A burger is an indulgence of the highest order, conforming to roughly zero of the prevailing dietary trends or social mores. Burgers are permissive, they give pleasure, and they fuse immediacy and cultural expression with seamless grace, asking only for rolled sleeves and open minds in return.
Consider this: nearly every bar in Portland has a burger, and many of the city’s best restaurants have one, too. I’m not sure there’s another dish that can rival it in terms of level of conceptual reach. In this way, I think the burger becomes to the chef like the plain white t-shirt is to the clothing designer: deceptively simple, yet subtly expressive of big-picture intent. You can tell a lot about a restaurant by what they do with the burger on their menu.
I love every kind of burger: a $6 food cart quicky, an hour-long $16 downtown lunch, a 1 am savior of soul and sanity produced by some beefy alchemical magic from the kitchen at a divey bar. I love the Burgerville Original Cheeseburger ($2.55), as soft and comforting as mother’s milk, with that lovely creamy Burgerville Spread sauce as the dominant flavor note offset by a piquant zing of ketchup. Yes, ketchup! It’s not appropriate on every burger but it’s essential to some. I love a cheffy cart burger, I love a cultural mash-up burger, I love a burger that can only come from one place, one chef, singular and expressive and sometimes even a little weird.
Over the last month, I burgered (using the verb form) with reckless abandon across the city, taking tips from friends and strangers alike and applying every cheesy, greasy drip of my research abilities to sample burgers for this issue. Read on for one man’s personal burger sojourn, and read even further for our interview with esteemed burger enthusiast Bill Oakley.
Burger at the ever-spooky Monster Smash. Photo by Marielle Gibbons.
PORTLAND BURGER PARADISE
Burgers, burgers, everywhere in this town, from the cart to the bar to the white tablecloth joint. This city’s love affair with the cheeseburger is deep and abiding, a source of great pride and nostalgia. Everyone has a favorite burger they’ll admit to you up front; everyone then also has a second, secret favorite burger, that will only be revealed with some hedging or context (another beer usually helps too), plus a burger they used to be able to get and is now sadly gone forever (multiple people mentioned the Biwa burger, as well as the outstanding burger formerly offered by Davenport). Part of the great fun of working on this issue for Feast involved talking with as many fellow Portlanders as possible about the burgers they love around town. There are so, so many cheeseburgers here that modern forms of curation fail us, and I think that’s actually a good thing—sometimes the world is better when it runs on word of mouth.
I don’t want this to be a listicle and it’s not an official quorum of Burger Minds adjudicating The Best Burger from on high. Think of it more like… a stream of melted cheese consciousness, oozing into the bun-form of reported burger journalism… categories blurring like mayo and ketchup into some delicious, slightly chaotic reportorial sauce… hopefully you get the picture. Let’s dive in.
First things first, the cheeseburger and the food cart are perfectly made for each other, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many great burgers in the city come out of carts. We proudly, loudly do not differentiate between “cart chefs” and restaurant chefs here at Feast, but for burger purposes—with so, so many burgers around town—it’s a helpful framing device. To that end: the Pernil Burger at Papi Sal’s is an outstanding sandwich, its seeded roll absorbing spice and flavor and sofrito mayo; the Matta “Double Burg” glows a lovely green from a dose of pandan in the bun, and fuses fish sauce patties with American cheese in a truly delicious moment of caloric exchange; the burger at Farmer & The Beast has long been considered one of the city’s premiere cart burger experiences, made with tasty Nicky USA beef; the Azorean Burger at Bolo PDX fuses the cuisine of the Azores islands in burger form, with pineapple, garlic beef, Menorcan cheese and nori; and the late-night spicy sriracha burger at Bottle Rocket scratches some sort of itch at 2 am, about which the less said, the better.
