The first time I visited Good Stuff Eatery, I had to stand in the winding, Disney World–esque line along with the rest of the star-struck schmoes hoping to get a burger and a glimpse of its quasi-celebrity owner, former Top Chef contestant Spike Mendelsohn. The wait gave me plenty of time to take in the menu, watch the line cooks, ignore the pounding classic-rock soundtrack, and appreciate all the signs and T-shirts pumping Spike’s fresh, “not far from the farm” ethos.
As the line snaked its way to the ordering counter, I found myself face-to-face with the fedora fetishist himself. I took the opportunity to ask Mendelsohn what cuts of beef he uses for his burger. “Are you asking about my blend?” he shot back. “Yeah, I guess I am,” I responded. “Is it confidential?” Mendelsohn said it was, given he spent a year developing it. Still, unable to contain himself, the chef said his blend includes both brisket and boneless short ribs, which, I admit, got me a little excited. Those are two tasty cuts.
My mouth was watering harder than a log ride by the time I secured a seat, unwrapped my “farmhouse” burger, and took the first bite. It turned out to be the anti-burger hamburger, by which I mean that the gray charred disc of underseasoned ground beef had almost zero flavor, even when I broke off a chunk and ate it straight. The patty was a lame headliner outperformed by such secondary acts as the thin strip of sour pickle and the soft, sweet brioche bun. I chalked it up to rookie griddle jockeys who had likely pressed and cooked the juices right out of Mendelsohn’s precious burgers. Rule No. 1 for all burger cooks: Don’t play with your meat.
My theory seemed sound after my next trips to Good Stuff. Almost every subsequent burger I ordered tasted as if the beef flavor had been, well, beefed up. If the first one was anemic, the latter ones were steroidal, pure ground-beef muscle goodness. During my second visit, I noticed Mendelsohn himself at the griddle, and his technique was flawless. Patties slapped on the grill, generously seasoned, flipped once, and cooked till done. No extraneous flipping, no squeezing with the spatula, no lost juices. Nothing like the owner taking matters into his own hands.
But then I got to talking with a rival restaurateur who suggested another reason for Mendelsohn’s initial burger failures: My deepthroat suggested that, early on, Good Stuff actually bought its burgers from Sysco, the food-service giant that is the absolute antithesis of farm-fresh. Mendelsohn categorically denied the charge, and I believe him. The reason I even decided to drag you, poor reader, through this muck of apparently baseless accusations is because I think it proves a point. Spike Mendelsohn is a marked man.
The dude is partly to blame. Following his Top 5 finish in Top Chef, the New York chef rode into town on a white stallion, his fedora jauntily askew, and promptly pissed off the old guard. He didn’t kiss enough ass. He didn’t give enough credit to the great burgers that came before him, whether Frank Ruta’s truffled version at Palena or the iconic double-patty sandwich at Five Guys. No, instead, Mendelsohn told the Washington Post in June, even before Good Stuff opened: “I would like to be an ambassador of bringing young hip restaurants here. I’m looking at D.C. as a blank canvas where I hope to practice my art form.”
“It seems to me that he has made it very clear that his main interest in the Washington area is as a less competitive and more easily star-struck launching pad for his franchise operations than New York would be,” wrote fellow burger-meister Michael Landrum on DonRockwell.com. “Charming he may be, but his failure in his many media opportunities to recognize and show respect to the real chefs ahead of him who have worked here for years and have earned their accomplishments…is certainly graceless, if not entirely enough to deny him the benefit of the doubt.”
Mendelsohn’s parents should have taught him better—literally. He comes from, as Mendelsohn says, “a very thick restaurant family.” His mom is a chef, his grandfather was a chef, and his family has operated restaurants from Montreal to St. Petersburg, Fla. He should have had a far better grasp of dining politics.
He certainly understands what attracts the rich and powerful on Capitol Hill. Here’s his secret: It’s not just about a good burger, though that doesn’t hurt. Mendelsohn is milking his brief, TV-generated celebrity status for every last drop. He’s almost always behind the counter, sporting a fedora or, more recently, a do-rag. In a city where the old, the gray, and Helen Thomas attract loyal followers, the 27-year-old Mendelsohn is one of the District’s few legitimate young draws.
But Mendelsohn is also channeling the contemporary culinary mantra—local, local, local!—with his two-story operation, which has been built to resemble a farmhouse. The joint sports distressed hardwood floors, a cartoonish cowbell hanging over the soda machines, the aforementioned signs and shirts. It would all be too quaint by half if not for the currents of Boomer 2.0 that charge the place. Downstairs, the stereo system blares the Doors and Van Morrison; upstairs, flatscreens offer a non-stop ticker-tape of news. For middle-age powerbrokers, sex, drugs and roll ’n’ roll has been replaced with grease, stocks, and rock ’n’ roll.
The food here can be just as creative, even if (like the rest of the place) the menu was designed by committee, in this case by the Mendelsohn family and Spike’s good bud and business partner, Mike Colletti. Good Stuff’s line of milkshakes is a good place to start; they’re these meticulous custard-based concoctions cut with just the slightest hint of fresh yogurt to tamp down the sweetness quotient. The toasted marshmallow shake will make you pine for an open campfire and a bag of Kraft Jet-Puffed.
But Good Stuff’s creative gene can get deformed. The place offers a line of wedge salads, including a “classic,” which immediately brings to mind a cool, crisp steakhouse iceberg wedge dripping blue-cheese dressing from all sides, right? This version comes in a giant plastic container brimming with mixed greens and topped with chopped onions, crumbled bacon, and battered onion straws. The flavor combinations go against all your expectations, particularly when a leaf of arugula adds an unwelcome note of bitterness to your creamy dressing. I’d also argue the Portobello burger has been way overthought, delicious though it may be. Two ’shroom tops press down on a gooey layer of muenster and cheddar cheeses, the whole of which is breaded and fried to resemble a sort of puffer fish. The sammie offers equal rights to vegetarians: You, too, can join the Lipitor Nation by eating too many of these.
If I’m going to abuse my arteries, it’ll be with one of Good Stuff’s burgers, accompanied by a (sometimes soggy) brown bag of its village fries, dusted with thyme, rosemary, and cracked pepper. After sampling widely on the burger menu, I keep returning to the simplicity of the joint’s farmhouse burger. Spike’s 5 Napkin burger, topped with bacon and a fried egg, reminds me too much of a breakfast sandwich; Colletti’s Smokehouse burger is about everything but the meat; and the Blazin’ Barn is a kind of a ground-beef banh mi.
No, after all the work Mendelsohn has put into his blend, I want to taste it, and you can do that best with the no-frills farmhouse, topped with a thin layer of American cheese. All the flavor is right there at your fingertips, just waiting to prove that Spike Mendelsohn is no Top Chef wannabe cashing in on his limited fame. He’s a serious burger man.
Good Stuff Eatery, 303 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, 202-543-8222.
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