If we are what we eat, Washingtonians must resemble a stack of ground-beef patties sheathed in American cheese, accessorized with pickle chips and onions, and shielded from the sun by a toasted sesame-seed bun. I mean, how many hamburgers can one city eat?
Maybe this is another thing we can blame on Barack Obama: The former president was a patty tyrant, regularly pushing burgers on his staff, on Joe Biden, even on Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Obama’s encounters with ground beef became so frequent that Eater D.C. created a map detailing every location where the president parked his buns for a burger.
In No. 44’s wake, Washington has become a town obsessed with burgers. With Shackburgers. With Wahlburgers (which, last time I checked, aren’t even available yet!). With Crunchburgers. With chef-driven burgers. With Japanese Wagyu burgers. With In-N-Out imitation burgers. Every new minute variation in the burger marketplace seems only to activate our salivary glands, not trigger our disgust. Thanks, Obama.
So credit Nathan Anda, the chef and partner behind Red Apron Butcher, and its parent company, Neighborhood Restaurant Group, for building a genuinely unique concept on the crowded burger landscape. Red Apron Burger Bar, located in the former GBD space off Dupont Circle, can do something that few full-time patty slingers can: It can tell you where it sources all its ground beef.
Yes, Anda has dragged the locavore movement to the burger world, a significant development given that it largely required an overhaul to the regional system of raising and processing cattle. Red Apron and NRG didn’t do this single-handedly, of course. They couldn’t have opened their burger joint without the assistance of Seven Hills Food, a rather unconventional wholesaler of fresh, Virginia-raised beef. Seven Hills’s facility in Lynchburg, Va., has its own U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected slaughterhouse and processing plant, one of the few devoted to regional, small-scale producers.
If burgers are a guilty pleasure, then Red Apron has stripped away at least one source of remorse: Their patties support a new model of local production, not the handful of high-speed, high-volume commodity processors that supply the vast majority of beef to the American public. To that, I can only say: Thanks, Anda.
Red Apron Burger Bar trades in two kinds of Virginia beef: one from Black Angus cattle fattened on grass and grain, and another from Ancient White Park cattle raised exclusively on grass. The former will cost you $8.95 for a standard double-stacked burger, a few dimes more than what you’d pay for a similar offering at Shake Shack. The latter will test the limits of your support for local ag: A standard burger featuring a twofer of grass-fed-beef patties will cost you a cool $11.35.
I should note here that some chefs, even those who deal with local meats, can’t stand the taste of grass-fed beef. They find it gamy, less buttery than the grain-finished stuff. Some folks can’t even tell the difference between the two. To both groups, I’d suggest they try (perhaps “invest in” is the more appropriate term?) a few Ancient White Park burgers at Red Apron until their palates adjust to the meat’s characteristics, this contradiction of lean (or leaner) animal muscle with a deep concentration of beef flavor. It’s like training your palate to shift from Yellow Tail wine to fine French Burgundies.
That said, I think the task is easier with burgers that aren’t jacked up on toppings. Red Apron allows diners to select their choice of beef, but personally, I wouldn’t opt for the grass-fed variety with the Trifecta burger, a triple-decker whose chorizo patty bosses around everything else inside the bun. In fact, I’d argue that the richness of grain-finished Black Angus is a better complement to the spicy chorizo, a fatty counterbalance that brings harmony to this tasty stack of pork and beef.
My preferred way to experience the Ancient White Park beef is via a standard double stack, topped with white American cheese, shaved red onions, pickles and Anda’s own special sauce, a mayo-based riff on umami-rich tonkatsu sauce. When tucked into a soft challah bun, the combination is a double slap of pure beef, offset with enough accents to emphasize its grassy singularity.
The shop offers sandwiches other than burgers, some previously spotted at Red Apron Butcher locations around the area. The El Jefe pairs the same chorizo patty in the Trifecta with new bun mates: smoked chimichurri, avocado, pickled red onions and sour cream. The beast might have been delicious had all the components been in place, but my patty was an almost barren landscape, save for a few onions and a small smear of avocado. The Groundswell — a veggie burger made of mushrooms, cashews and rice — is a cumin-heavy bite with the texture of sloppy Joe meat. My favorite of the bunch is the Yardbird, a saucy, satisfying slab of yogurt-marinated chicken paired with whipped feta and harissa mayo.
But, honestly, if I’m making a trip to this hipster barnyard, with its wood and cowbell accents, I’m going to double down on beef. I’ll order a standard double stack of Ancient White Park patties as well as an auxiliary backup Black Angus burger, maybe topped with pimento cheese and shaved onions (but not tomato jam, which I find too sweet by half). I’ll definitely order a beer from the draft list curated by Greg Engert, the suds savant at NRG. Probably an imperial IPA or a witbier, something either to stand up to those big beefy flavors or contrast them. I might even order a side of beef-fat fries, but only if I can get them without the rosemary sprigs, whose piney aromas are like Grandma’s perfume to me.
1323 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-524-5210. redapronburgerbar.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday; 11 a.m. to midnight Thursday-Saturday.
Nearest Metro: Dupont Circle, with a 0.2-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $3.75 to $14.35 for burgers and sandwiches.