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It was more than a challenge; it was a quadruple-double-dog dare. My personal questwhich began when I spotted a taped-up piece of notebook paper announcing an Adams Morgan bar’s Sunday half-price-burger nightseemed almost inconceivable when I started it: Could a skinflint Washingtonian consume a half-price burger every night of the week? After all, half-price-burger specials are designed to lure chintzies such as me in on nightssay, Mondays and Tuesdayswhen the cash cows are home nursing their hangovers. So, how would I ever find a cheap burger on a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday? “Sorry, we moved [burger] night to Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays a few weeks ago,” a bartender said when I showed up at her establishment one Saturday night. I read ads, followed random tips, and even made cold calls. And, dammit, persistenceand cheapnessprevailed.
Monday: Mickey’s Patio, 406 8th St. SE, (202) 547-9640.
I settle in a few bar stools away from Mickey Pultz, the white-haired owner of Mickey’s Patio, a Capitol Hill bar with football on the television, dart boards on the wall, and green carpet on the floor. My two companions for the evening arrive shortly, and Mickey’s daughter, Judy, cheerily asks for our order. My friend Marina decides to make her burger rare. “Oooh, that’s daring,” Judy says, with a little snort. “Just slap ’em on the butt and send ’em out.”
Mickey’s burgers require a firm, Manwich-sized grip: They’re pleasantly plump, crispy on the outside, and cooked through and througheven Marina’s. Mickey’s burger is so large, in fact, that it’s hard to squeeze a little lettuce, tomato, and onion between the beef patty and its regulation-sized bun. A jumble of thin potato chips surround the burger, because Mickey’s lacks a deep fryer to make french fries.
I almost feel guilty, that I’m somehow taking advantage of Mickey’sconsuming a small mountain of meat for a mere $3 plus 50 cents extra for cheese. Then, Judy hands me the bill: $43.70. It’s the first lesson I learn on the half-price-burger-night circuit: Beers almost always remain full-price.
Tuesday: Cowboy Cafe, 4792 Lee Highway, Arlington, (703) 243-8010.
Full-price suds don’t deter the crowds from showing up at Cowboy Cafe: There’s at least a 20-minute wait tonight to get seated at this faux-Western bar in Arlington. Perhaps everyone has shown up to see former Independent Counsel Ken Starr, who treated five friends to half-price burgers here not too long ago. With all the students from nearby Marymount University packing the tables, though, it seems more like a Clinton crowd to me.
I wiggle into a spot at the bar next to Tony Perez, who tells me that he alternates between the half-price nights here and at Cowboy Cafe’s other location, on Columbia Pike, which has its burger night on Mondays. I order the usual: a cheddar-cheese burger cooked medium. Tony says that he might give Mickey’s a shot on Monday, if I can convince him. Both have their allure, I tell him: Although Mickey’s burgers are a few ounces brawnier, Cowboy Cafe’s cattle are a bit leaner, easier to hang on to, and accompanied by a fistful of hot fries that show some sexy skin. Tony seems ambivalent.
I still haven’t found a locale for Thursdays, I complain to Tony. “Yeah, that’s ladies’ night most places,” he says knowingly.
Wednesday: The Big Hunt, 1345 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 785-2333.
Even the Big Hunt, one of Dupont Circle’s liveliest and most unpretentious bars, has a little neighborhood uppityness to it: The menu pasted on the wall advises that burgers come on focaccia. This Eurotrash element seems at odds with the bar’s seedy safari theme, so I anxiously await the experiment in multiculturalism.
When my burger reaches the table, though, the lumpy 6-ounce patty is wedged unevenly between the two halves of a kaiser roll. “We had too many complaints about [the focaccia],” the waitress says when I ask about the discrepancy. I grab the bun for my first bite and a piece of meat falls off into my fries. I pop it into my mouth: It’s a little dry and chewy. The fries crowding my plate have the opposite problem: They’re a little moist and limp.
