Until recently, a burger made on your own backyard grill was better than anything you could get from a diner, drive-in or drive-thru. Only with the rise of the "bistro burger" in the past decade did restaurant offerings surpass homemade. Renowned chefs shunned the chewy dairy-cow meat and flavorless processed cheeses of those ubiquitous budget-friendly gutbombs. Instead, they used their skills in the kitchen and access to top-quality beef, gourmet cheeses, seasonal ingredients and artisan bakeries to make a better burger. Sure, they come with a higher price tag, but these creations—often big enough to share—are worth every penny.
In my quest to find the best burger in Portland, I sampled 72 bistro burgers over three months, each trying to take the childhood staple and make it all growed up—and a hell of a lot tastier. (For a detailed explanation of my reasons for doing so, as well as my burger methodology, background and weight gain, see the sidebar below.)
Below are the best of the best. Now—anybody wanna get me a salad?
Mmmm, Camembert. Oozing, funky deliciousness, dripping down the meat and out the bun. Only the French could take a perfectly respectable burger and turn it into gastronomic pornography.
Bun: Ciabatta roll from Ken's Artisan Bakery.
Meat: Oregon Country Natural Beef ground shoulder, 8 oz., 20 percent fat, blended with herbes de Provence.
Cheese: Camembert (white cheddar, Gruyère or blue also available).
Toppings: Bacon, red leaf lettuce, red onion, pickled carrots, and aioli (fried egg also available).
Price: $15 with optional cheese and bacon; fries or salad included.
Portland's best burger from a cart is also one of Portland's best burgers, period. Owner Kevin Sandri's creation is a harmonic blend of assertive Italian notes: sharp provolone, spicy aioli, salty pancetta, tart onions and a sweet brioche bun. It's worth standing in the rain for; and who knows, if our real summer lasts a bit longer, you might not have to.
Bun: Kaiser-shaped brioche bun from Fleur de Lis.
Meat: Dry-aged Highland Oak beef, 6 oz., 17 percent fat.
Cheese: Provolone piccante.
Toppings: Calabrian chile aioli, grilled and marinated red onions, no tomatoes as tasted (roasted tomatoes/ fresh tomatoes in season), red leaf lettuce, pancetta.
Price: $9 with the optional pancetta.
Like the high-end Northwest Portland icon itself, the Wildwood burger has gone through many incarnations over the years. Most have been very good, but this one, highlighted by a soft yet dense bun, ample aged cheddar, pickled onions, and garlicky aioli, might be the best.
Living up to its name, Gilt offers a burger topped with foie gras. It's no gilded lily, though; an already excellent burger becomes richer and earthier with an application of meat butter, balanced by tangy chiles and extra-sharp cheddar.
Bun: Sesame-seeded brioche bun from Grand Central.
Meat: Painted Hills ground chuck, 8 oz., 20 percent fat.
Cheese: Beecher's aged cheddar.
Toppings: Grilled sweet onions, Calabrian chile aioli on bottom bun, whole-grain mustard aioli on top bun, red leaf lettuce, house-cured bacon, foie gras.
Price: $20 with optional foie gras, fries or pork rinds included.
This is one messy burger. You may need a bib. The juicy patty and creamy slaw would end up more in your lap than your belly if it weren't for the ciabatta roll that holds together despite the mess. The sinus-clearing spicy mustard adds some welcome liveliness. But be forewarned: Chef Gabe Rucker makes only five of these burgers a night. That's it.
Bun: Ciabatta roll from Ken's Artisan.
Meat: Painted Hills shoulder, ground in-house, 7 oz., 20 percent fat.
Cheese: Aged Tillamook white cheddar.
Toppings: Grilled red onions, spicy mustard, housemade ketchup, iceberg lettuce slaw.
Price: $11, pan-fried potatoes included; only five available per night.
Even if you took one of Biwa's thick slabs of char siu pork with its well-charred ribbons of fat and slapped it between two pieces of bread, it might still be one of the best sandwiches in town. But add a beef patty and some tart, spicy kimchi mayo, and you have one seriously addictive Japanese-style "ham" burger fit for a sumo in training. Too bad it's only available on the late-night menu (after 10 pm).
