Barack Obama’s burgers have it all over Bill Clinton’s hot dogs.
Last Saturday, I confirmed that our skinny current president has much better taste in high-fat, high cholesterol, all-American cuisine than does his most immediate Democratic predecessor in the job, who once had the reputation for never meeting a fast-food joint he didn’t like.
On a trip to Iceland last summer, I led my family on a hunt for Baejarins Bestu, a legendary hot dog stand along the Reykjavik harbor. The guidebooks insist Iceland has the best dogs in the world and this inconspicuous little establishment is widely alleged to serve the best of the best. Sure enough, when Clinton visited the country some years ago, he sniffed the place out and a framed photo of the fast-food-expert-in-chief out front is accompanied by a proclamation that BB’s “pylsurs” are the best he’s ever had.
Given that BB has been there since 1935 and that connoisseurs have spent nearly as much time trying to figure out its cooking secret as others have to duplicating Coke’s formula (popular theory credits lamb and beer as taste-enhancing ingredients), its offerings obviously hit the spot with locals as well as with one Arkansas expert. But my brood was unanimous in finding the modestly-sized wieners less appetizing with every bite; the skin was a bit tough, they weren’t very juicy, an unpleasantly sweet aftertaste took hours to wash away and our stomachs complained for even longer.
Still, this disappointment wasn’t enough to put me off following another presidential recommendation while in Washington, D.C. last weekend. Thanks to Obama’s repeated visits, most recently in the company of Russian President Medvedev last month, Ray’s Hell Burger in Arlington, Virginia, is now the most famous burger joint in all the world, a difficult title to earn and an even tougher one to hold onto.
Widely circulated photos of Obama chowing down surrounded by giddy customers reveal the place to be a dive and so it is, basically a long plain room filled with about twenty tables in a strip mall on busy Wilson Avenue (a proper sit-down, waitress-equipped version stands a few doors down). One detail not revealed by any of the Obama pictures is that one wall is covered with posters from schlock horror films such as “The Prisoner of the Cannibal God,” “Mantis in Lace” and “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.”
We thought we’d catch a break in the crowds if we showed up after 3 p.m., but even then every table, inside and out, was full. While waiting in line to place your order at a window revealing a veritable rainbow brigade of college-age kids sweating in the kitchen (still, it’s got to be a lot cooler working in Hell than at McDonald’s), you can examine the extensive menu printed on a plain white sheet of paper. Despite the modest digs and down-home vibes, this is a designer burger destination where you can customize your ten-ouncer with seventeen types of cheese and twelve different toppings; in this, it resembles the trendy new burger chain The Counter (already a fave in California and quickly spreading around the country, including to Times Square this fall), where so many ingredients are offered that you could create 312,000 different combinations of burgers. At Ray’s, one comes with bone marrow spread, another features cognac and sherry-sauted mushrooms, while the heart attack-on-a-plate by my estimation is the Fat Joe, which is piled with seared fois gras, balsamic glaze, white truffle oil, shallots and tomato.
If I want to test a burger joint, however, I stick to the basic challenge of a cheeseburger medium rare; here, that’s called The Mack and it was good, really good, in fact—high-quality hand-packed lean beef cooked just right to pinkish-red (on a slanted grill recalling the technique perfected at Los Angeles’ famed burger outpost Cassell’s, where I haven’t been in years) and juicy enough to require several paper napkins. There were six of us at lunch and the consensus was quite positive, albeit with reservations; my brother-in-law complained that his medium burger was overcooked and too dry, the buns are pretty standard-issue and could be upgraded and the regular fries are just that, regular. But one normally gets the sweet potato fries at Ray’s and those are great, a perfect balance of crispy exterior and soft interior.
As to liquid refreshments, bottled beer is available and the root beer on tap is locally legendary. But my son Nick and I ordered chocolate shakes and the twelve-year-old connoisseur declared his the best ever and I wasn’t inclined to argue. When we ordered another one for the road, I watched its preparation and saw that it was double-blended, first with the milk and ice cream, then again after the chocolate syrup had been added, resulting in the smoothest shake possible. We all left full, not stuffed, but it all sits down there for quite a while and none of us was very hungry even for a late dinner.
The best burger on Earth? I wouldn’t say that. If I had one last burger to eat in my life, it would be at Meier’s Tavern, a former Prohibition-era roadhouse and now just a defiantly old world saloon near the woods on Lake Avenue in Glenview, Illinois, populated by old guys at the bar watching Cubs games and smelling of 75 years’ worth of Dab beer and cigarette smoke (check out the photograph on the website and you’ll get the whole picture); the burgers are insane and the tater tots put all fries in the world to shame.