Washington, DC: Crushed Spirits and Crushed Burgers at Good Stuff Eatery
Good Stuff Eatery
303 Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast, Washington, DC 20003 (map); 202-543-8222; goodstuffeatery.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: Decent burgers that could be great, but are destroyed by poor technique
Want Fries With That? Mixed bag: some decent pieces, but a whole lot of greasy little nubs to sort through.
Price: Burgers, $5.69 to $7.89; sides, $2.49 to $5.89
It might have been that I stopped in D.C. during the bottom half of a long day of driving and eating. It could have been that I'd already been to a half dozen family-owned, personality-packed, awesomely tasty pizza and sandwich shops in Trenton, Philadelphia, and Baltimore earlier in the day and the bar was set high. It could also have been that I expected more from a burger concept run by former Top Chef contestant Spike Mendelsohn, a guy who seems to be seriously into this kind of food. Whatever the reason, the burger from Washington D.C.'s Good Stuff Eatery was at once quite tasty, and soul-crushingly, maddeningly, frustratingly terrible. Like a child star who ends up doing second-rate sitcoms his whole life, Good Stuff's offense is its failure to fulfill its potential.
They've got the infrastructure, backing, ingredients, and customers in place to serve a truly incredible burger, but are content to serve one that's just pretty good.
It's neither my personal policy nor Serious Eats' to post overly negative reviews of a places or pick on a small operation that's trying to find its feet—the last thing we want to do is destroy anyone's business. That said, Good Stuff Eatery is in no danger of shuttering, and from the lines there, it's crazy popular. I'm just here to share my experience, which included burger-making offenses that were so egregious, so baffling, that it seems wrong not to talk about 'em.
I want to start by saying that I'm well aware that nothing I say here is going to stop the massive crush of lines that form at this place. It's in an awesome location, it's a reasonable value for the neighborhood, and fact is, in the end, the burger is quite tasty—salty and beefy, with some nice fresh toppings. But what destroys Good Stuff for me is a combination of a total lack of soul and care, coupled with some of the most major offenses in burger making that I've seen anywhere.
Waiting in line inside the well-designed but cookie-cutter space (this is clearly a burger concept, designed to be replicated and expanded, not a burger restaurant) and watching the grill cooks at work, more than once I was overcome with the nearly uncontrollable desire to scream out at the top of my lungs, "WTF?!? For the love of buns and all that is beefy, please STOP WHAT YOU ARE DOING RIGHT NOW!!"
Fellow burgerphiles, let me show you what I'm talking about.
WTF Moment #1: Pre-Searing the Patties
About five minutes into my 20 minute-long wait inside the store, I noticed one of the griddle cooks pulling out dozens and dozens of puck-shaped burger patties, which he started laying out on the griddle. After he'd covered about half the surface area with patties, I started counting patties and patrons, thinking to myself, "There's no possible way this many people just ordered burgers. Perhaps POTUS just called in an order for his whole staff?" There were at least four times as many burger patties on that griddle as there were customers on line.
What I saw happen next baffled me even more. After letting the patties sit for a few minutes, they were spatula'd up (mind you, only one side had been seared at this point), placed on sheet pans, topped with another sheet pan turned upside down (to form a semi-sealed container), stacked up, then balanced on the edge of a garbage bin, where they just sat.
Yep. They were pre-searing their patties.
Now, I understand that some restaurants—even some really good ones—will pre-sear things like steaks, chicken breasts, lamb chops, pork chops, etc. It's not a practice I get behind, but it happens, and with whole cuts of meat, it's mildly acceptable. A burger, however, is not a steak. It's got a loose structure. Fat melts out of it. Juices drip. The things dry out. One of the main reasons I prefer a griddled burger to a grilled one is that with a griddled burger, those juices and fast stay pretty near the meat, and a good deal of them get transferred with the meat to your bun when it's served. Transfer them to a sheet tray and let'em sit, and guess what? Those juices end up on the sheet tray, not in your bun.
Also, resting your food on the edge of garbage can where used gloves, floor sweeping, and, well, garbage goes, is just not cool.
WTF Moment #2: Crazily Uneven Seasoning
Before the patties even came off the griddle after their pre-sear, another problem reared its head:
Some patties were literally white with salt, while others had pretty much zero. Others looked like black and white cookies, one half of the surface saturated in salt, the other half completely bare.
