than a chicken sandwich or plate of fries: El Chante Comedor y Fritanga Nica specializes in the dishes of Nicaragua. It’s a reminder that some changes in our country are about addition, not subtraction.

Frank’s Burger Place

11265 Triangle Lane, Wheaton, Md., 301-686-3091; franksburgerplace.com.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

Nearest Metro: Wheaton, with a short walk to the restaurant.

Prices: $2 to $8.75 for all items on the menu. Some specials may be more expensive.

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