The first burger I can remember ever truly craving was in college: Royal Burger’s Royal Burger Special. It was a flame-broiled quarter-pound cheeseburger topped with a quarter pound of pastrami. The Pakistanis who ran the Provo, Utah, fast food joint also made an exquisite grilled cheese, club sandwich, and reuben. They cared about good food. Unfortunately, the people of Provo, Utah, didn’t. They closed some time after I graduated.
However, Royal Burger was modeled after the Salt Lake chain, Crown Burger. I’ve been back several times and it is still a very good fast food burger, one of the best I’ve ever had. The burger was the inspiration for the Kenny & Zuke’s pastrami burger. In fact, in a way, the burger was the inspiration for Kenny & Zuke’s. While Ken grew up in Queens, I grew up in Oregon and California. I’d been to some decent delis in LA, but I’d never been to Katz’s or even Langer’s. Prior to making our own for the Hillsdale Farmers Market, the best thing I ever ate with pastrami was the Royal Burger Special. When I mentioned to a college friend and fellow foodie that I was thinking of going into the pastrami business, his first words to me were “pastrami burger”. “I know,” I said. I never convinced Ken to put it on the menu on Hawthorne, but when Kenny & Zuke’s opened downtown, I made sure it was there.
I like to think that all of these wonderful burgers in the top 25 have a similar backstory — that a chef, cook, or restauranteur has a burger from their childhood that they don’t just want to recreate, but want to perfect, and that we’re the lucky beneficiaries.
Remember to pick up a Willamette Week for a first glance at the top 10. Now, on to the rankings….
I have to go to Saucebox early. As the night wears on, I feel like I’m in a Night at the Roxbury skit. For a guy most comfortable in shorts and t-shirt, chic scenes surrounded by pretty people, a DJ spinning house music, isn’t my thing. But I do enjoy the food. Yet, I had never had any of their burgers until this survey.
Glazed in teriyaki sauce, the miyako burger pushes the palate to the edge of tolerance for sweet and salty. Luckily, the creamy avocado, roasted chiles, and spicy wasabi mayo balance the flavors. If you can, ask for extra wasabi mayo and it will be even better.
Bun: Brioche from Grand Central Bakery
Meat: Cascade Natural, 6 oz, 20% fat
Toppings: Avocado, fire-roasted red jalapenos, house-made teriyaki sauce, wasabi mayo
Price: $8, includes fries
214 SW Broadway
Portland, OR 97205
First there was the truck, Rolling Etta, slinging burgers wherever hungry burger hounds congregated. Now there’s Violetta, the glass cube in the middle of Director’s Park downtown with the same great food as the truck, but with air conditioning and protection from the rain.
Violetta takes the normal fast food burger template replacing each of the low-quality Sysco-truck ingredients for something local and good. They can tell you that the lettuce comes from Blue Sky in Klamath Falls and that the onions come from an organic farm in Brooks, Oregon. When out of season, they use herb-roasted tomatoes that are so delicious you’ll wish summer would never come. The ingredient, though, that makes the burger is the creamy, tart, lightly-spicy house-made spread.
Bun: Sesame-seeded brioche from Grand Central Bakery
Meat: Highland Oak Farm grass-fed dry-aged beef, 8 oz (5.3 oz also available), 20% fat
Cheese: None as tasted (Willamette Valley sharp white cheddar available)
Toppings: Bacon, slow-roasted herb-marinated tomatoes (fresh in season), dill pickles, butter lettuce, red onions, Violetta burger sauce, house-made aioli
877 SW Taylor
Portland, OR 97205
If Madonna can adopt a shoe full of babies from the 3rd world, then certainly Portland, not known for its ethnic diversity, can adopt soul food as its unofficial cuisine. Among the many popular joints serving up collard greens, fried chicken, and BBQ, none is more popular than Screen Door. My meals have been hit or miss, but the burger was a definite hit.
The combination of crispy onion rings and flavorful bacon might have been enough to put this burger in the top 25. But it’s the pimiento cheese that secured its place. I had the cheese on a few burgers, but this one was easily the best: creamy and spicy, like good chile con queso. Instead of french fries, I need to find out if I can just order some more onion rings with pimiento cheese dip.
Bun: Pub bun from Pearl Bakery
Meat: Painted Hills ground sirloin, 10 oz, 10%
Cheese: House-blended pimiento cheese
Toppings: Bacon, fried egg, crispy fried onions, lettuce, tomato, dill pickle chips
Price: $14, includes fries
2337 E Burnside St
Portland, OR 97214
The Space Needle theory of restaurant management goes something like this: if people are going to come to your restaurant because it’s at the top of the Space Needle, you don’t need to try too hard in the kitchen. Maybe it’s a prejudice because I don’t drink, but I tend to assume that if people are coming to your place because of the booze, you’re probably not going to try to hard in the kitchen.
Quality local beef on a house-made bun with aged cheese and house-made bacon is not what you expect from a burger at a bar. If everyone did, though, we’d all eat a lot better. The classic style bun was one of the best in this survey. It was dense enough to hold all the juices from the fat patty while not falling apart, but not so stiff that it presented a challenge to bite through. Extra-thick layers of pungent cheese and smokey bacon give the sandwich lots of flavor.
I apologize for not having better facts about the burger. Branch Whiskey Bar never answered their phone and failed to return any of my messages on their voice mail over a period of two weeks. Their manager also didn’t answer his cell phone.
Meat: Ground in-house
Cheese: Swiss (cheddar also available)
Toppings: House-made bacon, pickles, white onion
Price: $14, includes slaw
Branch Whiskey Bar
2926 NE Alberta Street
Portland, OR 97211
John Gorham is God. Sometimes I think that he only needs to speak, “Let there be food,” and it will be good. Certainly seems to be true of his Toro Bravo sister-restaurant and brunch hot-spot, Tasty n Sons. What surprised me was that my favorite thing there was the burger. And this was towards the end of the survey when I should have been sick of them.
Compared to the version at Toro Bravo, the one at Tasty n Sons is stylistically pedestrian. There are no out of the oridnary ingredients. It’s a classic diner burger made with top-notch ingredients by people who know how to cook. Great sweet and sour pickles, extra-sharp cheese, and smokey bacon form a trio of intense flavors around one of the juiciest burgers in the survey.
Bonus: dip the end of your burger into the fabulous pink fry sauce.
Bun: Potato roll from Fleur de Lis
Meat: Cascade Natural ground in-house, 6 oz, 20% fat
Cheese: Beecher’s aged white cheddar or smoked blue
Toppings: Bacon, bread & butter pickles, shredded lettuce, red onion, house-made mayo
Price: $10, fries included
Tasty n Sons
3808 N Williams, Suite C
Portland, OR 97212