Washington, DC: The Flavor-Packed Cheeseburger from Palena Cafe
3529 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008 (map); 202-537-9250; palenarestaurant.com
Cooking Method: Wood grilled
Short Order: An umami bomb of a burger presented minimally with maximum flavor
Want Fries with That? Not included with the burger, but expertly fried truffle shoestring fries are a tasty complement
Price: Palena Cheese Burger, $13; shoestring fries, $8
If you've been paying attention, you'll know that the burger from Cleveland Park's Palena Cafe has been mentioned on Serious Eats numerous times in the past. Listed on various roundups and "best of" lists, it's been no secret that Palena's titular burger is generally considered to be one of the best in the city, so it's about time we gave it its own review.
One of the first things that came to mind when biting into the former White House chef Frank Ruta's Palena Cheese Burger ($13) was, to its great credit, Minetta Tavern's Black Label Burger—the kind of burger that relies so confidently on its primary constituent ingredients that it forgoes any embellishment. In fact, on the menu the only word next to the burger is "pickles."
The quality of Palena's burger lies, as it should, in the patty. A thoroughly fatty 60/40 mix of top round and chuck (and some Kobe or other steak cuts when they're available) gets topped with just a thin, lightly melted slice of Italian Sottocenere al tartufo truffled cheese and a garlic seasoned mayo. The flavor profile is delicate, but the burger gushes flavor and juice where it counts. This is sandwiched between a surprisingly thick and substantial house baked brioche bun that practically dwarfs the patty. The final product is understated, balanced, and packed with such dense flavor, it might catch you off guard (in a good way).
The eight-ounce patty is lightly handled and loosely packed to retain as much moisture and tenderness as possible. Wood-fired to medium-rare, it achieves a light but noticeable char that creates a nicely complementary crust, while the center retains an appetizing pinkness. The patty practically melts in your mouth without falling apart. It's the ideal form of a burger patty. The extra high fat content and occasional inclusion of high quality steak trimmings pump in extraordinary levels of umami that do not leave you wanting for extra toppings.
Speaking of, both the truffled cheese and garlic mayo are just subtle enough to add another dimension to the flavor without detracting from the meat. The garlic mayo is buttery and not overly mayo-y and, surprise, adds a sharp but slight garlic aroma. The truffled cheese, which is on the subtler side, adds a creamy, mellowing quality that helps to round out the extreme richness of the burger. The cheese, though, does not play a leading role, so the "cheese burger" name might be a mild misnomer (burger with cheese?).
Then there's the bun. A toasted, brioche sesame seed bun, it's dauntingly thick with a satisfying crunch. It seems like it might be too much bread, but in actuality, the bun serves as an effective safety net for the precious juices raining from the patty. As you handle it and it soaks up the flavor runoff, it compresses to a much more manageable size. It provides a lightly sweet, dense counterpoint.
The Palena Cheese Burger is plated as minimally as it's constructed. While the menu does say pickles, it sometimes comes served with a small bunch of carrots, cauliflower, and beets. Want of fries will lead you to an $8 bowl of shoestring fries that are just as understated, but superb. Exquisitely fried, skin-on truffle fries that are ideally crisp and not over salted. Well worth it.
The overall quality of Palena's burger notwithstanding, it's worth noting that at just $13, it punches well above its weight class. You could pit it against burgers at much higher price points (perhaps even the Black Label Burger) and it wouldn't fare unfavorably (although the ultimate outcome would undoubtedly depend on the eater). If you've missed this burger after all of the accolades it's received in the past few years, get yourself to Palena and try it for yourself.
About the author: Brian is a Washington, DC based international development professional, food lover, and photographer. In his free time, you can usually find him chasing down a good burger or slice. Follow him on Twitter @brianoh11