God bless Foster Burger for bringing good food south of Powell Boulevard, and bless whomever thought to add a pickled beet to a burger, the lamb Kiwi Burger. Kitchen-sink sandwiches like this are sometimes an unholy disaster of confusing tastes. But the lamb anchors the burger, and the rest complements the gamey patty.
If Portland's busiest restaurant didn't have so many other fantastic dishes, you might just see an endless line of servers delivering this burger to tables. Romesco is almost cheating—the Old World's "special sauce." The manchego is a brilliant, appropriately Spanish cheese with the intensity to match the romesco. And Toro Bravo (along with sister restaurant Tasty n Sons) makes the best bread-and-butter pickles in town.
Every element of this burger is near perfect, starting with the best bun in PDX. The peppery mustard greens, creamy fontina, smoky bacon, two types of wonderful pickles and spiced ketchup flavor the meat juice that will be running down your arm. That's OK, just start licking at your elbow and continue to your pinky.
Metrovino's double cheeseburger gives In-N-Out's double-double animal-style an extreme makeover. You'll wish you had the gaping jaw of a python for this sucker. Yes, it's that big. Aside from the size, it seems like a typical burger. That's what makes this No. 1. For such a straightforward approach, the results are spectacular: beefy and ultra-juicy with pungent cheese and a palate-puckering sauce. Perfection on a bun.
Bun: BridgePort Brewpub bakery when tasted (changed to using housemade sesame-seeded bun last week).
Meat: Painted Hills chuck plus ribeye trimmings, ground in-house, 12 oz. (two 6 oz. patties), 20 percent fat.
Cheese: Swedish-style fontina from Wisconsin.
Toppings: Shredded iceberg lettuce, yellow onion, house "fancy" sauce (housemade spicy ketchup, housemade mayo, Dijon mustard, housemade pickle and sriracha).
Price: $13, salad included.
A list of all the places Nick Zukin ate burgers in the course of the past three months:
23 Hoyt | Allium Bistro | Amy's Burger Shack | Bamboo Sushi | Belly | Belly Timber (since closed) | Besaws | Biwa | Bluehour | Branch Whiskey Bar | Broder | Burgerville | Cafe Castagna | Cafe Nell | Carafe | Clyde Common | Country Cat | Cruiser's Drive-In | Davis Street Tavern | EastBurn | Eastmoreland Market | Echo | El Gaucho | Fenouil | Foster Burger | Garden State | Gilt | Gracie's | Grüner | H50 | Hall Street Grill | Heathman | Higgins | Humdinger | Laurelhurst Market | Lauro Kitchen | Le Pigeon | Mad Greek Deli | Maiden | Matchbox Lounge | McDonald's | Metrovino | Mingo West | Mother's Bistro | Nel Centro | Noble Rot | Paley's Place | Pause | Porto Terra | Produce Row | Red Star | RingSide | Roots | Saucebox | Savoy Tavern | Screen Door | Serratto | Slingshot Lounge | Slow Bar | Tasty n Sons | Ten 01 | The Original | Toast | Toro Bravo | Urban Farmer | Veritable Quandary | Victory Bar | Violetta | Wildwood | Wine Down | Yakuza |
*Nick had eaten the following restaurants' burgers recently enough to consider them for the list without returning during the three-month BurgerQuest:
10. Side salad at Matchbox Lounge
9. Onion rings with house sauce at RingSide
8. Pork rinds at Gilt Club
7. Black & White fries at Foster Burger
6. French fries at Cafe Castagna
5. Fried cheese curds at Savoy Tavern (pictured right, image courtesy Nick Zukin)
4. Duck fat and rosemary fries at Allium Bistro
3. Truffle fries with Parmesan and chives at H5O
2. Onion rings at Country Cat
1. Smashed Yellow Finn potatoes at Grüner (seasonal)
Want a good burger in the 'burbs? Try Allium Bistro, in West Linn, or Roots, in Vancouver.
Most ridiculous, yet tasty, topping goes to Savoy Tavern for stuffing its "Cheesehead" with fried cheese curds and gravy.
Eastmoreland Market gives the best bang for your higher-end buck with its mushroom-bacon burger for $7.50.
For a straight-up, no-frills burger at a bar or pub, look to the letter "E": EastBurn and Echo.
Or even better, the letter "B" for the boring, yet belly-pleasing, burger at Branch Whiskey Bar.
WW: How many burgers did you eat?
Nick Zukin: 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 WW 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 the 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).