Luckily, the burger I got in the end was one of the salty ones. But I can imagine my disappointment had I received one of the sad, saltless patties.
WTF Moment #3: What About That Crust?
This is the moment when I really wanted to scream out at the top of my lungs. Pre-searing patties is one thing, but check out what was left behind on the grill:
That's right: THE BROWNED CRUST. Whether it's ignorance, haste, or plain laziness, when scooping up the patties after their initial sear, at least 75 percent of the browned bits of beef were left right there on the griddle. Indeed, many of the patties they removed from the griddle were picked up so hastily that completely bare pink/red spots were left showing on their surfaces. It completely destroys the purpose of searing.
I nearly cried when the cooks then scraped off everything that makes a burger delicious from the griddle and dumped it straight into the trash. I know people who have been imprisoned for lesser offenses.
WTF Moment #4: Squeezing The Life Out Of Them
The burgers had already been maimed, dismembered, and mortally injured. Next up in this tragic comedy of burger blunders, the cooks go in for the kill. Check it out:
After returning the pre-seared patties to the griddle to finish cooking on their second side, the cooks first smash them down. This in itself is a bad idea. Smashing is totally fine when the patty is raw. The fat is still solid, juices have not yet been squeezed out of muscle fibers. But after a couple minutes of pre-searing, followed by more time steaming in their own residual heat on sheet pans, you can bet your ass that both fat and juices are getting squeezed out of these patties when they're subsequently smashed.
And the final nail in the coffin: The cooks don't just smash'em once, they smash them repeatedly. Over and over, just to make sure that they've had every last ounce of life squeezed out of them.
WTF Moment #5: What Did You Do To My Bun?
Thankfully, that was the last of the offenses inflicted on my beef, and the toppings were surprisingly good. Crisp, fresh-tasting pickles, a relatively ripe tomato, nicely sliced onion and fresh green leaf lettuce. Even the American cheese came perfectly melted, adding back a bit of much needed fat to the beef.
But the bun. Oh, the bun.
Things start out great when I spy packs of Martin's Potato rolls sitting next to the griddle. Everything's still fine when I see the buns get buttered and toasted on the flat-top. The toasting is a bit uneven, with some bits nearly blackened and others still pale, but I can live with that.
After toasting, the buns get transferred to another one of those rimmed baking sheets to wait for their burgers. They wait... and wait... and wait. They wait long enough that even the cooks notice that they've gone a bit... cold and stale. Rather than tossing them and toasting some fresh burger buns, they toss them back onto the flat top, this time upside down, and—wait for it—press down on them.
What I ended up with was this:
A bun that's dry, flattened, and nearly burnt on both the inside and the outside.
It's a strong testament to the quality of the starting ingredients that after all of this, the burgers are still reasonably tasty.
Sides are decent as well. The fries are handled a little roughly, leaving you with a few full length pieces and a whole lot of tiny nubbins that you'll struggle to dip into the tiny cups they give you at the mayonnaise bar (I liked the chipotle mayo best), but the battered onion petals are great. Crisp and oniony. The toasted marshmallow milkshake I tried (which sat on the warm counter for a good 15 minutes while the rest of my order was completed) was half melted, and almost undrinkably sweet, despite good flavor.
Now, I don't know Spike Mendelsohn personally, but I've seen him cook on TV, I've looked through his book, and I know he's a better cook than this. He knows what delicious is, and he knows how to achieve it.* I've no doubt that he's fully capable of making an absolutely killer burger. But the best cooks aren't necessarily the best chefs, and Good Stuff Eatery is a clear cut example of how poor training, poor oversight, and allowing your employees to take shortcuts can utterly destroy what has the potential to be a fantastic product.
* At least as far as burgers go—his pizza joint next door (We, The Pizza) might be beyond saving
Good Stuff has everything in place to be an incredible burger joint, and I truly hope it turns itself around. Until then, there are still plenty of good local burgers to be had in this town. Heck, just head to the new Shake Shack. In form, it's nearly identical to the Good Stuff burgers. It's cheaper, the line moves faster, and I've never seen the Shack make any compromises on their technique.