A place that calls itself Melt Gourmet Cheeseburgers is just asking for trouble, right? It’s practically inviting critics of every conceivable stripe, from Yelpers to yours truly, to cast a jaundiced eye on its (self-proclaimed) highfalutin fare.
Melt’s location way out in Leesburg doesn’t help its case, as if the place is hiding 30 or so miles from Washington and its professional Pinocchio spotters. The shop is tucked into the forest-green Bellewood Commons shopping center, which looks like a cross between a hunting lodge and Ted Nugent’s carport. The counter-service joint is sandwiched between a UPS store and a Papa John’s. If you’re judged by the company you keep, then Melt, at first sniff, carries a whiff of a wannabe chain.
All my cynicism melted away the moment I walked into the place. I felt as if I had entered a Baltimore diner, not a suburban burger joint with a boastful name. The restaurant is the approximate size of a Post-it note, and when I first visited, every seat was taken and more diners were lined up against a wall, either waiting for takeout or reviewing the paper menu. The open kitchen was crowded, too, as a crew of jacketed cooks prepped and flipped patties. The air smelled of grilled beef and charred onions, and the woman at the cash register called me “hon.”
Is this heaven?
No, it’s Leesburg.
The woman at the register, I learned, was Debbie Hancotte, co-owner of Melt and a peach if I’ve ever met one. She didn’t know I was a professional eater — why would she, when Melt has been operating since 2012 with barely a peep from the D.C. paper of record? — so she was genuinely concerned about the heft of my meal. I had ordered a Paris burger (topped with Brie, balsamic-glazed red onions, baby spinach and Dijon), a cheeseburger with a slice of American, a side of onion rings and a Bell’s Two Hearted, one of many excellent craft beers here. I explained that I had barely eaten all day, which was true, but also a cover.
When the bounty arrived at the table, I understood her concern. The burgers are half-pound beasts, plump and loosely formed with an 80 percent lean Angus blend of short rib, brisket and chuck (with perhaps other trimmings added into the mix). The patty is tucked into a lightly toasted, house-made sourdough bun, the top of which balances on the Jenga tower of toppings like a bowler hat on Ichabod Crane. There’s a reason the kitchen pierces each burger with a skewer: Without it, these ground-beef monuments would topple under the weight of their own ambition.
My cheeseburger was textbook. The thick, one-inch patty was seared and coated with cheese that clung like a wet suit. The interior, pink and inviting, oozed juices all over the wax-paper-covered waiter tray that ferried my burger to the table as if it were being presented to royalty. The burger was a tad underseasoned, but, given how much I loved it, my complaint carries all the authority of a film critic who claims “La La Land” would have been better if Ryan Gosling had worn better shoes. The only issue I had with the Paris burger and its ripe, runny Brie was that I couldn’t finish it all.
This kind of burger craft does not happen by accident. Turns out Debbie, 57, and her husband, Steve Hancotte, 66, are old pros in the hospitality business. Steve is a classically trained chef and Debbie a veteran front-of-the-house manager. They considered retirement after selling their restaurants on Hilton Head Island, S.C., but when they arrived in the D.C. area — Steve’s old stomping ground — they realized they were “too young to retire.” So they entered the burger business once they learned Leesburg was starving for something more sophisticated than those gummy little beef sacks from Mickey D’s.
Despite the tiny space, Steve Hancotte produces more than 15 different burgers, not counting the daily specials. The lump crab burger may be prepared with specimens from the Gulf of Mexico (cue the haters in 3 . . . 2 . . . 1), but the flesh is fresh, clean and sweet. Somehow, the crabmeat even holds its own against the tomato, red onion and lemon-caper aioli. My Greek lamb burger was a few degrees warmer than my requested medium-rare, but I barely noticed once I slathered it with the tart, house-made tzatziki. My Tex-Mex burger was a 10-gallon hat of ingredients — pepper Jack cheese, pico de gallo, jalapeños, roasted-corn-and-black-bean salsa, guacamole, chipotle sauce — that no bun could corral. So don’t even try. Just have a fork handy to scrape up those delicious bun deserters.
Order enough burgers, and you begin to understand Steve Hancotte’s moves: He’s from the more-is-more school. His veggie burger, made with black beans and roasted white corn, seems to include more ingredients than processed nuggets do. But this is all you need to know about it: Although mushy, like so many veg burgers, the patty conceals cool muffled bursts of sweet and smoky peppers. The ahi tuna burger pulls off a cool trick, too: It pairs watercress, with its horseradish kick, with a wasabi aioli without overwhelming the sushi-grade fish. The only miss for me was the (over) grilled chicken club “burger,” a mash-up of two sandwiches that did neither any favors.
Although both start from frozen, the fries here are far superior to the rings. The fries are skin-on, with just the right ratio of spuddy interior to light, crispy interior. The “ooey gooey” mac and cheese is worth a spin, too, but don’t get attached to, say, the sharp, nutty Smithfield-ham-and-white-cheddar combo: The gooeyness changes monthly. Fortunately, the malts and shakes stay the same: smooth, rich and creamy, made with Blue Bunny ice cream and whatever seasonal fruits are available.
Clearly, Melt Gourmet Cheeseburgers deserves the name it gave itself. Now, the owners just need to open a location closer to the District, which, I’m told, is in the works.
525 E. Market St., Leesburg.
Hours: Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Prices: Sides, $1.95-$5.95; burgers, $6.95-$17.95.