Mélange, a burger pop-up previously hosted at Wet Dog Tavern, officially opens its brick and mortar location near Mt. Vernon Square on September 4, 2020. With this new opening, chef and owner Elias Taddesse adds Ethiopian flavors to his fast-casual burger concept, with menu items such as The Beyaynetu, a lentil beet patty featuring Timtim Salata and Spicy Misr Spread, and The National, a spicy Doro Wat-style fried chicken sandwich with kebe aioli and turmeric slaw. Taddesse, who spent most of his career working in fine dining and Michelin-starred restaurants, acknowledges that a burger concept may seem like a strange career choice. However, Taddesse says he, "wants to create food that represents his training, culture, and background," that encompasses the entirety of his story.
Ethiopian Roots, French Training, and Burnout
Born in Ethiopia, Elias Taddesse grew up in Minneapolis, where he got his start in the restaurant industry working as a server. With the help and encouragement of a chef at that very first restaurant, Taddesse went on to complete culinary school at the Institut Paul Bocuse in France. Afterward, he returned to the U.S. and began a nine-year stint working in New York City restaurants including at hotspots Adour, Corton, and Caviar Russe. Taddesse describes those environments as grueling, valuable training experiences to build technical skills. He eventually began to reevaluate his fine dining experience: "the long hours, intense focus, working six days a week, 14 hour days."
Upon deciding to leave the fine-dining world, Taddesse went back to Ethiopia to spend his first downtime in almost a decade looking towards the future. There, Taddesse was challenged to a burger cook-off, and what began as a friendly contest resulted in a 14-judge panel hosted in a local hotel. After what he describes as "a landslide victory," Taddesse's fast-casual burger concept was born.
Though he originally intended to open his concept restaurant in Ethiopia, unrest there forced Taddesse to rethink his plans. Instead, he began cooking for parties and pop-ups in DC, drawing on connections with local purveyors and business owners he had made while doing market research. He founded Salt & Pepper Burgers at Union Market, which eventually morphed into Mélange, his burger pop-up at Wet Dog Tavern. After 3.5 years there, Taddesse had just begun looking for investors for a more permanent location when COVID-19 hit.
A COVID Opening
The COVID-19 crisis and the resulting shutdown delayed Taddesse's plans for a brick and mortar location, ultimately causing initial investors to back out. However, he was able to take advantage of Catalyst, a new program from developer EDENS that allows restaurateurs to launch their concepts in repurposed spaces, reducing opening costs and bringing new tenants into otherwise vacant spaces. Taddesse was also able to secure a percentage-based rent deal, where for a period of time the landlord doesn't require fixed rent payments and instead tenants pay a percentage of revenue. Percentage leases are a possible solution for businesses affected by COVID, one being explored by other DC restaurants as well.
After COVID-related delays and retooling, Mélange opens September 4, 2020, in Mt. Vernon Triangle, in the space formerly occupied by Ray's Hell Burger. Initially, Mélange will open for takeout and delivery with a burger-centric fast-casual menu with Ethiopian flavors. In time, Taddesse hopes to build a bar in the back room and expand a separate dining area. There he plans to further explore his Ethiopian roots and French training to feature a full-service fusion menu with East African inspired cocktails. Until then, try Mélange's fast-casual menu with items like a spicy Doro Wat-style fried chicken sandwich and a vegan option with house-made lentil beet patty. For traditionalists, I recommend The Classic and The Shroom, both excellent burgers pictured below.
Mélange is located at 449 K St NW, Washington, DC 20001. Check out their menu below or order online.
*An earlier version of this article noted that Mélange was opening on August 28th. Due to unforeseen circumstances that opening date was delayed.