Three score and a dozen or so burgers later, I think I have an inkling as to what makes a good one: all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun. Srsly.
The devil is in the details, of course. For example, I found that butter/bibb lettuce provides the best balance of flavor and sturdy crispness. Second would probably be romaine. Field greens are a total waste on a burger. They’re so delicate that they instantly go limp on a hot patty.
An intensely flavored cheese is mandatory. Fancy aged European cheeses like manchego are great. But long-aged American cheddars, too harsh by themselves or on subtler sandwiches, work perfectly when melted on a six or eight ounce bistro burger. I tasted no better than Beecher’s from Seattle.
But there were a lot of burgers around town, otherwise good, that fell short because they missed an essential element from the Big Mac template. Most often, it was the special sauce or pickle. Sauces unify dishes, bring disparate flavors into harmony. The special sauce — usually an off-shoot of Thousand Island or Russian dressing — protects the bun from the meat’s juices, holds the lettuce in place, provides a creamy texture and makes the burger seem more moist. It also, along with the pickle, provides something tart. No other ingredients add tartness. Ground beef, cheese, bacon — they’re all high in fat. Without something sour, the palate is easily fatigued. It needs that pickle to wake it up, to refresh it. Nearly all my favorite burgers had a great pickle.
Lecture over. On to the rankings….
The burger started as fair food. It was actually considered elevated, more fit for human consumption, when White Castle came along in the ’20s. We all know the type of burger that McDonald’s popularized. It wasn’t until the last decade, really, that the restaurant burger finally surpassed what you were likely to make at home.
The hamburger was the iconic post-WWII restaurant food: efficient, processed, in your car in less than two minutes. At home you could make a fat patty, leave it pink and juicy in the middle, maybe add some Worcestshire and seasoning salt while grilling it over coals in the backyard. From the drive-thru window, the old dairy cow patty came topped with flavorless American cheese. At home, you could use fresh ground beef from your local butcher, topping it with cheddar or swiss. Burgers at home were just better.
And then came the bistro burger. Five years ago I started systematically eating these upscale burgers around Portland along with burgers from drive-ins, diners, and fast food joints. I assumed that they would just be over-priced, a result of stainless flatware and linen tablecloths. It didn’t take long for me to realize the bistro burger was worth the premium price.
Not only were they better than their greasy spoon cousins, but they were better than the burgers I made at home. They used buns from artisan bakeries, gourmet imported cheeses, thick-cut bacon, house-made pickles, and, most importantly, top quality beef. And some even showed signs of chefs excited to take their nostalgic childhood staple and turn it into something truly special and unique.
I haven’t had a bad bistro burger. I’ve had some that were cooked poorly on occasion. But every burger among the 72 that I tried was at least decent. Even the worst one would be better than the best fast food burger. To not make the top 25 is no shame. There are some very good burgers that didn’t make the cut. Those that did aren’t just okay, they’re burgers that I crave, burgers that when I see their pictures my mouth begins to water and my stomach begins to rumble. Hopefully these reports will have the same effect on you.
I think it started innocently enough. I thought with some of the fantastic new burgers in town that it was time I updated my carnal knowledge. I figured I could put together a top 10 with a week of dedicated burger devouring. I was so naive back then.
Soon people people were telling me about their favorite burger, pointing out the kobe burger over here or the house-made bun over there. The list kept growing. I remember when I told my wife I had exceeded 30 burgers on my list. She thought I was crazy. She tried to talk me out of the whole project. By the time the list reached 50, I think she started to imagine a life after my death from stroke or heart attack.
When the list reached 70 distinct bistro burgers, it felt like I was climbing Everest. I was doing it because it was there and because I had already started up the mountain. Now that it’s over, I’m glad that I did it, I’m glad that it’s over, and I’m glad to never do it again. The following is the list of places I ate. At some, I ate more than one burger. At some, I ate the same burger multiple times. There are also a dozen or more places not on this list where I had burgers, generally fast food joints like Burgerville or drive-ins like Cruiser’s, that while fine for what they are, can’t compete with upscale restaurants making burgers. There’s even a bar in town, that I’ll leave unnamed, where I tried four burgers in one night. I also have photos of nearly all the burgers I ate on this quest for proof or perusing, whichever you prefer.
Over the next two weeks, I’ll be ranking the top 25. Willamette Week will be publishing the top 10. But for now, here’s the full list:
One of the first true fine dining meals my wife and I had after moving to Portland over a decade ago was at Paley’s Place. I still remember little touches like that they offered an amuse bouche, that they folded my wife’s napkin for her when she got up from the table, and that someone held the door for us as we left. The food was good, too. We’ve kept it on our rotation of special occasion restaurants ever since.
When trying to decide on an appropriate finish to my five-day Dining Month indulgence, Paley’s begged to be chosen. Other than a couple visits to the bar for burgers and small bites, it’d been years since my wife or I had been — basically since Kenny & Zuke’s opened — an egregious oversight. To have an opportunity to return and eat a meal for only $25 seemed too good to pass up.