Smash burgers are intensely popular here in Portland right now, but there’s plenty of differentiation to be found within the category. The $6 people’s champion is MidCity SmashBurger, whose “smashy bois” have a loud, devoted online following (MCSB recently moved to a new location on Sandy, and the smashies are as good as ever). Ricardo Loverde’s Monster Smash next to Belmont Station on Stark isn’t just spooky for October—theirs is a year-round devotion to the Halloween aesthetic, but with burgers this year they can come with whatever theme they want. $10 gets you the house smash burger, piled high with cart-made pickles on a brioche bun. Watch for cheffy specials here too, like goat cheese salad or a late summer BLT that I’m still dreaming about. I also really like the late-night smash burgers inside Creepy’s, courtesy of Mexican-American owned burger emporium Lo’s Burgers—here you’re given the ability to add griddled caramelized onions to your smasher, which ends up landing somewhere in the vicinity of a county fair burger, my personal favorite burger style of all.
Bar burgers are a world unto themselves, and could have quite literally been the sole focus of this entire issue. Where you draw the line between a restaurant burger and a bar burger is something like philosophy, so don’t @ me — we’re both right. A friend tipped me off at the start of this process to the burger inside Kay’s Bar in Sellwood, and it is an extremely satisfying, classic, half-sleeve bar burger I’m going to need to eat once every couple of months now, inside of one of the city’s great classic rollicking dive bars (open since 1934); I am personally a longtime devotee of the Fox Burger—blue cheese sauce, bacon, Painted Hills beef—inside The Red Fox, a charming little smokey patio dive on North Albina, hidden off the side of the park next to Cherry Sprout Grocery; the Lay Low Tavern makes a similarly exemplary “classic” dive bar burger, but lurking on the menu is the bar’s own Lay Low Burger, which involves chevre, Mama Lil’s peppers, and a lime cilantro aioli, which is pretty classy for a dive off Powell; new to me in all this research was the puffy-soft burger offering from Bellwether on Mount Tabor, served late and built to cruise alongside the bar’s impressive bourbon selection; and the consensus favorite bar burger across the city, recommended by person after person in my research, can be found at Tulip Shop Tavern on Killingsworth, where they also make a killer true daiquiri, in case you want to pair your burger with something limey and cold.
The bar burger at Tulip Shop Tavern. Photo by Marielle Gibbons.
Many of the city’s best restaurants offer excellent burgers, but sometimes this happens in the bar—so is it a bar burger, or a restaurant burger? Does it matter? Canard is sort of a bar, sort of a restaurant, and their steamburgers remain the city’s premiere exhibitor of the three-bite burger style (I miss when they were $3 for happy hour); Ringside Steakhouse is very much a restaurant, but I like hanging out in their bar, drinking wine (or bringing a bottle to enjoy their reasonable $20 corkage) and ordering the Wagyu beef bar burger with a side of onion rings; Fuller’s Coffee Shop in the Pearl is more like a diner than a bar or a restaurant, but their burger absolutely slaps—a crisp, fresh bite of burger Americana beamed out of the 20th century; Megan Sanchez and Alec Morrison at Güero do a loving version of the hamburguesa, with Painted Hills beef, pickled jalapenos, chipotle mayo, and grilled onions and chiles; Oma’s Hideaway goes big with the Oma-zing burger, redolent with numbing chili jam and cooled by a battalion of pickles; and multiple friends pointed me towards the butcher shop burger at Laurelhurst Market, a place that’s been good for so long and whose burger benefits greatly from the contrast offered by white cheddar, something you find more commonly used at burger spots in London.
I’m leaving stuff out, I’m forgetting places. Every single burger they make at Fermenter PDX is outstanding, from the tempeh patty melt to the apple butter burger to the daily burger special to which you can (and should) add house vegan bacon and pickles. But there’s more—always more burgers. Such is the magic, the power of the humble cheeseburger. No person can ever truly know it all when it comes to burgers, at least not fully. There’s always another burger to try. But if pushed, pressed—say, in the service of concluding an essay—to name the burger I most enjoy in Portland, I have to point you towards the bar burger inside of Higgins, where chef Greg Higgins has quietly run one of the city’s most important restaurants since 1994. The burger at Higgins is thick and satisfying, served on a fluffy housemade bun, with oozing cheddar cheese and an allotment of house pickles and white onion on the side. It is elegant in its simplicity, allowing the quality of the beef to shine through. I love eating it, but more than anything, I love this burger as a passcode, an excuse to hang out in the wood-paneled Higgins bar, ideally alongside a lunch buddy or two, and to soak up the atmosphere and collected decades’ worth of energy. This burger, with a Chimay beer on tap served in the proper glassware from Belgium, and a bit of friendly advice on what else to order from Charlie the bartender, while city life filters in and out of the barroom doors? This is my own personal Portland burger paradise.
