Just days ago, I suspect some of you took a long, hard look in the mirror, inspected the rolls of flesh where none previously existed and made a promise to yourself right then to eat better. No more chocolate for breakfast. No more hot chicken after the bars. And, most important, no more random hamburger hookups, no matter how lust-worthy those patties may look at the next table.
I’m sorry. I’m about to ruin your New Year’s resolution by recommending a burger joint.
The place is called Lucky Buns, and, sure, you could theoretically stroll into this Adams Morgan haunt and order a salad topped with a crumbled lentil-and-mushroom patty while your tablemates sink their teeth into a towering burger dripping with egg yolk, beef juices and this incandescent house-made aioli. But, trust me, that will not happen. Once you set foot in Lucky Buns, you’ll be sucked into its greasy vortex, which swallows all willpower just as surely as a black hole traps light.
Lucky Buns is the latest project from chef Alex McCoy, a restless soul both in and out of the kitchen. At 34, McCoy has probably logged more international miles than anyone in the current State Department. He’s traveled to Hong Kong, Britain, Japan, Ukraine and Chile. He’s visited Thailand so often that I imagine passport-control officers at the Bangkok airport must just wave him through, like some VIP at a velvet-rope nightclub.
McCoy seems to navigate these overseas locales with a rare self-awareness. He’ll make repeated pilgrimages to, say, a favorite vendor in Chiang Mai, showing the proper deference and respect until the cook spills all her secrets. Then he’ll turn around and cut loose with the transplanted Brits and Australians who have opened expat bars in Thailand. But no matter what culture he seeks, foreign or familiar, McCoy is always taking notes of the food around him.
These travels have influenced McCoy’s cooking at every step along his career path. Duke’s Grocery, where he was chef and co-owner, borrowed from the freewheeling cafes of East London. His next project in the District, a pop-up in Park View dubbed Alfie’s, was dedicated to his adventures in Thailand. That inspired a secondary pop-up, a weekly burger stand that was the first iteration of Lucky Buns, until the entire operation morphed into a New Orleans-themed eatery called Tchoup’s Market.
You get the sense that McCoy is part whale shark: He’d die if he stopped moving.
Lucky Buns, fortunately, feels more permanent than anything McCoy has done recently, and not just because the chef has signed a 10-year lease on the space. McCoy seems invested in this concept of hamburgers from around the world. “Burgers have always been close to my heart,” he says without a lick of shame.
His shop occupies a prominent corner on 18th Street, once the home of L’Enfant Cafe, that Adams Morgan institution better known for its French maid races and free-for-all brunches than its French cooking. McCoy has stripped the place of its Edith Piaf vibe and installed a more soulful atmosphere, complete with a “Purple Rain” poster on the wall and Alabama Shakes on the sound system. The place is turbocharged and loud — American, in short — even though L’Enfant’s tiny Eiffel Tower remains perched on the roof, its outline aglow with lights. It’s the City of Light meets “Uptown Funk.”
Lucky Buns has the trappings of a restaurant with higher ambitions — hostess, full-service, a decent list of craft cocktails — despite a compact menu that reads more like one found in a fast-casual place. There are six burgers and five chicken sandwiches. Any one of them can be transformed into a salad (pffft!), and the hamburger toppings can be repurposed to grace the house-made vegetarian patty, including, yes, the bacon rashers. McCoy says I’d be surprised how often customers ask for the veg-pig pairing.
But what impresses me about Lucky Buns is not its customizable menu, but its attention to detail. The beef is a custom blend of chuck, short rib and other Black Angus cuts sourced from Creekstone Farms in Kansas. Each five-ounce patty is griddled on a flat-top with a blended oil, made in part with animal fat. The added oil gives these patties a crispier edge than most flat-top burgers cooked in their own fat. The texture is a pleasure all its own, especially with less-baroque burgers, like the namesake Lucky Bun topped with Gouda and Lucky Sauce, a house-made aioli ignited with Indonesian and Thai chiles.
You can order your burgers with one or two patties, but I found the double stack too much of a good thing, largely because the loosely formed patties (and the local Lyon Bakery sesame-seed buns in which they reside) can fall apart faster than John Boehner. I frequently ate my dinner with a knife and fork, once these juicy combos had fractured into a pile of hamburger hash. It makes for a different dining experience, one less tactile and messy, but no less tasty.
There’s not a dud among the burgers, save perhaps for the lentil-and-mushroom patty, which compresses into a squishy paste after a few bites. The Bogan Bun, a homage to Tom Reaney and his legendary Stokey Bears burger joint in London, features a bacon jam jacked up with McCoy’s own shellfish-free XO sauce. In terms of sheer umami, ketchup ain’t got a thing on this XO sauce. I’m also drawn to the Aflie’s Bun, an Australian-inspired pileup of pineapple, pickled beet and sunny side-up egg. It’s a sloppy mess, but one I fully endorse.
The chicken sandwiches are all barnburners, but none more than the Hot Tiger Bun, a Nashville hot chicken riff in which thighs are coated in an oil infused with habanero, Indian chili powder, Thai chiles and Sichuan peppercorns. I had to take deep breaths between bites to prevent total body meltdown. The Tikka Bun packs a punch, too, but at least it’s balanced — somewhat — by a yogurt slaw. Heatseekers will find release here.
McCoy has composed a few excellent salads to pair with your sandwiches, including a bowl with beet and kale, but who are you kidding? You’re going to order the thick-cut chips, hot, steaming and irresistible. You might even get the one with curry sauce. You won’t regret it. Much.
2000 18 St. NW, 202-506-1713, luckybunsdc.com
Hours: 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday to Thursday; and 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
Nearest Metro: U Street/African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo, with a .7-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $5 to $13 for sides, chips and sandwiches.