When Ten-01 opened, it was broadly savaged. I never went under its original chef, but the most charitable reviewers seemed to think it was trying too hard, too clever by half. Then Jack Yoss took over the kitchen, comments rapidly improved, and less than a year later Ten-01 was named restaurant of the year on Portland Food & Drink. After making the restaurant one of Portland’s top tier dining destinations, Yoss left to travel the world. Benjamin Parks was brought in to mixed reviews. It’s always difficult performing under a shadow of success. The expectations are too high. Personally, I had an excellent meal under Parks and was disappointed to see him go.
I’d only been in for a burger and some charcuterie under their current chef, Michael Hanaghan, so when I saw Ten-01 was part of Dining Month Portland, I put it at the top of my list. It ended up being one of the best fine dining meals I’ve had in months.
I was excited to see that Lincoln was on the Dining Month Portland list. Lincoln is part of the concentration of quality restaurants and retail spots around North Williams and Failing. It’s really one of the best barely-more-than-a-block stretches of food in Portland, headlined by Pix, Eat Oyster Bar, Tasty n Sons, Ristretto Roasters, and, of course, Lincoln.
Lincoln is the fanciest of the bunch, though entrees average around only $20, and the room has a modest elegance; a guy could be at home in anything from a polo and dress shorts to jacket and tie. Besides being the fanciest, it’s also the most local and seasonal restaurant in North Portland. It’s a sign of chef-owner Jenn Louis’s pedigree with over a decade of experience in Portland’s kitchens, including locavore luminaries like Wildwood.
If I’ve had any complaint in the past, it’s been that the food has a tendency to be rather restrained, one layer of flavor short of perfection. But that’s part of their philosophy: the ingredients in their natural goodness. And execution has always been good, so I was more than happy to get an excuse to return.
I’m using Dining Month Portland not only as a good way to get three course meals for relatively cheap, but also as an excuse to return to restaurants I’ve liked in the past, but haven’t been to in a while. I always liked Vindalho, but Chef David Anderson left Vindalho last spring to re-open Genoa. I hadn’t been since. One friend told me he had a bad meal there after the change. But every restaurant takes time to get its feet under them with a new chef. I wanted to see for myself.
June is “Dining Month Portland”. Over 40 restaurants, some of Portland’s best, are offering three course meals for only $25 every day they’re open. No catch. If you remember the days of 25 for $25, here they are reborn. Make sure you check out the PortlandFood.org thread where contributors have been posting some of the menus.
I loved the old 25 for $25 promotion and am glad it’s back. I’ve decided to visit a different restaurant on the list the first five days of June and report on my meals here. Hopefully it will encourage you to make use of the great deals as well. I decided to start with Clarklewis.
Trends can go one of two ways: either they get absorbed into the culture at large as just something people do, or they become tired — a gimmick — something that people used to do, or worse, something that people do and most wish they wouldn’t. One of the hottest trends in fine dining over the last decade has been “molecular gastronomy” — the use of food science to create new ways of using ingredients and forming dishes.
While the trend has mostly passed by Portland, when it has shown itself at restaurants such as Lucier or Rocket, it has largely been derided both by press and foodies (even by some who actually tried it). We are Portland. We brush our teeth with Tom’s and cure our erectile dysfunction with acupuncture. Foam is something that non-hipsters put on their face to shave with. We don’t want our food “processed”. At least that’s the lesson most seem to have taken from the well-funded failure of Lucier (and to a lesser extent, Rocket).
The latest attempt at bringing molecular gastronomy to PDX came when Castagna changed chefs, hiring Matthew Lightner, who spent a year working at Mugaritz, one of Spain’s (and the world’s) most notable avant-garde restaurants. Castagna, owned by Monique Siu, was born of Zefiro, the restaurant that has been Portland’s culinary touchstone for two decades. It helped define NW Cuisine in Portland as something simple, about the ingredients, not the technique or presentation, nearly the anti-thesis of molecular gastronomy.
I finally ate at Castagna under Lightner for the first time this last week. I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I heard that it was a more “restrained” form of molecular gastronomy, that the high profile techniques were used, but in a less obtrusive fashion.
I don’t think I would call what Lightner is doing at Castagna truly more restrained, but I do think it is different, an evolution of molecular gastronomy that might just bridge the gap from something trendy to something that chefs just do.
Following is my full report on the meal (with lots of pictures, of course).
April showers seem to have brought May showers, no flowers. But May is the month farmers markets begin to bloom. Last Sunday, the Hillsdale Farmers Market began its new season and the King Market opened in Northeast Portland. On Wednesday, the Shemanski Park Market opened downtown. This coming Saturday, the Beaverton Farmers Market opens. And yesterday, the Buckman Farmers Market, formerly known as the Eastbank Farmers Market opened. Strawberries, dandelion greens, pretzel bread, @jenlikestoeat dressed like a pumpkin and @eaterpdx like a tomato. And I took pictures.