Thursday: Stetson’s, 1610 U St. NW, (202) 667-6295.
It’s just too delicious a cliché: “Where’s the beef?” all three of us say in unison when the burgers arrive at our table. First of all, it’s half-price turkey-burger night at Stetson’s: Apparently, Tony Perez knows what he’s talking about.
Next, the turkey patty, which arrives at the table charcoal-black, is dwarfed by its roll: There seems to be a good quarter-inch or so of white surrounding the burger. And the shredded mix of Monterey Jack and cheddar that sits atop the patty doesn’t add much moisture to this saliva-sucking sandwich.
Something positive does come out of the evening, however. Even though this is my first culinary encounter with a turkey burger, I find the taste all too familiar. By the end of the night, I nail it: Baltimore City public schools’ school-lunch burgers.
Friday: Clyde’s of Georgetown, 3236 M St. NW, (202) 333-9180.
In exchange for some crab-and-artichoke dip, Loretta Toggenburger advises me on pantsuits, men, and hotels in Washington. “They don’t treat women well at the Watergate,” she says.
The 60-something chairperson of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Annuity Reserve Fund, Toggenburger comes to Clyde’s of Georgetown whenever she’s in town. When my food arrives, I see why: My medium Clyde’s Burgera special, along with crab cakes and Caesar salads, from 4 to 7 p.m. weekdaysis a hefty handful of lean ground beef, cooked to order with a healthy pink glow inside. It’s the kind of burgerdripping with juicethat requires steak sauce instead of ketchup or mustard. Sharp cheddar cheese is messily draped on top, but it doesn’t stick to the bun, which is somewhat arid.
The following Monday afternoon, I’m sitting at my desk daydreaming about Clyde’s Burgers and wondering how Toggenburger’s annuity funds are doing. At 4:30, I say that I’m headed out for reporting, and in 20 minutes, I’m back at Clyde’s to try the crab cakes. They’re just as blissful as the Clyde’s Burger, packed plentifully with the meat of the Chesapeake and no bread filler.
Saturday: Hawk & Dove, 329 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, (202) 543-3300.
On a Saturday, arguably a bar’s biggest night of the week, the Hawk & Dove offers two hamburgers and a pitcher of Bud Ice for $10. In case you’re wondering, that price tag includes a plate-filling amount of fries, as well as a pickle. Because this homey Capitol Hill haunt is always brimming with an eclectic mix of backward-baseball-capped legislative assistants and stubble-faced local yokels, the special seems almost an act of benevolence to its Hill neighbors.
But it’s a good thing that Hawk & Dove features a two-burger special tonight, because Mike, who sits one bar stool over from me, veers a little too close and spills a glass of red wine all over Burger No. 1. I got only a few bites in before the incident, but Burger No. 2 seems exactly the same as its predecessor: a dry, hockey-puck-shaped patty, pressed flat with marks that suggest it spent too much time sizzling away on the grill.
Sunday: Toledo Lounge, 2435 18th St. NW, 986-5416.
Months ago, when I spied that flapping sheet of loose-leaf on the door of Toledo Lounge, I thought I had hit the lottery. It was to be my first half-price-burger night, perhaps signaling the end of my nightly wheedling for co-workers’ leftovers. The bar’s other, apparently more experienced patrons seemed less excited, but almost inevitably, half-price burgers made it to their tables, too.
Toledo Lounge makes burgers the way it wants to. Not once in several visits am I asked how I’d like mine cooked, but I always seem to be in agreement with the grill. The hearty, handmade patty comes with a healthy portion of long-cut fries that snap! when I break them into dipping length. And not only are the crusty, just-like-mom-makes burgers half-price, but beers on tap are $2 until 10 p.m. That means a cheddar-cheese burger with a pint of Sierra Nevada totals up to a cool $6.
“A pretty cheap dinner,” my waiter says as he smiles and hands me the check. Elissa Silverman
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