Three weeks ago, the Oregonian’s editorial team decided, apparently, that the Portland area restaurants and shops most overlooked and in need of promotion by their paper were Shari’s with nearly 100 locations, Taco Time with over 300 locations, Old Spaghetti Factory with nearly 40 locations, and Dutch Bros Coffee with over 150 locations. They also featured Sayler’s Old Country Kitchen, the only non-chain — an old school steakhouse that’s been around since the end of World War II. The author of the story, Lee Williams, questions why it’s been ignored by foodies. He wonders why a place serving a 72 ounce steak wouldn’t get more notice. The owner offers an idea:
“A lot of the time, just because of our geographical location — we’re not downtown, and trendy, so we’re not on radar screens,” says Dave Sayler, 41, of why foodies tend to ignore Sayler’s. Dave Sayler is part of the third generation of Saylers to run the family steakhouse.
“Foodies don’t like anything big,” Dave’s father Gene, 65, says with a laugh.
You won’t find pommes frites, charcuterie or lobster foam here. Sayler’s is steak. And chicken. Lobster tails. And prime rib.
Enough people have attacked the ridiculousness of Williams’s portrayals of foodies in Portland that I’m not going to repeat that here. (Although, dude, pommes frites is just French for fries and, yes, they have them.) However, Sayler’s and Williams’s comments do show a basic misunderstanding: it’s not that foodies don’t like big food, it’s that we prioritize quality. Given two items of equal quality, we’d be overjoyed at a large portion or low price. Duh. (In fact, my favorite steak in town is the 2 lb porterhouse at Nostrana. Its unusual size doesn’t bother me at all.)
Sayler’s other point, though, does have more than an inkling of truth. Being downtown, in the Pearl, or in one of the trendy neighborhoods in North, Northeast, or Southeast Portland has its advantages. There are clearly foodies, such as myself, that go out of our way to explore the outskirts and promote restaurants off the beaten track. Hell, if anyone asks, I always say my favorite restaurants is El Inka in BFE Gresham.
But I often complain as restaurants I love disappear that Portlander’s aren’t willing to drive 15 minutes out of their way for great food. So maybe Sayler has something here. Maybe he’s a victim of snobbery and geographical distance. Only one good way to test that: eat there. So that’s what I did. In the same day, I ate at both El Gaucho and Sayler’s, then followed those meals the next day with a visit to Laurelhurst Market. I ate a ribeye at each. Following are the results.
Man cannot live on burgers alone. You need a french fry — or perhaps some pork rinds — now and then, too. Following are my favorite sides that you can order with your burger in Portland.
How many burgers did you eat?
Seventy-two distinct bistro burgers. But I had several of these more than once. I also tried a dozen or so lower-end burgers that I didn’t even bother rating. I even made sure to get a burger from In-N-Out on a quick trip through Las Vegas.
What’s the most burgers you ate in one day?
Four, although on one occasion I shared a couple with fellow Willamette Week contributor Liz Crain and even suckered my wife into finishing a couple.
How much weight did you gain?
I’m not fat—I’m pregnant, about to give birth to a Bob’s Big Boy. Ironically, I gained less weight than when I tried a vegan diet for a month.
Why would you do this to yourself?
About five years ago, I started systematically eating burgers of all types around Portland metro. I quickly learned that bistro burgers were worth the premium price. Even the worst bistro burger is still decent. After trying a couple of great burgers at new places, I wanted to see who had the best burger. I figured after tasting 10 or 15 burgers I’d have a good idea of who had the best. Then people kept sending me recommendations and I kept finding more places with burgers using top-quality ingredients. I felt obligated to try every burger with even a chance of being really good. I’m not sure if I’m a glutton or a glutton for punishment.
What makes a great burger?
Top-quality ingredients and balanced flavors. A well-seasoned patty and good pickle go a long way, as does a bun that doesn’t fall apart with these hefty burgers. If it has American cheese on it, it probably isn’t worth bothering with.
Are you too good for fast food?
Kind of. My favorite burger joint while going to college in Utah was Crown Burgers. They served a flame-broiled quarter-pound cheeseburger smothered in “fry sauce” and topped with a quarter-pound of pastrami. I loved it. It was the inspiration for the pastrami burger at Kenny & Zuke’s. (It’s pretty damn awesome, if I do say so myself).
And now for the top 10….
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….
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:
Forced to choose, I would rather eat the rest of my days in the suburbs and outskirts of Portland, than in Portland’s core. No, I’m no fan of sprawl and McMansions. And yes, I realize that means giving up favorites like Toro Bravo, Apizza Scholls, Le Pigeon, Wildwood, and even the restaurants I own part of. But I’d gain places like Yuzu, La Guanaquita, Nakwon, Pho Oregon, Ocean City, El Inka, and Puerto Marquez. These small ethnic restaurants are the ones with the foods that I constantly crave — the ones I go to week after week. If nothing else, I’d certainly save money. There’s also not a single great ethnic market in downtown or inner-east.
As further evidence, I submit Tigard Plaza. In one strip mall are an Indonesian restaurant, a Mexican restaurant, and a Lebanese restaurant serving some of the best dishes of their kind in the metro area — many that you can’t find anywhere else. There’s another restaurant serving solid fish & chips and another serving decent Vietnamese food. Add to that a Mexican market, an Indian market, an Asian seafood market, a cake decorating shop, and a homebrewing supply store and you’ve got a lot of foodie fun per square mile.
Willamette Week’s annual Cheap Eats issue came out yesterday. Despite a couple restaurants that I’d really like to see dropped from the list (cough…cough….Laughing Planet), it’s a very good list overall. If you want to browse the choices quickly before digging into the reviews, I’ve distilled them at Portlandfood.org.
Included in the issue was a fun listing of bites, snacks, and entire meals $7 or under. Following are 10 additions to the list — some of my favorites — from a whole new set of shops, some of which weren’t covered in the issue at all.
Food carts, of course, are the awesome right now, and nowhere moreso than Portland where we have a higher number per capita than any other city in the country. Fine with me. When I travel I eat on the street more than in restaurants.
However, a cart with a wood-burning or gas oven running at 800 degrees slinging out freshly made pizzas with ingredients like fresh mozz and doughs allowed to ferment for 24 hours? Now that’s the real awesome. And Portland has three of them: Pizza Depokos, Pyro Pizza, and Wy’East Pizza. While I had tried two — Pyro and Wy’East — with the opening of the third, Depokos, a crawl was in order to judge their relative merits. The obvious partner in pizza-gorging to invite was Adam Lindsley.