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Battle of the Juicy Lucys

This column typically functions by having you, my devoted readers, send me out in search of that which your taste buds simply can’t live without, but today I’m taking the initiative.

And this public service announcement is all about setting the record straight regarding that most mouth-watering of Midwestern bar fare: the Juicy Lucy.

Mind you, I am not a native son of Minneapolis. Nor has my backside had the pleasure of polishing a bar stool at either Matt’s Bar & Grill (originator of the Jucy Lucy; their mantra: “Remember, if it’s spelled correctly, you just might be eating a shameless ripoff!”) or the 5-8 Club (proud purveyor of the Juicy Lucy; “If it’s spelled right, it’s done right”).

But I’ve feasted on enough variations of the fabled inside-out cheeseburger — a grilling buddy makes them exclusively at the behest of his Minnesotan wife and a handful of Northern Virginia eateries experimented with the cult burgers while I critiqued restaurants there — to know when I’m sinking my teeth into something truly special.

And I don’t get that feeling from The Arsenal’s current reinterpretation.

A Messy History

As with many of the great food discoveries that dot the American landscape, the origin story (myth?) of who crafted the very first cheese-filled burger remains enmeshed in a regional turf war.

Cheryl Bristol, daughter of Matt Bristol, the founder of the aforementioned grill joint, has repeatedly stated that the meaty masterpiece came to being right over her family’s fiery grill.

Per Bristol, a bar regular strolled in one day in 1954 and asked the grill cook to sandwich some cheese between two burger patties. According to local legend, the cook complied, sealing a slice of cheese within the handmade beef cocoon, fried up the frankenmeal and served it to the waiting gent. When said customer bit into the protein bomb, the molten cheese sprayed out, causing the surprised guest to exclaim, “that’s one juicy Lucy!”

In the decades since, the quirky consumable has taken on a life of its own, migrating across the country while always remaining near and dear to locals’ hearts.

“Just as Geno’s and Pat’s stubbornly battle for the title of Best Cheesesteak in Philadelphia, so too are Matt’s and the 5-8 Club locked in an eternal struggle over who created the cheeseburger that has been called ‘the Cheesesteak of south Minneapolis’: the Juicy (or Jucy) Lucy. The sandwich exerts so great a gravitational pull on the local imagination that an entire website has sprung up to taste the Lucy in all its incarnations,” the Minneapolis-St.Paul City Pages wrote of the sandwich’s devoted following back in 2008.

Its lineage may be hazy, but the mechanics of the dairy-filled delicacy are quite clear: Stuff adequately fatty meat with cheese, carefully grill and proceed with caution.

“Wherever you get it, best to heed the warning and let it sit before you bite, lest you also be introduced to the pain of scalding hot cheese,” City Pages warned in its tribute.

The Twin Cities’ own Heavy Table suggested using no less than 80/20 lean-to-fatty ground beef and generic American cheese in its make-your-own video tutorial. When America’s Test Kitchen took a crack at developing a foolproof Juicy Lucy back in 2007, the culinary think tank devoted a good deal of time to preserving the iconic purse of embedded cheese within the surrounding patty (which was also bolstered with a bread and milk mixture). Their solution: double wrapping the beef.

“To keep the cheesy center of our recipe in place, we created a double-sealed pocket by wrapping a chunk of cheese inside a small beef patty and then molding a second patty around the first,” Team ATK counseled.

Arsenal chef Kyle Bailey, however, has his own take on Juicy Lucy construction.

Dueling Lucys

While I can’t stop telling everyone about the wondrous beers flowing from Bluejacket’s carefully curated taps — Panther smacks of dark chocolate and coffee, Bombshell bubbles over with citrus notes and hoppiness, the sour-packed Trouble delivered winey gulps of cherry and ripe stone fruit — the Juicy Lucy gave me immediate pause.

The first alarm went off when the server informed me that all Arsenal burgers are cooked to well done.

Bailey confirmed that the kitchen uniformly fires its burgers to ensure that the custom patties are cooked all the way through.

For his patties, Bailey said he salts and peppers beef brisket, air dries it in a cooler for two days, grinds the meat and flattens it into 2-ounce patties with a tortilla press.

“In the past, I’ve always used chuck for burgers, but in this burger it was important that we could grind our own and keep the price reasonable. Brisket was perfect for that, plus it has a big beefy flavor and a good amount of fat cap on it, so we can keep it all beef,” he said of the base material.

The clanging of alarms became deafening as soon as the burger hit the table.

Before me sat a formidable meal. Possibly even a noteworthy double cheeseburger.

But this was clearly no Juicy Lucy.

There was certainly an abundance of cheese. Twin slices of Grafton cheddar from Vermont were draped over the featured brisket patties. But there was no cheese filling to be found.

The first bite confirmed the worst: This burger was way too dry.

Whether it’s the prolonged cooking method or the actual cut of beef (for my money, brisket lacks the protective fat of an 80-20 grind), the burger was simply not juicy.

The remaining ingredients did their part (the house-made brioche bun was good, the dijonnaise dressing enticing, blocks of crispy tater tots were delightful), but could not salvage the otherwise disappointing meal.

In fact, the only thing I wanted after pushing away my half-finished plate was a real Juicy Lucy.

Which is why I raced across the river to Ray’s To The Third. Rebel restaurateur Michael Landrum has been reshuffling his various properties after losing the spaces that once housed Ray’s Hell-Burger and Hell-Burger Two, but he has since swept his entire burger catalog beneath the Ray’s To The Third umbrella.

When it first opened, Ray’s To The Third carved out a special place on the menu for Landrum’s latest creation, his self-styled “gushers.” Following the consolidation, those have fallen off the main carte — but a server assured me the cheese-filled favorites are always available to those who ask.

His first question: “How would you like that cooked?”

When I asked for medium rare, he counseled, “With medium-rare I can’t guarantee the cheese will be melted all the way through.” We settled on medium.

Much like the 5-8 Club, Ray’s allows for customization, baiting clients with a choice of premium cheeses ($1-$1.50 for everything from plain American to imported double cream Brie). And the base burger is a 10-ounce behemoth fashioned from select steak house cuts.

The beautiful monstrosity that arrived tableside nearly brought tears to my eyes.

The oversized patty dwarfed the plain white bun. The cheese (I ordered Vermont white cheddar for a true side-by-side comparison), as I was warned, remained mostly in its sliced state, but was also firmly embedded within the meat.

Because the cheese had not fully melted, I was spared from any embarrassing spray (though I still had to wipe the grease from my hands after every bite). But the interior was deliciously bloody, the outside attractively seared, and the whole thing smacked of smoke and creaminess.

I won’t bore you with the details of a follow up exploration featuring a Ray’s burger that spewed forth a sensory-overloading geyser of piquant blue cheese, but I will say this: Get one. You may never go back to plain cheeseburgers again.

Back at The Arsenal, Bailey insists his Juicy Lucy is king of the heap.

“It outsells everything 2 to 1,” he asserted.

That blows our mind. Particularly since his Merguez burger, a mash-up of ground lamb and pork layered with Manchego cheese and a bold harissa aioli, is much juicier and flavorful than the flagship dish.

CQ Roll Call dining guru Warren Rojas will stop at nothing to track down your regional specialty/state dish/hometown favorite. Put him on the case by nominating your most sorely missed meals to

Bluejacket/The Arsenal: 300 Tingey St. SE; 202-524-4862; Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch Monday through Friday, dinner daily, brunch Sunday.

Ray’s To The Third: 1650 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va.; 703-974-7171; Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner daily.

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