First Look: Illegal Food

The former pop-up serves up burger-centric grub at its standalone Virginia-Highland outpost

As homage to the time they were making and selling food underground and somewhat unlawfully, Steven Lingenfelter and Laurie Dominguez built a pop-up sensation they called Illegal Food. For more than a year, Illegal operated out of Joystick Gamebar, turning out creative burgers and snacks with frenzied hype. Things came to a halt when Joystick ended its incubation period last August, but now a brick-and-mortar location of Illegal Food has opened. Located in the former Bar Meatball spot in Virginia-Highland, the three-month-old restaurant offers the same burgers, fries, and snacks, but in swanky new digs.

Inside, the decor is sparse but striking, with dangling pendant lighting, shiny white walls covered in subway tiles, and a wild boar mounted on the wall. The cozy bar area is inviting under a small archway with a curved concrete slab above comfy metal stools. There is a covered patio area overlooking the parking lot, about half the size of the main room, whose walls are bedecked with graffiti by local artist Mike Black.

Illegal's core menu is relatively small — a section of hand-cut, double-fried french fries and eight specialty burgers. There is also a daily specials menu of appetizers with seasonal items and different meat dishes. Some days there could be a bone-in tomahawk rib-eye on the menu, others a beef carpaccio or a charcuterie board. Here's the remarkable thing about Illegal: Each week they receive half a grass-grazed cow from Brasstown Beef, which they butchered in house. This means all of the week's burgers come from not only the same local farm, but also the same cow.

Fun touch: A complimentary amuse-bouche of crunchy and softly dusted jalapeño cheddar chicharrònes came to the table just after we were seated. From the specials sheet we ordered fried Brussels sprouts ($5.50) with drizzles of buttermilk aïoli and sprinkles of heirloom tomato powder. Tender but crisp and with just the right amount of char, they proved heavily addictive and enough for three to share. Some we dipped in Lingenfelter's house-made hot sauce called Penitentiary Pain. A beautiful, super-thin sliced beef carpaccio ($11) was fanned out on a plate and topped with microgreens, fried capers, and a citrus fennel vinaigrette. Also on the menu was a tangy terrine ($12) of minced beef heart, tongue, cheek, and oxtail, served with Champagne mustard, spicy pea shoots, and violets from the chef's home garden.

The roster of burgers includes the Hank ($12), which is a reinvention of Lingenfelter's childhood favorite, the Big Mac. The ground beef patty — or patties should you choose to make it a double ($16) — are topped with melty American cheese, organic iceberg lettuce, cut-to-order sweet Vidalia onion ringlets, house-made pickles, and a special sauce. It's sloppy and indulgent and tastes like the iconic, slutty fast-food creation, but better. The Banh Mi ($14.50) is a burger-like version of the chef's favorite Buford Highway snack from Quoc Huong. Two Gum Creek Farms pork patties come topped with pickled carrot and daikon, fresh jalapeños, cucumber, spicy mayo, and cilantro. All of the burgers come on soft H&F Bread Co.'s pain de mie buns, which hold up well to the various shellacking of sauces. Anyone who likes their burgers cooked a little on the rare side should note that, according to the menu, all patties here come cooked to medium.

Illegal's fries can either come simply with salt and pepper ($5), with house-made French onion dip ($7.50), Sriracha honey ($7.50), or the cult favorite Japanese-style Okonomiyaki ($10). The giant bowl of fries comes slathered and sauced and sprinkled with Sriracha, creamy Japanese mayo, green onion slivers, sesame seeds, spicy ginger pickles, seaweed strands, oko sauce (basically ketchup, soy, and Worcestershire sauces combined), and delicate, umami-laden bonito flakes that flicker from the heat of the fries.

Illegal's Southern-leaning cocktail list is short but sweet. Lingenfelter, a Kentucky native, stocked the bar with many bourbons. The One Down, Two to Go ($10) cocktail is made with rye, sassafras root, birch bark syrup, Ramazzotti (an herby amaro), and fresh lemon. The beer list is varied and well thought out with lots of local craft brews and a cider. The wine list is tiny but hits all the basics to accompany a good burger.

Speaking of which, a savvy Creative Loafing commenter once said a good burger begins with good meat and ends with a great bun. Illegal Food has this equation in the bag with grass-grazed house-ground Brasstown Beef and H&F Bread Co. buns. Add to that local toppings and house-made sauces in crazy combinations on towering stacks. Burgers here are both monstrous and glorious. In a word, Illegal Food is legit.

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