When Matchbox opened in Chinatown in 2003, the focus was brick-oven pizza, but everyone was talking about the mini-burgers. Served in orders of three, six or nine and topped with a tangle of crisply fried onion strings, the tiny burgers quickly became the restaurant’s main attraction.
Now the man behind those tasty burgers has moved on to the Ugly Mug, Barracks Row’s newest bar, and he brought the recipe with him. Chef Graig Glufling was snatched up by restaurateurs Scott Porter and Gaynor Jablonski immediately after he left Matchbox, and he helped the pair open the new bar and restaurant on Eighth Street Southeast at the end of December, as well as Porter’s Dining Saloon near Dupont Circle last spring.
The Ugly Mug’s menu doesn’t fall far from the Matchbox tree. Pizza makes up more than half of the choices, and then of course there are those mini-burgers.
Other than the addition of American cheese, the Ugly Mug’s burgers are a spitting image of their predecessors. The beef is surprisingly juicy for such a small patty, and the brioche buns are buttered and grilled, creating a crunchy toast flavor. Don’t be surprised to find a trail of grease running down your hand, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. A thick pickle slice is the only other garnish, adding a nice crunch.
Other appetizers include fried calamari (another Matchbox transplant), which is spiced up by banana peppers and sweet red onion, and a trio of mini-crab cakes, served with garlic aioli and mixed greens.
Pizza comes in at least 12 renditions, not counting the create-your-own options. The chipotle chicken pizza with smoked gouda, adorned with a star of giant basil leaves, is attractive and flavorful, the smoky chipotle sauce playing nicely with the gouda. A more basic white pizza is elevated by creamy ricotta. Other choices include the Maryland white pizza, topped with lump crabmeat and artichokes, and the meat eater piled with sausage, bacon, meatballs, pepperoni and mozzarella.
The rest of the menu comprises a few comfort food items, such as meatloaf and country fried steak, and a handful of sandwiches. The filet BLT stands out for its playful combination of grilled beef tenderloin, bacon, lettuce and tomato on a toasted English muffin smeared with tarragon mayonnaise. It seems like something you’d whip up at home from leftovers, but the combination works well.
Crisp Foggy Bottom beer-battered cod shows up with a pile of thin fries, and a he-man-size portion of braised pork ribs, finished on the grill, is slathered with a tangy housemade bourbon sauce.
Being just more than a month old, the bar is still somewhat of a work in progress, and the kitchen has some consistency problems. During one lunchtime visit, the mini-burgers were unevenly cooked and the onion straws had nary a hint of seasoning. And there’s still no credit card machine (cash only). The newly painted walls are mostly bare, but the focus of the décor centers on the row of large flat-screen TVs behind the bar.
Seating is limited to a row of circular booths, leaving lots of empty space between the bar and the tables. If you don’t need a view of one of the numerous TVs, the best seats are at the tall tables in the front window.
However, there’s plenty to keep the diverse crowd of suits and sweatshirts happy while throwing back beers and catching a game. For starters, the long bar boasts 24 taps. The beer lineup is fairly basic, the most interesting choices being the Bare Knuckle Stout, Smithwick’s and Magic Hat #9. Beers are poured in three sizes: mugs, pints or pitchers.
Then there are the weekday food specials, offered until 10 p.m. Monday brings half-price pizza and Thursday offers $5 orders of pepperoni rolls.
A tiny room with a pool table in the back, though detached from the action, thoughtfully has its own flat-screen TV so you won’t miss any of the game. And an Internet jukebox in the front of the bar churns out an eclectic music mix (think Meatloaf followed by Outkast and Whitesnake).
On Sunday, the bar will host a Super Bowl party with all-you-can-drink Miller Lite and rail drinks along with a three-course buffet for $40. The deal starts one hour before game time and ends one hour after.
Given a little time to work out the kinks, the Ugly Mug should become a comfortable hangout and a welcome addition to the blossoming Barracks Row scene.