Alexandria, VA: Hard Times Café
Today's AHT reader recommendation comes from Ben Roode in Washington DC. He shares his appreciation of the outdoors on his website/podcast Ben Goes Outdoors (not burger-related, but you have to burn those calories somehow!). You can follow him on Twitter at @bgoeso. Thanks, Ben! If anyone else wants to share some burger intel, here's how to do it. --The Mgmt.
Hard Times Café
1404 King St, Alexandria, VA 22314 (original location; map); for other locations visit hardtimes.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: Good pub burger at a chili joint. Filling lunch at affordable price
Want Fries with That? Yes, but ask for them to be a little crispy to make sure they're cooked
Prices: $7.50-$9 depending on toppings; reviewed burger is $8.50; half-priced burgers on Mondays
Notes: Ask to sit upstairs for a better dining experience.
The Washington D.C. metro area has given rise to several famous and well-loved burger joints. Five Guys Famous Burgers and Fries, Ray's Hell-Burger, Good Stuff Eatery, and several others have gained at least East Coast notoriety.
To match the grilled ground beef are a few staple chili parlors. Besides the famous Ben's Chili Bowl north of the District's downtown, brothers Jim and Fred Parker opened the inaugural Hard Times Café across the Potomac River in Old Town Alexandria in 1980. Nineteen other Hard Times Cafes have sprung up in the area since then, suggesting a loyal following.
That a restaurant featuring chili would also serve good burgers seemed a peculiar proposition. Some historical reports suggest that chili originated as a way to make tough beef edible, so a good burger at a chili parlor seemed out of place. However, my new coworkers swore by Hard Times Café's grilled burgers and suggested that, if I indeed enjoyed a good hamburger, I should try these.
All Hard Times burgers are 10 ounces of fresh beef. I ordered the bacon cheeseburger grilled medium with a slice of American cheese. The menu directs diners to request red onion if desired, though the burger comes with shredded iceberg lettuce, tomato and pickle. Fries were the side, and sweet tea the beverage.
The burger rests on an eggy Kaiser-style roll. The ratio between top and bottom halves is off: on the bottom, too thin, and the top, too thick. They do join for a good overall average meat-to-bun match, though handling can be an issue with an undersized and eventually soaked bottom.
As far as cooking goes, the grill/broiler cooked my Hard Times burger a bit on the done side: My medium was definitely overcooked. That grill gives the burger a good char that balanced nicely with the salty, but not quite crispy bacon on this particular offering.
For seasoning, Hard Times opts for a minimalist approach. I detected only salt on this patty. That let a fresh beef flavor shine through and meld with the cheese, bacon, and even vegetable flavors. The vegetables were fresh and a definite plus, with a thick summer tomato slice mixing well with the shredded iceberg. Definitely request the red onion to add a little bite to the experience. Two giant strips of thick-cut bacon add flavor the beef can lack.
The fries accompanying this sandwich usually leave a lot to be desired. I've had several undercooked batches that resist consumption. This time however, the potatoes featured light insides and slightly crisp outsides for a perfect balance.
My wallet thanked me for my lunch visit: Mondays feature half-priced burgers. A hearty lunch with drink for only $6 gets easy way too quickly.
Overall, burger lovers visiting D.C. should definitely hit Ray's Hell Burger first. Once you tire of flavor and price overload, find a Hard Time Café for a cheap, satisfying classic burger. —Ben Roode
Want to see your favorite burger joint on AHT? Here's how you can submit a review!