– Jordan Michelman
Burger enthusiast Bill Oakley. Photo by Fred Joe.
5 QUESTIONS WITH: BILL OAKLEY For Portland food lovers, Bill Oakley needs little by way of introduction. He’s a former showrunner, writer, and executive producer on The Simpsons turned food influencer, critic, and founder the Steamed Hams Society, a “food discovery club” with a worldwide community. Oakley also presents The Steamies, an annual food awards event, and has collaborated with local restaurants on some pretty intriguing specials—mention Steamed Hams at Jojo PDX’s new brick and mortar to try an off-menu McRib inspired sandwich. We sat down with Bill to talk about his love for the humble hamburger sandwich, and some of his favorite places around town for beef and buns.
When did your love of cheeseburgers start? Was there a first burger you truly loved? An early formative burger experience that made you a devotee?
The first cheeseburger I ever loved was at a family restaurant/farm market called Baugher’s in Westminster, Maryland, when I was about five years old. In retrospect, I am sure it was just a frozen patty but I really enjoyed and craved these burgers. This was about 20 miles from where we lived, which was way out in the country. But due to McDonald’s constant advertising on kids’ TV, I became obsessed with cheeseburgers and begged to be driven the 60 miles to Washington DC to go get a McDonald’s burger each year on my birthday.
If you could do a collab burger with any Portland chef, who would it be and why?
If I could do only one, it would be a resurrection and reimagining of McDonald’s legendary flop “The Hula Burger” from the early 1960s. This didn’t actually contain meat and was essentially a slice of grilled pineapple with a piece of cheese on it, served on a bun. I would ask Gregory Gourdet to do this because I am confident he would somehow make it amazing and likely better than any meat burger.
Most burger lovers have a burger they LOVE but cannot get anymore, either because the place closed or they moved or whatever. What is *your* nostalgia burger — the burger you wish you could have right now but cannot?
For me, it’s a burger that my mom made using ground beef from one of the cows on our farm about twenty-five years ago. A very simple burger with cheese and ketchup and lettuce and tomato but with such flavorful beef I still remember it to this day. I have been able to come very close to approximating it with the singularly delicious ground beef from Sisters Meat & Smokehouse in Sisters, which I stock up on periodically.
Burgers with friends can be one of life’s great joys, and a late night burger is a special experience. What’s your favorite time to eat a burger?
My favorite time to eat a burger is at a July 4th barbecue with an ice-cold cheap domestic beer where they have all the right fixings and absolutely no whole grain or wheat or weirdly-seeded or otherwise healthy buns—only the traditional white Franz ones that are essential to the platonic ideal of backyard bbq burgers.
– Jordan Michelman
WHERE WE’RE FEASTING
What with all the cheeseburgers you’ll forgive us for an abbreviated WWF in this issue (burp)… but when was the last time you went to the Original Pancake House? Home to silver dollar pancakes and Dutch Babies and outstanding hashbrowns… They’re mentioned up above in the burger rundown but a plate of ripe plantains, fried then tossed in sazon and pork jus then covered in melted American cheese from Papi Sal’s was the stuff of dreams… Betwix all the burgering some much-needed healthy lunch and green juice from Blossoming Lotus has proven life-saving… They’ve expanded the wing offerings at Tinker Tavern in Montavilla beyond the realm of simple Buffalo style, and the spicy chili & ranch combo pairs great with weekend football… Every trip to the pumpkin patch (be it Topaz Farm on Sauvie Island or Hoffman Farms outside Beaverton) is an excuse to buy miniature pumpkin pies… When visiting Farmer & The Beast, I also had to go to Bing Mi for a Vietnamese sausage bing and it was outstanding… All dispatches formatted for the hungry and curious, send tips to firstname.lastname@example.org