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:
Thomas Jefferson introduced French fries to the Americas, although it may have been GIs stationed in Belgium and France during WWI that developed our nation’s modern taste for them and gave them their name. When Ray Kroc shook the hand of Jack Simplot and McDonald’s stopped freshly cutting potatoes and instead began frying from frozen, it allowed the company to expand more quickly and sealed burger and fries as together forever.
The overall quality of the sandwiches in this second part of my ongoing burger survey is improved. Again, the sides, primarily fries, vary more wildly. Two restaurants have even made a questionable choice to substitute other dishes for the traditional pommes frites. This report covers Bluehour, Higgins, Ken’s Place, Lovely Hula Hands, and Roots.
Not especially good, but Beaches’s burger has an impressive Dagwood quality.
The quintessential American food is the burger. It was always fast food — made faster by adding a bun and even faster by adding assembly lines and drive-up windows. I have a hard time thinking of a burger as anything more than cheap eats made by grinding beef we would otherwise toss out or cook so low and slow it becomes edible.
The “bistro” burger fights that misconception. They take a fast food archetype and turn it into slow food goodness: house made everything — buns, pickles, kethcups, mayos, relish; organic beef and quality lean cuts ground daily in the restaurant; fancy artisinal cheeses. While the slow food burgers demolish the fast food aging-dairy-cow-on-Wonder-Bread-style-bun alternatives, there is a place where fast food still has an edge: fries. Why these culinary school trained chefs so often fail when it comes to potatoes, I don’t know.
This first report, covering Beaches, Cafe Castagna, Caprial’s Bistro, Red Star Tavern, and Wildwood Restaurant, exhibits the best and the worst the upscale burger market has to offer for sides. Besides making an effort to show some variance among french fries, in this report and future reports, I’ll be surveying restaurants from different parts of the metro area. I encourage anyone to email me with their favorites. Eventually I hope to be convinced that a burger truly is worth $12.